Mikhail Gorbachev, who was buried in Moscow yesterday, was one of the truly heroic figures of our time.
Not many politicians can be said to have changed the course of world history and even fewer can be said to have changed it for the better. But Gorbachev succeeded in bloodlessly ending the Cold War and creating the circumstances in which democracy could thrive in countries previously under the iron grip of the Kremlin.
It’s true that other forces contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement, by mounting the first effective challenge against Soviet control in Eastern Europe, generated momentum for economic and political reform that culminated in the toppling of the Berlin Wall.
Ronald Reagan played his part too, subjecting the Soviet Union to sustained economic and military pressure that exposed the weakness behind its belligerent posturing.
Gorbachev, although a committed member of the Communist Party, was smart enough to realise the game was up for Soviet totalitarianism. Just as importantly, he had the sensibility to manage its dismantling in a way that minimised the damage. He was the first Soviet leader since Khrushchev who seemed more or less human.
Most of all, he had the courage to do what needed to be done, notwithstanding the reactionary forces arrayed against him.
The great irony is that while he earned the respect and gratitude of the West for defusing the ideological tension that had dominated world politics since the 1940s, he was unloved in his own land. An opinion poll in 2017 showed that an overwhelming majority of Russians viewed him negatively.
That could largely be explained by the fact that neither democracy nor capitalism lived up to its promise in Russia. An open-slather economy allowed corrupt oligarchs to flourish and democracy never stood a chance after the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years.
The result was Vladimir Putin. The Russian people wanted a strongman who promised order, and they got him. Russia today is almost as authoritarian as it was in the days of Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Information is tightly controlled, dissent is brutally suppressed and many Russians seem to like it that way. The evidence suggests that Putin understands his people far better than Gorbachev did.
But there’s another even bigger and more tragic irony that Gorbachev’s death forces us to confront. While we smugly complimented ourselves on winning the Cold War, the democratic, capitalist West was all along being systematically undermined from within by ideological forces far more insidious than Soviet communism.
Call it the culture wars, call it identity politics, call it wokeism, call it neo-Marxism … whatever the label, a multi-faceted assault on Western values has been fermenting for decades, mostly in our institutions of learning, and is now happening in plain sight.
It aggressively manifests itself in attacks on all the values that define Western society and culture: free speech, property rights, the rule of law, economic liberalism, history, science, literature, philosophy and, most damagingly, democracy itself. The attacks are sanctioned by our own institutions, including the media, and have largely gone unopposed by nominally conservative politicians who give the impression of being in a state of paralysis.
We watched enthralled as Gorbachev defied political gravity and neutralised what we regarded as a potential threat to the free world, but I wonder who will save us from the even more menacing enemy within.