The death of Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev at the age of 91 marks the end of the earthly journey of a man who left an indelible mark on the history of the second half of the 20th century.
In six years, from March 11, 1985, to December 25, 1991, Gorbachev changed the world, called for an end to the Cold War between East and West, and changed the relations that determined the balance between the major powers after World War II. Following these six years, the results of his political actions did not meet his expectations.
As a man who had grown up within the system of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), brought up and forged by real socialism, Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Party Central Committee after the death of his predecessor, Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko, on March 11, 1985. At that time, Moscow and Washington were involved in a new round of confrontation. It had been determined by several factors. These included nuclear rearmament at the level of medium-range missiles, the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, the US Strategic Defense Initiative project (based on space and laser weapons), and the ongoing struggle for liberalization in Poland. Gorbachev, not without internal resistance, embarked on an innovative path both in the field of international relations and in the field of domestic reforms. Dynamic, smiling and optimistic, he established a new diplomatic and dialectical approach to relations with the United States of America (with both Reagan and Bush) through bilateral meetings aimed at increasing mutual trust and reaching incredible agreements in the field of nuclear and conventional disarmament.
Domestically, he opened up the Soviet economic system to international trade, approved foreign investment in the USSR, and encouraged the emergence of private property. Gorbachev began a process of political liberalization that allowed the presence of other political parties, reduced media censorship, guaranteed the right to strike, and supported freedom of conscience and religion. These reforms marked the beginning of a new era in the history of real socialism and had a huge impact both on the population of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and on those who lived within the Soviet Union.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union itself, and later Czechoslovakia were, in spite of everything, the result of Gorbachev’s political actions. A man who dreamed of the opportunity to reform the socialist system in order to adapt it to the challenges of the modern world. The August 19, 1991 coup, which failed two days after it began, was the first warning of the storm that would sweep over him over the following weeks as he witnessed the unilateral initiatives of Boris Yeltsin and those who pursued national ideals in their republics. He could have started a civil war to avoid secession; he didn’t. He preferred peace to war. He left with a memorable speech delivered on Christmas Day, 1991 and immediately made history.
For some in Russia, Gorbachev was the one who betrayed the interests of the Soviet Union, weakening its power and setting the stage for the humanitarian catastrophe that struck the millions of Russians left after 1991 to live in former Soviet republics subject to new national sentiments at the local level. For others, he was a man who prevented even worse things from happening and knew how to overcome the rigid limitations of an ideology. I remember when Gorbachev came to Italy and suddenly went to shake hands and talk to ordinary people on the street who greeted him. The astounded Giulio Andreotti then said on the air: “The nightmare is no more.” This unexpected phrase was evidence of how Gorbachev broke the stereotypes about the Soviet Union even among the most experienced politicians of the time.
When I myself met Gorbachev in 1996, I remember his eyes very well: they spoke for themselves and were full of humanity. He forever remained the image of perestroika and glasnost.