WHEN you think about it, Joe Biden is the Yuri Andropov of American politics and Donald Trump the Yeltsin-cum-Gorbachev delineating the end of the old regime. More generally, one cannot but notice the resemblance between the May Day Parade balcony snaps of the 1970s and the dramatis personae officiating over the decline of the United States from their ideological Zimmer frames. A synchronicity more telling than a gloomy comparison, however, has arisen in response to the death of the aforementioned Mikhail Sergeyevich, 91, this week. For the occasion, obituarists have dusted off a hallowed cliche of progressive journalism: the canonisation of a safely grey man from the past to vilify still more an all-too-reigning villain. As regards the US Presidency, this is a feature of all pop-historiography, post-Nixon. The Republican leader before the incumbent is always honourable and a “real conservative.” In the age of Trump, Bush is beloved; in the age of Bush, Reagan was the one; in the age of Reagan, Ford. The top perk for an outgoing GOP President or front-runner, in fact, is to no longer be Hitler. Something like this exaltation by deprecation is in play – right and left – apropos of Mikhail Gorbachev versus Vladimir Putin.
The problem is the Soviet Union’s last leader doesn’t deserve it. That the USSR didn’t come to a bloodier and, for the wider world, more dangerous conclusion was down to the courage and convictions of Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (in that order). Moreover, nobody twisted Gorbachev’s arm to become a dedicated communist in the 1950s and he was never exiled on a matter of principle during his long career as an apparatchik throughout the 1960s and 70s. That era was coterminous with persecution and murder on a less-than-Stalinist but terrifying scale. Rarely, if ever, in modern history has a man displayed more intelligence, noble bearing or savoir-faire while negotiating a time-out on behalf of an exhausted empire. For that, Gorbachev deserves his place in the chronicles. But he was no Gandhi, Mandela or Solzhenitsyn. He was the Robert E. Lee of Cold War I.
Western leftists only embraced Gorbachev in the 1980s because he gave them a way out of having to defend the indefensible. They could pretend instead that the summits in Geneva and Reykjavik proved the USA and the USSR were equally culpable and jointly needful of redemption. Sting even wrote an anthem for that muddleheaded worldview. Those on friendly terms with communists – like, for example, a certain young member of the so-called ‘Bolsheviks’ faction of the NSW Labor Party – were never going to give credit to a pontiff, a Republican and a Tory for walking into a bar and saving the world. Anthony Albanese’s letter paying tribute to Gorbachev yesterday only names Reagan (after drive-by references to glasnost and perestroika). Many conservative commentators have been no less historically deluded. Contra the great Nigel Farage, Gorbachev had no coherent “vision” for the Russian Federation. Inconveniently for purveyors of unflattering comparisons, he also had the same view of NATO-creep as Putin, took a nationalist line on the Russo-Georgian War and backed the annexation of Crimea. For that, he was banned from entering Ukraine. Gorbachev was as admirable as a communist could be but he is nobody’s hero.