Assessing the impact of Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership on his country and the world

By Graham Allison | August 31, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev at a memorial for Evgeny Maximovich Primakov in June 2015. Attribution: State Duma of the Russian Federation | CC BY 4.0

Editor’s note: What follows is a lightly edited introduction to remarks former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made at the Harvard Kennedy School in December 2007. The introduction—by eminent international security analyst Graham Allison—seems relevant along many dimensions now, in the days immediately following the death of Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s remarks from that evening 15 years ago are included in the accompanying video. 

Fifty years from now, when the Oxford University Press one-volume history of the 20th century is published, only two people on Earth today will be the subject of an entire chapter.  One of them is our guest tonight, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

As President Gorbachev and I were discussing at lunch today, many younger people are less familiar with the avalanche of recent history than they should be. So with his indulgence, let me recall:

When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, the Cold War was at its height. Ronald Reagan, president of the United States, had declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire;” Soviet air defenses had accidentally shot down a Korean airliner, KAL007, killing 269 passengers. The hands on the Doomsday Clock managed by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had moved up to three minutes to midnight. On the Harvard campus, students were calling for a “nuclear freeze.” At the Kennedy School, Joe Nye, Al Carnesale, and I were co-chairing a project called Avoiding Nuclear War.

Five years later, this confrontation between two superpowers—the centerpiece of international politics for four decades—had been consigned to the history books. If you ask yourself which single individual contributed most to the resolution without war of four decades of Cold War between the US-led free world and the Soviet Union, it was Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Unlike some of his predecessors and successors, Ronald Reagan had no hesitation about negotiating with leaders of countries he judged evil. As he confided to his diary, “Continued negotiation with the Soviet Union is essential. We need never be afraid to negotiate.”

President Gorbachev was acutely aware that the Soviet system he inherited was stagnating. He undertook to reform it with policies that he called “glasnost” which encouraged Soviet citizens to think for themselves and call things by their real names, and “perestroika,” which meant a restructuring of the Soviet command-and-control economy. His goal was clear: to revitalize the Soviet Communist system.

What he accomplished was rather different. In the West, we honor Gorbachev for his decisive role in ending the Cold War—indeed in ending it with a whimper rather than the bang of a nuclear Armageddon that could have killed us all. Eastern Europeans whose nations were members of the Warsaw Pact are grateful that Gorbachev reversed the previous policy of shooting people to prevent them escaping through barbed wire fences in Hungary or over the Berlin Wall—even when that restraint meant the unraveling of that alliance.

Russian views are more complex. As a consequence of the forces Gorbachev unleashed, in December 1991 the Soviet Union disappeared. In its place there emerged a new Russia and 14 newly independent states including Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Baltics. A nation that had historically been imperialistically expansive was returned to its borders of 300 years earlier, under Peter the Great.

At the celebration of President Gorbachev’s 75th birthday in Moscow, a number of Russian citizens protested, shouting abuses. Others reminded the protestors that Gorbachev was the individual who gave them the right to shout.

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Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, has a much harsher view of this record. In his judgment, the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

The strand of this story that brings President Gorbachev to Harvard tonight and tomorrow focuses on nuclear weapons. At the meeting between President Gorbachev and President Reagan in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, the two leaders talked seriously about eliminating all nuclear weapons—yes, I said all nuclear weapons. A year later, in 1987, Gorbachev and Reagan signed the INF Treaty—zeroing out an entire class of intermediate-range nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.  Tomorrow here at the Kennedy School a group of 45 policy-oriented scholars—15 Russians, 15 Americans, and 15 internationals—will spend the day with President Gorbachev exploring lessons from this successful INF Treaty for the nuclear challenges we face today, from cutting Russian and American nuclear arsenals to nuclear terrorism.

The professor who taught me international politics here at Harvard, Henry Kissinger, once asked Chinese leader Zhou Enlai what he thought of the French Revolution. Zhou reflected and then said, “It’s too soon to tell.” About the revolutionary changes in which our guest tonight played such a decisive role, Zhou Enlai’s answer certainly applies. But there can be no doubt that he stood at the center of these storms.

It is thus a great honor and privilege to welcome back to Harvard tonight former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and to hear his reflections on the challenges we face today in overcoming nuclear danger.


As the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows, nuclear threats are real, present, and dangerous

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Julius Mazzarella
Julius Mazzarella
20 days ago

The good old days when we came so close to ridding ourselves from the shackles of the Nuclear genie. Gorbachev, true hero for mankind. When the Soviet Union collapsed if only we would have reached out, if only. Bush junior doubled down in 2008 and pressed for NATO membership for Ukraine much to the dismay of the Europeans. I am not so sure this was such a good idea.

Last edited 20 days ago by Julius Mazzarella