Washington, D.C., March 2, 2021 – The first and only president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, is turning 90 years old today in Moscow. On the occasion of his anniversary, the National Security Archive has compiled a collection of postings called “Gorbachev’s Greatest Hits.” These documents help illuminate the story of the end of the Cold War, political reform of the Soviet system, and the vision of a world built on universal human values.
This compendium, accompanied by a collection of Russian-language documents on the Archive’s Russia Page, is intended to encourage scholars and others to revisit and study those miraculous years in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the global confrontation stopped, walls fell, peoples found freedom, and Europe was seen as a common home. Though not for long.
Gorbachev made history, and to a remarkable degree he also freed history from the usual constraints of security classifications and archival restrictions that often go on needlessly for decades. Only a year or two out of office, he had already started publishing the transcripts of his head-of-state meetings through the Gorbachev Foundation; and he liberated top aides like Anatoly Chernyaev to publish their memos and their diaries from which the international scholarly community has benefited enormously, and from which the National Security Archive has built dozens of Web postings, including the selections highlighted here, and published two award-winning books, Masterpieces of History and The Last Superpower Summits.
From the very beginning, Gorbachev engaged with U.S. and European leaders, believing that if only they met face-to-face and explained their beliefs to each other, they would no longer see each other as enemies. Gorbachev arguably saved Ronald Reagan’s presidency – without Gorbachev, Reagan would be remembered today mostly for the Iran-contra scandal and for selling the national debt to China. But in Geneva in 1985, Reagan met Gorbachev, and there the Soviet and the U.S. leaders proclaimed “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”(EBB 172).
A year later in Reykjavik, Reagan and Gorbachev came very close to abolishing nuclear weapons altogether – a dream they shared. (EBB 203). No matter how one views Gorbachev’s policies, it is undeniable that no leader before or after him even came close to this achievement, all noble aspirations notwithstanding.
Breaking the Kremlin mold, Gorbachev went around the world, talking, persuading, and changing his own views along the way. He could hold a wide-ranging, passionate but respectful conversation with leaders as different as Margaret Thatcher, with whom he discussed revolutionary movements in the Third World (EBB 422), and Fidel Castro, with whom he conversed about U.S. politics (Document 1). The first and only Soviet leader to do so, he met with the Pope and found common ground as they deliberated over matters of peace and socialist choice (Document 8, EBB 298).
Gorbachev believed that together with his former opponents they could end all regional conflicts, starting with the war in Afghanistan. He announced the date for Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and completed it exactly on that date – February 15, 1989, ending a bitter Soviet war that had gone on for almost ten years. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union cut military aid to third world dictatorships, even those who were considered “good” allies; he supported the United States in the Persian Gulf War even though his peaceful approach did not prevail. (EBB 745).
Of course he ran out of time. His domestic opponents – the hardliners in August 1991 seeking the old Soviet Union, and his “democratic” denunciator Boris Yeltsin afterwards, seeking his own power – brought Gorbachev down. Left behind were many global problems, not least the U.S.-Cuban confrontation that Gorbachev hoped to solve. He played behind-the-scenes mediator, telling George H. W. Bush he was mistaken about Castro, and telling Castro he needed to open to the U.S. Gorbachev passed messages between the two sides, but did not have time to complete the project.
Today the National Security Archive publishes three new memcons translated from the Russian, never posted before in any language, that reflect three important aspects of Gorbachev’s policy and aspirations. In his first trip to Cuba in 1989, Gorbachev spent long hours with Castro, whom he considered a legendary revolutionary leader but also hardheaded and mildly hostile to perestroika. Trying to explain perestroika to him, Gorbachev softly suggested that Cuba also needed to change and improve relations with the United States. (Document 1).
Meeting with Yitzhak Shamir of Israel, right before the beginning of the 1991 Madrid Conference on the Middle East, Gorbachev celebrated the new era he had just opened in Soviet-Israeli relations, re-establishing diplomatic ties, and aspiring to find a solution to the Palestinian issue within an international framework. (Document 2).
The last conversation published here is with Francois Mitterrand of France, right after the opening of the Madrid conference (Document 3). Gorbachev, on the high note of a successful start of the conference, was hoping to talk to Mitterrand about building the “common European home.” He believed the French leader shared his vision of Europe. There were many common features between the “European confederation” and “common European home” that the two leaders had discussed many times before. Now, however, after German unification in NATO, the war in the Gulf, and the August coup in the Soviet Union, the French leader wanted to talk about integration only on “his” side of the European continent.
Gorbachev did not have time to realize many of his ideas, chief among them the creation of a new voluntary and democratic and demilitarized Soviet Union. But the seven years he spent as leader of the Soviet Union changed the world to an extent nobody imagined before. Gorbachev, more than any other figure, ended the Cold War, then worked to ensure the story could be told.
Happy birthday, Mikhail Sergeyevich!