Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev, the son of an agricultural mechanic on a collective farm, was born in Privolnoye in the Soviet Union on 2nd March, 1931.

Gorbachev's grandfather, Pantelei Yefimovich Gopkalo, was a staunch member of the Communist Party (CPSU) and was chairman of the village kolkhoz. In 1937 he was arrested by the NKVD Secret Police and charged with being a leader of an underground organization supporting Leon Trotsky. After enduring nearly two years of torture and imprisonment, his grandfather was released in December 1938.

In his memoirs Gorbachev argues this incident had a dramatic impact on his political development. His grandfather remained a committed communist and introduced his grandson to the works of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and Lenin (although not Leon Trotsky).

During the Second World War Gorbachev's village was occupied by the German Army. He later wrote: "I was fourteen when the war ended. Our generation is the generation of wartime children. It has burned us, leaving its mark both on our characters and in our view of the world."

Gorbachev worked as a combine harvest operator before studying law at Moscow University. While a student Gorbachev joined Communist Party (CPSU) and married Raisa Titorenko.

After leaving university Gorbachev became a full-time official with Komsomol (Communist Youth Organization). In 1955 Gorbachev he was appointed first secretary of the Komsomol Territorial Committee. Gorbachev made rapid progress and by 1960 he was the top Komsomol official in Stavropol. The following year he was a delegate from Stavropol to the 22nd Communist Party Congress in Moscow.

Gorbachev studied for a second degree at the Stavropol Agricultural Institute (1964-67) and in 1970 was appointed First Secretary for Stavropol Territory. His work in this post impressed Yuri Andropov, who was at that time the head of the Committee for State Security (KGB). Andropov now used his considerable influence to promote Gorbachev's career.

In 1971 Gorbachev became a member of Communist Party Central Committee. He later moved to Moscow where he became the Secretary of Agriculture. In 1980 Gorbachev became the youngest member of the Politburo and within four years had become deputy to Konstantin Chernenko.

On the death of Chernenko in 1985 Gorbachev was elected by the Central Committee as General Secretary of the Communist Party. As party leader he immediately began forcing more conservative members of the Central Committee to resign. He replaced them with younger men who shared his vision of reform.

In 1985 Gorbachev introduced a major campaign against corruption and alcoholism. He also spoke about the need for Perestroika (Restructuring) and this heralded a series of liberalizing economic, political and cultural reforms which had the aim of making the Soviet economy more efficient.

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev introduced policies with the intention of establishing a market economy by encouraging the private ownership of Soviet industry and agriculture. However, the Soviet authoritarian structures ensured these reforms were ineffective and there were shortages of goods available in shops.

Gorbachev also announced changes to Soviet foreign policy. In 1987 he met with Ronald Reagan and signed the Immediate Nuclear Forces (INF) abolition treaty. He also made it clear he would no longer interfere in the domestic policies of other countries in Eastern Europe and announced the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. In December 1987 he announced the withdrawal of 500,000 Soviet troops from Central and Eastern Europe and made it clear he would not send in Soviet troops to protect communist states. The following year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Aware that Gorbachev would not send in Soviet tanks there were demonstrations against communist governments throughout Eastern Europe. Over the next few months the communists were ousted from power in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany.

Gorbachev's attempts to make the Soviet Union a more democratic country made him unpopular with conservatives still in positions of power. In August 1991 he survived a coup staged by hard-liners in the Communist Party. Gorbachev responded by dissolving the Central Committee. However, with the Soviet Union disintegrating into separate states, Gorbachev resigned from office on 25th December, 1995.

Mikhail Gorbachev died on 30th August, 2022.

Primary Sources

(1) Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (1995)

As a child, I still found vestiges of the way of life that was typical for the Russian village before the Revolution and collectivization. Adobe huts with an earthen floor, and no beds at all: people slept either on planks fixed above the stove or on the pech (the Russian stove), with sheepskin coats or rags for a cover. In winter, the calf would be brought into the hut from the freezing cold. In spring, hens and often geese would be brought inside, there to expedite hatching. From a present-day point of view people lived in wretched poverty. The worst part was the back-breaking labour. When our contemporary advocates of peasants' happiness refer to the 'golden age' of the Russian countryside I honestly do not understand what they mean. Either these people do not know anything at all or they are deliberately misguiding others - or else their memory has totally failed them.

On a bookshelf knocked together in my grandfather Pantelei Yefimovich's house, I discovered a series of slim booklets: Marx, Engels and Lenin. There were also Stalin's Principles of Leninism and Kalinin's essays and speeches, while the other corner of the room was adorned by an icon with an icon-lamp: Grandmother was deeply religious. Under the icon, on a little home-made table, stood portraits of Lenin and Stalin. This 'peaceful co-existence' did not bother Grandfather in the least. He was not a believer himself, but he was endowed with admirable tolerance.

(2) Indictment against Pantelei Yefimovich Gopkalo (grandfather of Mikhail Gorbachev) in 1938.

(a) He impeded harvesting operations and thus created conditions for the loss of grain. Pursuing the destruction of the kolkhoz livestock he artificially reduced the fodder base by ploughing up meadows which resulted in kolkhoz cattle starving;

(b) He obstructed the progress of the Stakhanovite movement in the kolkhoz by repressing Stakhanovites. On the basis of the facts stated heretofore he is charged with anti-Soviet activities: being an enemy of the CPSU (B) and of the Soviet system and having established ties with the members of an abolished anti-Soviet right-wing Trotskyist organization, he carried out their instructions of subversive acts at the 'Red October' kolkhoz which were aimed at undermining the economic well-being of the kolkhoz.

(3) NKVD Secret Police report on Mikhail Gorbachev's grandfather's interrogation in 1938.

"You have been arrested on the charge of being a member of a counter-revolutionary right-wing Trotskyist organization. Do you plead guilty?"

"I do not plead guilty. I have never been a member of a counterrevolutionary organization."

"You're not telling the truth. The prosecution has at its disposal precise information about your membership of a counterrevolutionary right-wing Trotskyist organization. Give us truthful evidence in the case."

"I repeat, I have not been a member of a counterrevolutionary organization."

"You are lying. A number of people charged in this case testified against you, corroborating your counterrevolutionary activity. The prosecution insists on obtaining truthful evidence."

"I deny the accusations categorically. I don't know of any counterrevolutionary organization."

(4) Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (1995)

I remember well the winter evening when Grandfather returned home. His closest relatives sat around the hand-planed rustic table and Pantelei Yefimovich recounted all that had been done to him.

Trying to get him to confess, the investigator blinded him with a glaring lamp, beat him unmercifully, broke his arms by squeezing them in the door. When these 'standard' tortures proved futile, they invented a new one: they put a wet sheepskin coat on him and sat him on a hot stove. Pantelei Yefimovich endured this too, as well as much else.

Those who were imprisoned with him later told me that all the inmates of the prison cell tried to revive him after the interrogation sessions. Pantelei Yefimovich recounted all this just once - that very evening. Nobody ever heard him speak about it afterwards.

(5) Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (1995)

Since Father had left for the front, I had to take care of a multitude of household chores. In the spring of 1942 I also worked in the vegetable patch which provided food for the family. Later my main duty consisted in stocking up on hay for the cow and on fuel for the house. Our way of life had changed completely. And we, the wartime children, skipped from childhood directly into adulthood.

Towards the end of summer 1942 a wave of refugees from Rostov passed through our region. The people dragged themselves along, some carrying knapsacks or kit-bags, others pushing prams or handcarts, exchanging their goods for food. Herds of cows and horses as well as flocks of sheep were driven back from the advancing Germans.

Grandmother Vasilisa and grandfather Pantelei packed up their belongings and left for an unknown destination. The fuel tanks at the rural oil base were drained; all the fuel poured out into the shallow River Egorlyk. The crops in the field were set on fire.

On 27 July 1942 our troops withdrew from Rostov. It was a hurried retreat. Tired, glum soldiers passed through, their faces marked by sorrow and guilt. The explosions, the roar of heavy guns and the sound of shooting were approaching - as if circumventing Privolnoye on both sides. Together with the neighbours we dug out a trench in the river embankment and for the first time I saw the volley of the Katyusha guns: fiery arrows crossing the skies with a frightening whistling sound.

(6) Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (1995)

Khrushchev's secret speech at the XXth Party Congress caused a political and psychological shock throughout the country. At the Party krai committee I had the opportunity to read the Central Committee information bulletin, which was practically a verbatim report of Khrushchev's words. I fully supported Khrushchev's courageous step. I did not conceal my views and defended them publicly. But I noticed that the reaction of the apparatus to the report was mixed; some people even seemed confused.

I am convinced that history will never forget Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's personality cult. It is, of course, true that his secret report to the XXth Party Congress contained scant analysis and was excessively subjective. To attribute the complex problem of totalitarianism simply to external factors and the evil character of a dictator was a simple and hard-hitting tactic - but it did not reveal the profound roots of this tragedy. Khrushchev's personal political aims were also transparent: by being the first to denounce the personality cult, he shrewdly isolated his closest rivals and antagonists, Molotov, Malenkov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov - who, together with Khrushchev, had been Stalin's closest associates.

True enough. But in terms of history and 'wider polities' the actual consequences of Khrushchev's political actions were crucial. The criticism of Stalin, who personified the regime, served not only to disclose the gravity of the situation in our society and the perverted character of the political struggle that was taking place within it - it also revealed a lack of basic legitimacy. The criticism morally discredited totalitarianism, arousing hopes for a reform of the system and serving as a strong impetus to new processes in the sphere of politics and economics as well as in the spiritual life of our country. Khrushchev and his supporters must be given full credit for this. Khrushchev must be given credit too for the rehabilitation of thousands of people, and the restoration of the good name of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens who perished in Stalimst prisons and camps.

Khrushchev had no intention of analysing systematically the roots of totalitarianism. He was probably not even capable of doing so. And for this very reason the criticism of the personality cult, though rhetorically harsh, was in essence incomplete and confined from the start to well-defined limits. The process of true democratization was nipped in the bud.

Khrushchev's foreign policy was characterized by the same inconsistencies. His active presence in the international political arena, his proposal of peaceful co-existence and his initial attempts at normalizing relations with the leading countries of the capitalist world; the newly defined relations with India, Egypt and other Third World states; and finally, his attempt to democratize ties with socialist allies - including his decision to mend matters with Yugoslavia - all this was well received both in our country and in the rest of the world and, undoubtedly, helped to improve the international situation.

But at the same time there was the brutal crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956; the adventurism that culminated in the Cuba crisis of 1962, when the world was on the brink of a nuclear disaster; and the quarrel with China, which resulted in a protracted period of antagonism and enmity.

All domestic and foreign policy decisions made at that time undoubtedly reflected not only Khrushchev's personal understanding of the problems and his moods, but also the different political forces that he had to consider. The pressure of Party and government structures was especially strong, forcing him to manoeuvre and to present this or that measure in a form acceptable to such influential groups.

(7) Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika (1987)

Europe is indeed a common home where geography and history have closely interwoven the destinies of dozens of countries and nations. Of course, each of them has its own problem, and each wants to live its own life, to follow its own traditions. Therefore, developing the metaphor, one may say: the home is common, that is true, but each family has its own apartment, and there are different entrances too.

The concept of a 'common European home' suggests above all a degree of integrity, even if its states belong to different social systems and opposing military-political alliances.

One can mention a number of objective circumstances which create the need for a pan-European policy:

(1) Densely populated and highly urbanized, Europe bristles with weapons, both nuclear and conventional. It would not be enough to call it a 'powder keg' today.

(2) Even a conventional war, to say nothing of a nuclear one, would be disastrous for Europe today.

(3) Europe is one of the most industrialised regions of the world. Its industry and transport have developed to the point where their danger to the environment is close to being critical. This problem has crossed far beyond national borders, and is now being shared by all of Europe.

(4) Integrative processes are developing intensively in both parts of Europe. The requirements of economic development in both parts of Europe, as well as scientific and technological progress, prompt the search for some kind of mutually advantageous cooperation. What I mean is not some kind of 'European autarky', but better use of the aggregate potential of Europe for the benefit of its peoples, and in relations with the rest of the world.

(5) The two parts of Europe have a lot of their own problems of an East-West dimension, but they also have a common interest in solving the extremely acute North-South problem.

Our idea of a 'common European home' certainly does not involve shutting its doors to anybody. True, we would not like to see anyone kick in the doors of the European home and take the head of the table at somebody else's apartment. But then, that is the concern of the owner of the apartment. In the past, the Socialist countries responded positively to the participation of the United States and Canada in the Helsinki Process.

(8) Alexander Dubcek, Hope Dies Last (1992)

Like everyone else, I often reflect on the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union. How could this giant power crumble so quickly and so completely? There are many learned theories about it, but I think that underlying all of them is one elementary explanation: the system inhibited change. It fed on dead doctrine and prevented a natural replacement of leaders. When they finally tried to do something about it, it was too late for remedies.

In 1968 we ran into this dinosaur of a system still in working condition. The Politburo held together the external empire that Stalin had grabbed and saw to it that opposition arose nowhere. I had seen it in Dresden in March, and then in Moscow in May. What we were trying to do was beyond their comprehension.

The challenge was to maneuver around them long enough to make them accept us on civilized terms. I thought, optimistically, that we could prevail because their bullying would not exceed certain limits. The 1956 crushing of Hungary was way behind us: this was a different era. I think most of the world agreed with me.

Beyond the Soviets' empty phrases about "counterrevolution," the core of the dispute was not our social system but our political reforms. We believed that socialism - in our country at least - could not exist without democracy. But the Soviets wanted us to reinstitute their model of one-party dictatorship. Still, I did not believe that they would launch a war against us just because of this disagreement. After all, we were bound by a valid alliance treaty, and Czechoslovakia was avoiding anything that might throw doubt on her loyalty. Moreover, the Soviets had for years preached the principle of peaceful coexistence and noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries. Was it rational to expect that they would contradict all this by attacking us militarily? I did not think so, and I do not think I was a dreamer. I did not expect that they would commit an act that was bound to carry catastrophic consequences for their own cause (which it did as no one today would deny). And I simply did not expect the perfidy they were soon to display.

(9) Mikhail Gorbachev, Nobel Lecture (5th June, 1991)

Today, peace means the ascent from simple coexistence to cooperation and common creativity among countries and nations.

Peace is movement towards globality and universality of civilization. Never before has the idea that peace is indivisible been so true as it is now.

Peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity, in the comparison and conciliation of differences.

I consider the decision of your Committee as a recognition of the great international importance of the changes now under way in the Soviet Union, and as an expression of confidence in our policy of new thinking, which is based on the conviction that at the end of the twentieth century force and arms will have to give way as a major instrument in world politics.

I see the decision to award me the Nobel Peace Prize also as an act of solidarity with the monumental undertaking which has already placed enormous demands on the Soviet people in terms of efforts, costs, hardships, willpower, and character. And solidarity is a universal value which is becoming indispensable for progress and for the survival of humankind.

But a modern state has to be worthy of solidarity, in other words, it should pursue, in both domestic and international affairs, policies that bring together the interests of its people and those of the world community. This task, however obvious, is not a simple one. Life is much richer and more complex than even the most perfect plans to make it better. It ultimately takes vengeance for attempts to impose abstract schemes, even with the best of intentions. Perestroika has made us understand this about our past, and the actual experience of recent years has taught us to reckon with the most general laws of civilization.

This, however, came later. But back in March-April 1985 we found ourselves facing a crucial, and I confess, agonizing choice. When I agreed to assume the office of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee, in effect the highest State office at that time, I realized that we could no longer live as before and that I would not want to remain in that office unless I got support in undertaking major reforms. It was clear to me that we had a long way to go. But of course, I could not imagine how immense were our problems and difficulties. I believe no one at that time could foresee or predict them.

Those who were then governing the country knew what was really happening to it and what we later called "zastoi", roughly translated as "stagnation". They saw that our society was marking time, that it was running the risk of falling hopelessly behind the technologically advanced part of the world. Total domination of centrally-managed state property, the pervasive authoritarian-bureaucratic system, ideology's grip on politics, monopoly in social thought and sciences, militarized industries that siphoned off our best, including the best intellectual resources, the unbearable burden of military expenditures that suffocated civilian industries and undermined the social achievements of the period since the Revolution which were real and of which we used to be proud - such was the actual situation in the country.

As a result, one of the richest countries in the world, endowed with immense overall potential, was already sliding downwards. Our society was declining, both economically and intellectually.

And yet, to a casual observer the country seemed to present a picture of relative well-being, stability and order. The misinformed society under the spell of propaganda was hardly aware of what was going on and what the immediate future had in store for it. The slightest manifestations of protest were suppressed. Most people considered them heretical, slanderous and counterrevolutionary

Such was the situation in the spring of 1985, and there was a great temptation to leave things as they were, to make only cosmetic changes. This, however, meant continuing to deceive ourselves and the people.

This was the domestic aspect of the dilemma then before us. As for the foreign policy aspect, there was the East-West confrontation, a rigid division into friends and foes, the two hostile camps with a corresponding set of Cold War attributes. Both the East and the West were constrained by the logic of military confrontation, wearing themselves down more and more by the arms race.

The mere thought of dismantling the existing structures did not come easily. However, the realization that we faced inevitable disaster, both domestically and internationally, gave us the strength to make a historic choice, which I have never since regretted.

Perestroika, which once again is returning our people to commonsense, has enabled us to open up to the world, and has restored a normal relationship between the country's internal development and its foreign policy. But all this takes a lot of hard work. To a people which believed that its government's policies had always been true to the cause of peace, we proposed what was in many ways a different policy, which would genuinely serve the cause of peace, while differing from the prevailing view of what it meant and particularly from the established stereotypes as to how one should protect it. We proposed new thinking in foreign policy.

Thus, we embarked on a path of major changes which may turn out to be the most significant in the twentieth century, for our country and for its peoples. But we also did this for the entire world.

We want to be an integral part of modern civilization, to live in harmony with mankind's universal values, abide by the norms of international law, follow the "rules of the game" in our economic relations with the outside world. We want to share with all other peoples the burden of responsibility for the future of our common house.

A period of transition to a new quality in all spheres of society's life is accompanied by painful phenomena. When we were initiating perestroika we failed to properly assess and foresee everything. Our society turned out to be hard to move off the ground, not ready for major changes which affect people's vital interests and make them leave behind everything to which they bad become accustomed over many years. In the beginning we imprudently generated great expectations, without taking into account the fact that it takes time for people to realize that all have to live and work differently, to stop expecting that new life would be given from above.

Perestroika has now entered its most dramatic phase. Following the transformation of the philosophy of perestroika into real policy, which began literally to explode the old way of life, difficulties began to mount. Many took fright and wanted to return to the past. It was not only those who used to hold the levers of power in the administration, the army and various government agencies and who bad to make room, but also many people whose interests and way of life was put to a severe test and who, during the preceding decades, had forgotten how to take the initiative.

(10) Archie Brown, The Guardian (31st August 2022)

Mikhail Gorbachev was the most significant political leader globally of the second half of the 20th century and one of the greatest reformers in Russian history. By the time he resigned as president of the USSR during its final throes, he had played the decisive role in making Russia a freer country than it had ever been. The new tolerance and liberties at home, together with the transformation of Soviet foreign policy, emboldened the peoples of eastern and central Europe to send their communist rulers packing and to reject Moscow's overlordship. As Gorbachev was also the most pacific of all Soviet – perhaps of all Russian – leaders, not a shot was fired by a Soviet soldier while the Warsaw Pact countries achieved independence from 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell in November that year, or when Germany was reunited in 1990.

There is a popular fallacy in the west that the Soviet Union had reached crisis point by 1985, that the Communist party's politburo chose Gorbachev as general secretary because he was a reformer, and that therefore he had no option but to undertake radical changes. An authoritarian regime is in crisis when its laws and commands are no longer obeyed, when there is persistent mass protest and, in particular, when such social unrest is accompanied by open splits within the political elite.

But none of this was present in 1985 – in fact, such unrest did not occur until a few years into Gorbachev's perestroika reforms. Far from crisis leaving no option but reform, it was radical reform that provoked crisis. The new freedoms enabled the repressed grievances of 70 years, including ethno-national grievances, to rise to the surface of political life.

The idea that poor economic performance in the mid-1980s had forced reform through is belied not only by the country's quiescence under Gorbachev's predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko, but the fact that Gorbachev prioritised political over economic reform. This did nothing to improve conditions in the command economy – for in the new political climate, commands could be circumvented or ignored, and people became free not merely to grumble in private but to complain in public about queues and shortages.

Yet Gorbachev's political reforms were extraordinarily bold. He had an unusually open mind for any political leader, never mind a Soviet Communist party general secretary. The glasnost (greater transparency) Gorbachev advocated from the outset of his leadership developed, with his blessing, into a freedom of speech and, increasingly, of publication. By 1989, literary works, whose very possession in underground or foreign editions had been a criminal offence, were published in Moscow in huge print-runs – among them George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. Dissidents were released from prison and exile and the rehabilitation of those unjustly repressed in the past (begun under Nikita Khrushchev and abandoned by Leonid Brezhnev) was resumed. Gorbachev encouraged a new freedom of communication across frontiers. That included an end to the blocking of foreign broadcasts and a developing freedom of travel and of emigration.

During less than seven years in the Kremlin, Gorbachev achieved the kinds of reforms that no previous Soviet leader – or any other potential successor from Chernenko's politburo – would have contemplated. The changes were also beyond the wildest dreams of western leaders in 1985 (as Margaret Thatcher acknowledged) and of Soviet reformers at that time, as I know from my conversations with them.

That did not prevent some of those same reformers castigating Gorbachev by 1990 for his supposed "half- measures" and transferring their allegiance to Boris Yeltsin.

He began in 1985 as a communist reformer. By 1988 he had turned into a systemic transformer. As he put it in 1996: "Until 1988 I had the same illusions as previous reformers. I believed that the system could be improved. In 1988 I realised we needed systemic reform. The system had to be replaced." That was not merely a retrospective judgment. Addressing a closed meeting of regional party secretaries in April 1988, Gorbachev asked: "On what basis do 20 million (party members) rule 200 million?" He answered his own question: "We conferred on ourselves the right to rule the people!"

Two months later he startled most delegates at the 19th party conference by announcing that contested elections for a new legislature with real powers would take place not later than the spring of the following year – and in March 1989 they were duly held. They marked an end to "democratic centralism", for party members were allowed to compete against one another on fundamentally different policy platforms. This was merely a first step in trial-and-error democratisation, but after it, the Soviet Union could never be the same again.

That the Soviet communist system ceased to exist was not an unintended consequence of Gorbachev's actions, for he and his most likeminded associates consciously dismantled that system.

What Gorbachev did not intend was the dissolution of the Soviet state. He strove to keep as many republics as possible within a "renewed union" by negotiation and voluntary agreement and turn what had previously been a pseudo-federation into a genuinely federal state. He failed in that endeavour, but resisted calls from party and state officials, including the leadership of the KGB, to use the ample coercive power at their disposal to maintain the union by force.

Gorbachev was in failing health in recent years and saddened by the way his greatest achievements – using the office of party leader to dismantle the very system that was the source of his power, and playing the most important part in ending the cold war – were being destroyed. As a boy in a peasant household in southern Russia, he had been especially close to his Ukrainian maternal grandparents. War between Russia and Ukraine in 2022 was for him the ultimate devastating blow. In one of his last interviews a few years ago, he was asked what he thought his epitaph should be. His answer was: "We tried".

It was as late as 1990 that Gorbachev embraced a market economy in principle, stressing that it should be of a social democratic type. However, by then he had lost much of his earlier political authority and did not take the risk of moving to market – and higher – prices for basic foodstuffs and utilities, so the Soviet economy ended in limbo, neither centrally controlled nor market-driven.

(11) Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian (2nd September 2022)

It's a deeply unfashionable idea. The "great man theory" of history seems terminally passé, the intellectual equivalent of a statue of a forgotten general on horseback. These days, we like to think our world is shaped not by individuals, heroic or otherwise, but by deep, underlying forces – that there is a tide of history that this man or that woman might ride for a while, but which is bound to surge ahead, regardless.

Still, this week brought two sharply opposite reminders of how much individuals count, especially those at the top. That notion matters for how we view our past, of course. But it matters even more for how we approach the present – and future.

The first reminder came with the death of Mikhail Gorbachev. In his home country, he had become a figure either disdained or despised. Vladimir Putin gave him a cursory send-off: he announced that he would not attend his predecessor's funeral, merely laying a wreath by Gorbachev's coffin at the hospital where he had breathed his last.

But that disrespect cannot conceal the truth, which was that Gorbachev was one of the most significant figures of the 20th century, his impact colossal not only in Russia but across the globe. He ended the cold war that had seen east and west square up to each other, nuclear daggers drawn, for four decades; a confrontation that demanded two generations live under the permanent fear of atomic Armageddon. That Putin now revives that terror, threatening to unleash Moscow's nuclear arsenal if Nato impedes his destruction of Ukraine, only underlines how blessed it has been to spend the past 30 years free of it.

Gorbachev set in train the breakup of a sprawling empire that had denied the nations of eastern and central Europe freedom of thought, speech, conscience and movement. Today's European Union, with its 27 member states, would be smaller and an entirely different shape had Gorbachev not made that move. German reunification, the liberation of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest, Vilnius, Tallinn – all of it happened at warp speed and, crucially, without a shot being fired.

Gorbachev pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, while at home he freed imprisoned or exiled dissidents, gradually freed the press, opened up the archives, organised open, multiparty elections and set about dismantling a totalitarian system that had tyrannised Russia for more than 70 years. He gave Russians a taste of liberty.