Feuding neighbours are an inherent quirk of human society. The feud ends when one neighbour eventually moves home, or dies. This is how The Cold War ends. The USSR died, and so the US capitalist system was the last ideology standing. To determine why The Cold War ended is to conduct an autopsy on the USSR.
The DNA of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is all over the corpse. He probably killed it, but it was a sick man when it came into his care. His attempts to remedy the presenting symptoms almost certainly exacerbated the problems and led to a swifter - yet more peaceful - demise than seemed possible. A verdict of accidental death at the hands of Gorbachev must be the coroner's conclusion.
The consequence of the passing of the Soviet Union was to disperse the dark cloud of prospective nuclear armageddon which hung menacingly over the US, Europe and the USSR for over 45 years. Gorbachev was hailed as an international diplomatic superstar for his role in dissipating the tensions which ended the threat of all out nuclear war. Yet he remains maligned across the fractured republics which he inherited under one red flag with hammer and sickle, and left as a patchwork blanket of independent states.
Gorbachev’s intention was to change the Soviet economy, society, and foreign policy, but he was not entirely groundbreaking in that sense. His political mentor was Yurii Andropov, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) following Leonid Brezhnev’s death. Andropov was a man with even more troubled health than the state he was to lead, but he was a reformist and had elevated both Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze to positions where they could later effect change. Another elderly and unwell man was to follow Andropov as general secretary: Konstantin Chernenko survived barely a year in the office he had worked all his life to occupy. Having seen three general secretaries die of old age in two and a half years, the Politburo agreed the next man in office must have youth on his side. On Gorbachev’s first day in office he declared “We can not go on living like this.” He was more prescient than he could ever have imagined.
The buzzwords of the Gorbachev doctrine were “perestroika” which concerned reform and restructuring of the Soviet economy, and “glasnost” which referred to an opening up of Soviet society, a liberalising of the media, and moving governance closer to the people. This ideology was a paradigmatic shift from all which had preceded it - Andropov had neither the health, energy nor opportunity to embark on so sweeping a project, but Gorbachev had all three assets in abundance. Gorbachev did not want to end Communism, he was devout to the party, but he believed in a new way forward: social democracy.
We can not know for certain whether the doctrines were a response to the economic mire Gorbachev inherited or whether they were the fruits of an ideology which was an island beyond the tides of economic influence. Had the Soviet economy been booming, with bountiful produce, employment and opportunity for its citizens, then it is unlikely that Gorbachev would have attempted to reform. The glasnost, or openness, aspect of the doctrine however, was one based on ideology rather than economic necessity. Shining a light on dark corners of Soviet society and history had no direct bearing on the economy in terms of productivity or efficiency. It was purely a social project, and while a greatly liberating one, it exacted great damage to the Communist party, as the crimes of Stalin were discussed openly for the first time and the cult of Lenin was probed. Once the buttresses of Leninist ideology had been undermined, the end was perhaps inevitable for the Communist party.
One of the great strategic blunders which history has assigned to Gorbachev is how he called for (relatively) free elections at a time when the economy was stagnant. Supermarkets had empty shelves and people were feeling disenfranchised with the Soviet system. While the ethics and morality of Gorbachev’s approach to liberalising the electoral system were expedient, he was naive beyond belief to expect the public to vote for the people who had squandered the income from its bountiful oil and raw materials. The revenue which should have been flowing to the USSR and improving its citizens' standard of living, was instead diverted towards massive military expenditure and client state subsidies. As was often the case with Gorbachev, it was the right idea at the wrong time.
Away from home, Gorbachev increasingly put his own ideological stamp on how the USSR engaged with the Third World, and with the United States. Aid to socialist regimes became conditional on states initiating reform programmes including ‘national reconciliation’ and respect for human rights. In Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam was one such leader to feel the effects of Gorbachev’s outlook as the funds slowly tightened while Mengistu carried out atrocities in the region.
Gorbachev's relationship with his American counterpart was to be the defining one of the 1980s. In the course of their Moscow summit in 1988, Gorbachev presented Reagan with a handwritten note which he intended both leaders to sign:
“...the two leaders believe that no problem in dispute can be resolved, nor should it be resolved, by military means. They regard peaceful coexistence as a universal principle in international relations. Equality of all states, non-interference in internal affairs and freedom of socio-political choice must be recognized as the inalienable and mandatory standards of international relations.”
The memorandum of conversation from that meeting is available here
Reagan of course did not sign. Non-interference wasn't the Reagan way. However, it is difficult to conceive of any of Gorbachev’s predecessors presenting such a genuine proposal directly to a US President.
In the course of the same meeting, Gorbachev proposed a joint project between the US and the USSR for a mission to Mars - transforming the space race from a contest to a collaboration. Such a costly proposal in financial terms is strong testimony to the case that ending The Cold War was a matter of ideology rather than economics for Gorbachev.
Gorbachev had led the way with metaphorical bridge building in the 1985 Geneva meeting where he gave a heads-up to Reagan about an expected earthquake in the California/Nevada area within the next three years. The Soviet scientists were a year out in calling the 1989 San Francisco quake which killed 63 people. Reagan seemingly never acknowledged the warm intention behind Gorbachev’s information, opting for a teenagerly “yeah I know” type reply before patronizing Gorbachev with a grade school geography lesson.
The memo of conversation for that meeting is available here:
Gorbachev’s reading of Lenin paid attention to the principle of self-determination, whereby nations (defined as groups of people who thought of themselves as a ‘nation’) were entitled to secede from a state without interference. It was not Gorbachev’s intention to annex Afghanistan nor to Russify any other state. Gorbachev’s ideology and actions differed to those of his predecessors who sent the tanks in to Prague, East Germany, and Hungary to crush any attempt at slipping underneath the Iron Curtain.
The ultimate secession of all republics from the Soviet Union - while not Gorbachev’s intention was certainly the fruit of his commitment to this ideology. That he initially opposed verbally and then militarily this secession is arguably in stark contradiction with the self-determination principle. In his defence, the unravelling of the USSR posed a potential civil war situation. This was clearly indicated by events in Baku where ethnic clashes between Azerbaijani muslims opposing an Armenian christian rebellion, left in the region of 100 dead as Soviet troops were deployed to stabilize the situation. Here is where Gorbachev ran into a cul-de-sac. There wasn’t a plan, and events had gathered a momentum of their own as the seductive scent of freedom filled the air over Eurasia's communist bloc.
The Berlin Wall had fallen in front of the TV cameras and the world basked in scenes of liberation, redemption and joy that no dramatist or director could ever replicate. Was there ever a more moving moment captured on film?
Gorbachev’s military crackdowns in Vilnius, Baku and Tbilsi were uncharacteristic, reluctant and ultimately futile. What ideological argument could be made that the joy of self determination afforded to the Warsaw Pact states should be denied the Soviet Republics? Gorbachev later acknowledged that sending the army to Baku was the worst mistake of his political life.
The endgame moved swiftly, and an old political enemy in the shape of the duplicitous Boris Yeltsin dealt the fatal blow to the USSR while Gorbachev struggled to hold it together having ridden out a coup attempt from the Politburo hardliners. Yeltsin saved the USSR from the putsch, only to slay it himself days later in a pact between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus which formed the Commonwealth of Independent States.
With the stroke of Yeltsin’s pen in a cottage deep in the forests of Belarus, the tragic-hero Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of a Union which no longer existed. Three weeks later the iconic hammer and sickle flag of the USSR would be lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. The eastern bloc had cast off its restrictive Soviet shackles, divided Germany was reunited, and thousands of nuclear weapons had been decommissioned. The Cold War had ended.
“He may not have done so alone, but what happened would not have happened without him; that cannot be said of anyone else.” - Raymond Garthoff, US State Dept