Goodbye, Gorby

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Evening Post & Mail
On human instincts, the Devil’s advocate, and whether to mourn the passing of an ex-Soviet leader

There’s a natural instinct to want pure heroes and villains in the world but that instinct is incompatible with human nature. Humans are not angels, and most aren’t demons, either. The best we can expect is for an individual to push, on balance, in the right direction in the biggest ways they can undertake.
■ Even in Hollywood pictures, where purity of good and evil is easier to compose than in real life, complicated characters are more interesting than their over-simplified counterparts. The James Bond who struggles with internal complexity in “Skyfall” is a more compelling artistic device than some of his polished-too-thin predecessors.
■ In Mikhail Gorbachev, who has died at age 91, we have a very real example of an impure hero. He was, after all, a politician who rose through the ranks of the Communist Party to reach the heights of power in the Soviet Union. And while there, he initially downplayed the Chernobyl disaster, resisted the restoration of independence for the Baltic states, and took far too long to withdraw from Afghanistan. And in later life, he needlessly lent his support to Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
■ These flaws count against him, as well they should. But Gorbachev also moved boldly to reduce the threat of nuclear war, didn’t intervene when protests swept across Eastern Europe, and introduced openness (“glasnost”) within an authoritarian superpower.
■ Gorbachev’s flaws merit criticism – perhaps even scorn. But he did, on balance, push the part of the world he could influence in the general direction of right. And for that, he paid a price in esteem at home. His dream of restructuring the Soviet Union was never fulfilled, perhaps because it was doomed from the start. But the world is better off without the USSR in it, and to no small extent, we have Gorbachev to thank for that. He literally closed the book on the country’s legal existence.
■ If we demand flawless heroes, we’ll only overpopulate the world with villains. The judgment of history ought not to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of fallible human beings; goodness and decency depend upon people being conscious that they will be judged after they’re gone.
■ But the rightful test of a person’s legacy isn’t whether they’re deserving of sainthood – it’s whether the preponderance of the evidence shows that they did meaningfully more good than harm. By that standard, it is fitting to regard Mikhail Gorbachev’s life as a success.
Gorbachev in 1992
Gorbachev in 1992
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Brian Gongol
Brian Gongol @briangongol

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