Mikhail Gorbachev: The man who brought chaos and hope

  • Share
  • CevherShare
  • Share
Mikhail Gorbachev, in a commercial for Pizza Hut (1997)
Mikhail Gorbachev, in a commercial for Pizza Hut (1997)

The first scene is a thick cliché: former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is walking in the Red Square, under a heavy snowfall. In a surprising continuation of this ’97 commercial, he sits at a table in a Pizza Hut restaurant, and some Russians notice him. The controversy begins: “Because of him, we’re on the edge of economic ruin,” says a middle-aged man. “Because of him, we have freedom,” replies a younger one. “Because of him, we’re on the edge of chaos,” insists the first guy. An old woman has the final word: “Because of him, we’re even free… to go to the edge of our pizza”.

Gorbachev’s legacy to the Russians is complex, and pizza – with its capitalist flavor – is only part of it. As those people argue, it’s mainly about hope and chaos. These are not necesarilly opposite notions, explains Gorbachev in an interview for Russia Today in 2011. As he puts it, “chaos produces new forms of life”.

He admits failing in preserving the Soviet Union and leaving Russia in political instability in the early ’90s. The famous reforms he initiated, “perestroika” (“restructuring”) and “glasnost” (“openness”), were meant to rearrange the Communist system, to infiltrate discretely in the foundations built before him, in order to make them stronger. They ended by destroying the entire construction. It’s not a tragedy, Gorbachev argues, as long as this move reshaped the world for better.

His inheritance, as he sees it?

“The fact that the world is no longer divided, that it is free from ideological antagonism. That’s perhaps the most important thing.” 

(Mikhail Gorbachev for Russia Today, 2011)

But what kind of man initiates radical reforms which lead his Empire to ruin, and manages to do that peacefully for most part? And what kind of man does commercials for pizza afterwards? Mikhail Gorbachev has the qualities and weaknesses for this complicated recipe.

The sequences of his political rise were natural, even if the ends – from agriculture to the highest position in Kremlin – don’t seem to fit. Born in 1931, the first son of a combine harvester, Mikhail was a quick learner, with an aptitude for mechanics. As a teenager, he drove tractors at the local machine station to complete the family’s income. At 17, he was the youngest ever to win the Order of the Red Banner of Labor for his hard work and role in bringing in bumper crop. While he was in high school, he joined the Young Communist League and, because he was dedicated and well organized, he became assistant director of propaganda for the territorial committee of his organization. During his academic studies, he perfected his speaking and debating skills.

“He was more of an adult than his peers, that’s the impression I had. He was somehow different from the others, he could lead them,” one of his teachers remembered.

When the Party realised that a new generation is needed to refresh its structures, Gorbachev followed the wave and rose to the top. Gorbachev was always one of the youngest, wherever he was. In 1985, when he took the highest position in the USSR, Gorbachev was 54, and he was still the youngest member of the Politburo.

“If not me, who? And if not now, when?”

(Mikhail Gorbachev)

He succeeded Konstantin Chernenko, his political mentor. The leaders in the Politburo felt the need of a young leader, after the previous ones died a few months after they were installed. Again, it was a natural move: because of Chernenko’s health issues, Gorbachev would often lead the meetings of the Politburo in his place. He did that without arrogance, always aware of his new and huge responsabilities.

“Always remember: when you’re number one, there’s great responsibility that comes with that. Actually, you cannot give a single politician credit for everything. There’s always a group of people who realizes the challenges of their times. They understand what is going on in the world. Sometimes, when there’s a new challenge, a new leader will emerge. Sometimes, he would emerge too late, after some damage was done. We have to avoid that, we have to act in time”.

(Mikhail Gorbachev for Russia Today, 2011)

Gorbachev had to cut deep into the system to bring it back to life, and the old body predictably reacted. Courage, patience and diplomacy were highly needed, as he had to fight the entire Politburo in order to decrease the power of the party over the executive and legislative, and apply his reforms.

Mikhail Gorbachev In an interview for Russia Today, 2011
Mikhail Gorbachev In an interview for Russia Today, 2011

In the same time, he had to deal with the Cold War started by his predecessors. Gorbachev added a smile to the handshake, and that mattered. Before meeting him, Ronald Reagan was distrustful. But when the two world leaders first met at a summit, Reagan was surprised to find that “there was warmth in [Gorbachev’s] face and style.” Reagan recognized “a moral dimension in Gorbachev.” The British prime-minister Margaret Thatcher said of the Soviet leader, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” (“Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 19 Sep. 2014)

At first, Gorbachev didn’t fully understand the full implications of his reforms, his vision was limited. The times were changing, and in the end he realised that when it was too late.

The Soviet army didn’t interfere when East Germany, Hungary, Poland or Czechoslovakia elected non-communist governments, and major bloodbaths were avoided. He also knew when to step out of the main political scene and insured a peaceful succession. Russia was entering a painful transition, but with room for hope, freedom and pizza. In this new world, Gorbachev’s place in Russia’s history is still disputed, and he is waiting the final decision with a smile.

Team members: Sepeedeh Hashemian, Mei Prang, Vlad Odobescu

4 Comments on “Mikhail Gorbachev: The man who brought chaos and hope”

  1. Gorbachev group,

    Killer posting here! Very interesting and multifaceted. I must admit I was a bit confused on the relationship with pizza on the presentation, but this written piece clarifies that aspect allowing me to understand the analogy much better. Great use of pictures, quotes and video as well. It’s nice to be able to absorb all the nuances of this global leader at my own pace, instead of the time pressed presentation. Great job all together, really a great profile of an interesting man.


  2. My favorite portion of your group’s work was the leadership analysis. What he did wrong, right etc. As a leader, he failed in the duties of what he set out to accomplish. Yet, leaders are human and we all make mistakes. While courage, patience and diplomacy were necessary attributes to follow through the many tasks that Gorbachez was faced with, we know now that he vision ultimately lacked growth. However — and perhaps this is simply because the world’s opinion about him is still disputed — I wish I could go away from this knowing whether or not he is generally liked or disliked.

  3. I really enjoyed your post. I recently started studying the history of Russia and the Soviet Union more in-depth and this post helped me learn more about history and about Gorbachev. The pizza commercial was slightly confusing in class, but now it makes much more sense and I am glad you explained it further. Gorbachev was a multifaceted leader and I think looking at his life and leadership style shows how it is difficult to place people in a distinct category. From one angle he is a likable person but from another angle his leadership decisions were not always favorable.

  4. Thank you for including the Pizza Hut commercial in your presentation! That is one of the strangest pieces of marketing I have ever seen, but it is wonderfully representative of the unique era in which Mr. Gorbachev (by the way, it’s “GAR-BAH-CHYOV,” not “GOR-BAH-CHEV”) was in power.
    Hardline communists hated Gorbachev. He was a reformer, and some leaders in the staunchly conservative Communist Party of the Soviet Union did not like where he was taking the country. Some of the leaders in the military hated him so much that they staged a coup against him, which resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
    As your post alludes, Gorbachev was a difficult man to fully understand, from a policy perspective. He is in favor of democracy, of course, but his true feelings are vague beyond that. He has said some strange things since ’91; for a brief time, he hinted several times that he was a Catholic (he later denied this flat-out, as he says he is still an atheist). But however hard he might be to understand, I appreciated your presentation.

Comments are closed.