"Was the Soviet collapse a heroic revolution in which the prophetic Mikhail Gorbachev led his people toward a nobler set of ideals? Or was Gorbachev a true-believing Communist who simply screwed up, taking 270 million Soviet citizens down with him?"
Russia has not been Communist for more than a generation. And yet, now that we are arguing about Russia again, it seems impossible to avoid arguing about Communism, too. When Russia was a basket case in the 1990s—shunned, stunned, and stagnant—there was little that Russians could say to the Western professors and investors and philanthropists who arrived in droves to lecture them about their own history. The Communist evil empire had been economically and morally outcompeted by the free world, and would have to adapt to capitalism—things appeared that simple. But a decade of economic and political brigandage followed, then the rise of a nationalist president, Vladimir Putin, who won the nation’s gratitude for bringing the oligarchic mafia under a semblance of control, and finally a half-generation in which the United States and its European allies have taken a stance of truculent enmity towards Russia, often for domestic political reasons.
It is natural that Russians, and a few open-minded Westerners, should now be reexamining parts of the West’s triumphalist narrative. Not, one must stress, the narrative of the Soviet Union’s mid-twentieth-century terror. Although the Soviet victory over Nazism remains a cause of national celebration, Putin’s Russia has been anything but blind to Communism’s misdeeds. There is a new museum of the Gulag prison-camp system, and the works of twentieth-century dissidents, including those of the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, appear in school curricula.
What is being reexamined is the process by which the stumbling Soviet Union of the 1980s was defeated and dismantled. Was it a heroic revolution in which the prophetic reformer Mikhail Gorbachev led his people toward a nobler set of ideals? Or was Gorbachev a true-believing Communist who simply screwed up, taking 270 million Soviet citizens down with him?