The Irony of Gorbachev

He wasn’t a hero. But he still made the world a better place.

Dennis Sanders
4 min readSep 1, 2022


President Ronald Reagan and Vice-President Bush Meet with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev on Governor’s Island New York, 12/7/1988. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s weird to write about the impact Mikhail Gorbachev had on the world.

It’s weird because he led a repressive regime that really couldn’t be modernized. It’s weird because the nation he led was responsible for so much suffering around the world. It’s weird because he stood for values that were incredibly opposed to the values that I cherish.

There are a lot of people, especially cold war conservatives, who would easily dismiss the former Soviet leader who died on August 30 at the age of 91. He was the leader of the “evil empire.” Why should anyone care about someone like him?

And yet, it is surprising that I felt a tug at my throat when I wrote something on Facebook. It’s surprising that staunch anti-communists like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan or former dissidents like Natan Sharansky had some respect for this man with the weird birthmark on his forehead. “if we look at the 20th century not through the lens of political struggles, but rather from the bird’s-eye perspective of history, we see how utterly unique Gorbachev was,” Sharansky wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. “Gorbachev was a product of the Soviet regime, a member of its ruling elite who believed its ideology and enjoyed its privileges — yet decided to destroy it nevertheless. For that, the world can be grateful. Thank you, Mikhail Gorbachev.”

Jonathan V. Last probably said it best by calling Gorbachev “the accidental great man.” I was captured by this part of his essay:

…Gorbachev was the indispensable man. Without him, the Soviet Union probably falls anyway — eventually. But maybe it isn’t a bloodless celebration. Maybe our story ends a lot differently.

I don’t mean to romanticize him: Gorbachev was not a democratic reformer. His attempt to tentatively open the USSR was based on his hope that he could save the Soviet system.

Yet when the system began to teeter, Gorbachev was the guy controlling all of the guns. He refused to use them. And not only did he not try to force the Soviet Union to stay together, once history was on the move, he moved with it.

Maybe you can come up with an example of…



Dennis Sanders

Middle-aged Midwesterner. I write about religion, politics and culture. Podcast: newsletter: