Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy is extremely complicated. That is not surprising since he allowed much of Eastern Europe to part freely from the Soviet sphere of influence and presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Of all the various aspects of Gorbachev’s time as General Secretary of the Soviet Union, nothing causes more approbation and consternation as his involvement with nuclear affairs. On one hand, his summitry with American Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush ushered in an era of drastic cuts in nuclear armaments. On the other, Gorbachev was part of the Soviet disinformation apparatus which initially denied the severity of the meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. This led to loss of life and a massive blow to public confidence in the Soviet government. The mixed verdict on Gorbachev ‘s legacy is torn between his ability to negotiate breakthrough agreements in nuclear arms control, while also playing a lead role in the initial cover up of the greatest nuclear disaster in human history. Nevertheless, Gorbachev’s achievements in helping make the world safe from nuclear destruction – at least for a little while – were considerable and should not be overlooked.
Silence Is Deadly – A Failure To Communicate
Chernobyl was a disaster unlike anything seen in human history up to that time. The meltdown of Reactor Four at the Nuclear Power Plant, followed by an explosion and fire on April 26, 1986, spread radiation across a wide swath of the Soviet Union and further afield in Europe. Damage control from Soviet leaders meant not telling the truth about what had happened. At least not right away. Gorbachev refrained from issuing any warnings in the days after the explosion even though the city of Pripyat – five kilometers from the power plant – had to be evacuated a day after the accident. No one knew what effect the radiation would have as it began to disperse. Gorbachev and Soviet officialdom’s silence was deadly. The failure to take the proper precautions unnecessarily put millions of lives at risk. This failure included not canceling the May 1st parade in Kyiv where everyone from children to the elderly were exposed to higher levels of radiation. Eventually the truth came out.
Gorbachev finally spoke about the accident on May 14th, almost three weeks after the meltdown occurred. This led to a loss of confidence in Gorbachev and the government at a time when many Soviet citizens were already skeptical. It is impossible to quantify how badly Gorbachev’s reputation was damaged by his failure to be forthright. It certainly did not help him when he was trying to convince the Soviet masses that communism could be reformed under a more trustworthy government. His credibility in this regard was dubious. Gorbachev’s evasion of the truth was a symptom of the overall credibility problem the communist government had in the Soviet Union. Soviet citizens had endured decades of lies, along with poor living standards and a bureaucracy that actively worked against the people’s best interest. Gorbachev did not help to build confidence by staying silent for far too long.
Personal Diplomacy – The Power of Differing Perspectives
Gorbachev’s initial handling of the Chernobyl disaster was then, as it still is today, unconscionable, but on other nuclear matters he would meet with a degree of success that few could have imagined when he took power in 1985. During that same year, Gorbachev attended a superpower summit in Geneva, Switzerland where he met with the American President, Ronald Reagan. This was the first of four summits that would occur between the two leaders from 1985 to 1988. These summits would yield unprecedented breakthroughs in nuclear arms control that no one thought possible between two men who were ideological opposites. Gorbachev was a true believer in the communist system. He thought it offered the best way to solve society’s problems. Reagan was a fervent anti-communist and free marketeer. He believed the Soviet Union and the communist system it represented was an odious and oppressive system, one that would collapse under pressure. Oddly, Gorbachev and Reagan connected on a personal level and discovered that when it came to arms control their interests coincided.
At a spontaneous superpower summit that was put together in a matter of weeks, the two met at Reykjavik, Iceland. They came within a hair’s breadth of an agreement to phase out all nuclear armaments in ten years. The sticking point was the American Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as Star Wars), which Gorbachev demanded be put on hold. Reagan would not budge on the matter. Tragically, they could not come to an agreement. Nonetheless, this is as close as any leaders have come to abolishing nuclear weapons. The summit did lead to a later agreement that banned all Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces.
While both men should get credit for their roles, Gorbachev had less to bargain with and more to lose since the Soviet Union by the 1980’s largely relied on nuclear weapons to project power. Gorbachev knew the Soviet Union could not compete with the United States economically, but he wanted to rebuild and restructure the Soviet economy by getting rid of the astronomical sums of money being spent on nuclear weapons and other military expenditures. A comprehensive arms control agreement abolishing all nuclear weapons would have certainly helped the Soviet economy. Better yet, it would have benefitted humanity for generations to come.
A Lasting Achievement – Making The World Safer
Gorbachev’s willingness to cut the Soviet nuclear arsenal was not just done in the interests of economics, he was also keen to spare the world a catastrophic nuclear war. Gorbachev had a humanitarian streak that eluded his predecessors. He cared a great deal about the common person. Perhaps this came from the fact that he had grown up in hardscrabble circumstances in a farming region of southern Russia. The fact that a Russian provincial and an American who hailed from a small town in the heartland of United States came close to ridding the world of nuclear weapons defies belief. In this aspect of his Soviet political career, Gorbachev deserves the highest commendation.
His work led to the threat of a nuclear war in Europe receding, paving the way for the satellite states of Eastern Europe to break free of the Soviet yoke. Gorbachev was not about to use nuclear weapons to coerce smaller, less powerful nations to stay within the Soviet sphere of influence. Perhaps his aversion to nuclear weapons was an outgrowth of the Chernobyl accident. Gorbachev had first-hand experience of nuclear catastrophe. He never wanted to see it happen again. On his watch the world became a much safer place. For all his failures, Mikhail Gorbachev got the most important thing right. Humanity has him to thank for it.