Hazem Saghieh

Gorbachev, a Tragic Hero of a Tragic Nation

Much has made eulogizing Mikhail Gorbachev tempting over the past few years, a noble man who died politically the day he left the Kremlin though his biological death only followed later.

The few times he made public appearances over the past few years, he seemed ill. His body was extremely frail and his face extremely swollen, as for the statements he made, they strengthened the general impression that the man had resigned himself from the workings of this planet that he had a strong hand in shaping.

The last ever Soviet leader, whose name is tied to the immense historical achievement of ending the Cold War, was a tragic hero par excellence.

But who is this tragic hero whose definition was handed to us by the ancient Greeks who defined everything else? He is, as Aristotle defines him in his book Poetics, usually a leader, a ruler, or man of noble descent, and he has good qualities that could be heroic; however, he soon makes a mistake of the kind we generally make (hamartia) that he is driven to by ambition, intransigence, or pride. The mistake is thus not deeply rooted within him or foundational to who he is. It is often the result of an attempt to do good gone bad because of poor execution. Series of events that had not been accounted for subsequently unfold and turn this mistake into a reason for a catastrophe (to those who like Arabic popular sayings: “a good guy’s mistake is worth a thousand”).

Tragic heroes, then, should be good and decent without being infallible. They are no “perfect” heroes whose perfection stands in the way of them making any mistakes. Indeed, it is their mistake that makes identifying with them on a human level possible because, as humans, we all make mistakes, and it could allow for learning from their bitter mistakes and experiences.

Tragic heroes’ mistakes are bitter indeed: they are impossible to take back, as is controlling their dangerous repercussions that could end up being the end of this hero or perhaps the reason for his death, besides also leading to the deaths of many others.

The heroes conjured up by William Shakespeare were like this: they go the distance chasing an idea, ambition, or desire that takes hold of them like obsessions take hold of the obsessed. Macbeth, the kind-hearted prince who wanted to avenge his father’s murder, was driven into the abyss and blood by his ambition. Othello, the other prince, is principled and righteous, but committing a single mistake sufficed to leave many dead. Romeo was driven to his death by the force of his recklessness and following love blindly. Julius Caesar’s self-confidence and the misguided decisions it drove him to make led to his demise, while Brutus’ loyalty to Rome went as far as compelling him to take part in the murder of his sponsor…

This hero, having given in to volition and the subjective, eventually finds himself facing the wrath of the objective, particularly the reality which his actions created.

But what is it about Gorbachev’s life story that makes him a tragic hero?

Compared to other Soviet leaders, he didn’t have a Stalinist bone in his body. As for the three general secretaries who preceded him, Brezhnev, Chernenko, and Andropov, his warmth and distinct personal characteristics contrasted sharply with their cold aloofness. He was totally innocent of the profile that typically characterized the cut-and-dry, hostile, and rigid men who had led the Soviet Union before him. He did, on the other hand, resemble the few Soviet leaders who took initiative and dared to defy precedent and go against the established order, that is, the Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The former tried to push through a “new economic policy” aimed at stimulating and reinvigorating the stagnant peasant economy. The latter embarked on de-Stalinization in 1956 and then, starting in 1959, adopted a policy of “peaceful coexistence.” The results were not encouraging: Bukharin was eventually executed in 1938 after a famous letter he sent to Stalin pleading for forgiveness, and Khrushchev was expelled from the Kremlin in 1964.

Gorbachev’s great mistake was neither ‘Glasnost’ nor the “Perestroika” nor ending the Cold War, which went against a Soviet tradition of initiating or inciting wars. As for him having been “cheated by the West,” it has been exaggerated as conspiratorial ideas generally tend to be, though the “West” could have been more cooperative and generous.

Gorbachev’s great failing was that he deeply believed in the feasibility of reforming Russia and socialism simultaneously. He tried to contain this reform and wrongly believed he could control it. He isolated himself from his liberal allies and launched a clamp down in Lithuania in 1991, as well as reviving the myth of “genuine Leninism,” which was contrasted with the bureaucracy that was blamed for the USSR’s historical decline. He also bet, as the Czechoslovakian First Secretary Alexander Dubcek had before him, on “socialism with a human face.” However, the profound and deep crookedness of seven decades of communism after a long tsarist era imposed explosiveness and foolhardiness on the USSR’s transformation, as later symbolized by a man like Boris Yeltsin.

Gorbachev could not catch up. He was betrayed by his deliberateness and his pursuit of balance at a time that totalitarianism had rendered one-sided and hastened breaking the iron cage and leaving it. However, this robust corruption, and with it, repression and the frailty of the social base upholding these reforms, closed the door to a capitalist state of law emerging as an alternative to communism, as though blatant hostility to the latter had hidden within it silent hostility to the former. The fact that the error was deeply ingrained and cemented made everything correct seem wrong. In the end, Vladimir Putin arrived carried by soaring oil and gas prices; he brought the Cold War back and cranked up the temperature, promising a nationalist and populist solution for a country that finding a solution for is difficult.

As for Gorbachev, who had ended the Cold War, he found himself, in 2014, standing among those cheering the annexation of Crimea to “the Russia” and counting on salvation through war.

He thereby disavowed himself after his reformist followers had disavowed him, his communist officers tried to overthrow him, the nationalists despised him, and he was demonized by some as a traitor to his country.

But the difference between Gorbachev and Shakespeare’s heroes is that the range of choices he had to choose from was narrower: Russia cannot not be reformed, and cannot, until further notice, be reformed.