On August 30th, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, passed away at the age of 91. At the first mention of his name, many older Americans remember the one sentence uttered by Ronald Reagan in 1987, urging Gorbachev to demolish the wall separating East and West Germany. Those of us too young to remember such a time might reflexively associate the name with Soviet oppression and Communist fanaticism, as some American propaganda has conditioned us to do. Others regard him as a bold reformist—a man who recognized cyclical inefficiency and dedicated himself to improving his country and authoring peace, even if it was ultimately a futile effort.
Regardless, many scholars agree that he left an inspiring legacy behind—one that deserves to be recognized. In 1985, President Reagan cynically predicted that Gorbachev would be a hardline ideologist in the mold of his predecessors. He was wrong.
Before their first landmark summit in Geneva, Switzerland, Reagan proposed the two men go for a private walk in the woods before official negotiations began. From this small gesture of friendship came a monumental breakthrough in Soviet-American relations that would lay the foundations for the relative peace that exists today. By 1986, the Cold War had reached a diplomatic stalemate. Decades of uncompromising. Soviet leadership had prevented the realistic possibility of nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, the ongoing arms race was poised to escalate with the U.S. proposition of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an overambitious missile defense system that if implemented, would tip the scales of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) towards the United States—granting an asymmetric advantage in a potential nuclear exchange. Both the American and Soviet war machines were profiting immensely from this vicious arms race, making peace an unlikely, unlucrative imperative.
Amidst this chaos, two men found common ground, with each being driven by a mutual desire for a world free from the perpetual threat of nuclear annihilation. While President Reagan had previously oriented every aspect of his administration’s foreign policy to combat the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, he backtracked on his earlier convictions after meeting Gorbachev. Recognizing a newfound opportunity for reconciliation, the two leaders began a friendship that eventually resulted in the elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons—a feat previously thought impossible. In fact, what many people aren’t aware of is that Reagan and Gorbachev were on the brink of completely prohibiting all nuclear weapons—Reagan’s insistence on continuing SDI research was all that stood in the way.
Unfortunately, all didn’t go well for Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, which was beginning to crumble under the crippling inefficiency of its centrally-planned economy. As Gorbachev himself has stated in his memoirs, defense spending was bleeding the country dry, and what money did remain was being needlessly squandered by the nation’s elite. Stunned by how such a resource-rich country could be so poor, Gorbachev started to relatively liberalize the Soviet economy by granting greater political freedoms, relinquishing formerly state-owned industries to the private sector, and opening the country to investments from foreigners. These reforms came as a surprise to Western leaders, who dreamed that the Soviet Union might be “converted” into a Western-style democracy. However, it was too little, too late, and the Soviet Union officially dissolved on Christmas day in 1991. Left in its wake was a nation whose leader would grow to resent Gorbachev—a man who would take a wrecking ball to the peace his predecessor strived to create in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Gorbachev was a champion of democracy, an arbiter of peace, and a hero of humanity. His unrelenting hope for reconciliation broke the chains of tribalism and reached across the aisle, ultimately finding another who shared it. The genuine collaboration and warm, relational imagery behind Reagan and Gorbachev’s diplomacy was essential in thawing the Cold War—bringing newfound optimism to two weary nations. Despite retaining their differences, these men undertook an inspiring task that often seems so out of reach in our increasingly polarized world. Whilst sitting atop two superpowers that were constructed on vastly differing ideologies, they set aside their quarrels for the greater good of the human race.
In an age where “us versus them” dynamics dominate the political sphere, we need the legacy of leaders like Gorbachev to remind us that peace is possible. Progress is possible. Mutual understanding is possible.
Sometimes all it takes is a walk in the woods.