The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, February 1990, Vol. XXVI, Number 7

Time Magazine is right. Mikhail Gorbachev was the hero of the 80s. 

Gorbachev is proof that personalities do make a difference in history. Political, social and economic forces have their place. But determined individuals and crucial positions of leadership, have the power to transform the world – for either good or evil. 

Would the Greek Empire have existed without Alexander the Great? Would the New Deal have worked without Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Would the Holocaust have taken place without Adolf Hitler? 

Of course, times have to be right for change. But they are only the setting. Someone has to take advantage of the opportunity. The economic difficulties of the Russian Empire were not the creation of Gorbachev. Nevertheless, could have been confronted with many different strategies. More repression was one option. The decision of Gorbachev to choose glasnost and perestroika was not inevitable. Nor was his election to the leadership of the Communist Party. Several important conservative members of the Politburo were absent from Moscow on the day that Chernenko died. His coming to power was almost by chance. 

Because of Gorbachev Europe is no longer the same. The Cold War is ending. The Russian people are free to speak their mind. Subject nationalities are asserting their right to self – determination. The Soviet Satellites of Eastern Europe have been liberated. The hegemony of the Communist party has been repudiated by former Stalinist regimes. The Berlin Wall has come tumbling down. Jews of the Soviet Union are free to emigrate. 

It is quite clear that none of this would have happened without the boldness and political skills of Gorbachev. The collapse of the Stalinist governments of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria was only possible because the people no longer feared the intervention of the Russian army. The Brezhnev Doctrine so dramatically manifested in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, had been eliminated. The old rulers were left naked and defenseless before their own people. 

I do not believe that Gorbachev was fully aware of the consequences of his decisions. I am not sure that he would have made them had he been fully aware. His hope and vision were to reform and strengthen the Communist parties through liberalization. He wanted the social system to ride the crest of reform, not to be destroyed by its impact. 

What he wanted did not happen. He underestimated the ability of the Communist hierarchies to adapt to necessary change. He also underestimated the hostility to Communism which existed among subject peoples. Once freed from the fear of retaliation the mobs became uncontrollable in their demands. The Communist establishment came tumbling down like a house of cards. 

In the chaos of the last year the desire for personal freedom has taken second place to the power of nationalism. Long suppressed nations want autonomy and Independence more than they want economic restructuring. In the melee of conflicting national interests the Soviet Union may disintegrate into an arena of warring states. Fueled by patriotism, resentment and chauvinistic ambition, the nations of the former Russian empire may turn to an agenda never envisioned by Gorbachev. Armenia and Azerbaijan are just the beginning of the trouble. 

Will Gorbachev be able to survive these unforeseen consequences? Or will the emerging chaos spell his undoing?  

In recent weeks his nerves seem to be very much on edge. He delivered an hysterical speech in the Soviet legislature about his loyalty to Communism. He harshly scolded the Lithuanian audiences he had sought to charge. He told his wife to shut up in public. 

His survival in power is important. There is no other Russian leader charismatic enough to provide the image of leadership in the midst of this political storm. 

What is quite clear is that he cannot survive so long as he ties his fortune to the Communist Party. What has happened in the Soviet satellites will also happen in the Soviet Union. The discredited political structures cannot satisfy the demands of the people for personal freedom, economic Improvement in national assertiveness. If he insists on defending Communism he will fall with Communism. 

If Gorbachev can advance his boldness one more step, he will present himself as a reformist president who is not bound by the political and party structures of the past. If he does so, he will discover that his people will follow where he leads, that his conservative enemies will be stymied by their own confusion and that the support of Western nations will readily be forthcoming. 

If he fails to do so, he will only grow more frustrated amid the bewildering and unforeseen consequences of his own decisions. Attacked by both liberals and conservatives, his triumphant victories will degenerate into hysterical last – stands. He will be destroyed by what he created.  

Gorbachev was the hero of the ‘80’s.  Whether he will be the hero of the ‘90’s will be largely up to him – up to his vision of his role in history.