The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Gorbachev’s death feels like it’s part of an alternate history

Gorbachev was once a beloved figure. Why does his death feel like a footnote?

Russian President Vladimir Putin pays his respects at the coffin of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow on Sept. 1. (TV pool/AP)

Alternate history is enjoying a modest revival. The television show “The Man in the High Castle” depicted a reality in which the United States lost World War II. “For All Mankind begins from the premise that the Soviets beat the Americans to land on the moon. Even the culturally hegemonic Marvel Cinematic Universe has debuted its multiverse, a commercially scaled version of the idea that there is always an infinity of alternatives.

The death of Mikhail Gorbachev feels like a news item in one of those stories — a discordant detail in the background to alert us that somehow, somewhen, something went wrong. Could Gorbachev, who had been one of the most powerful men in the world, really have died in circumstances approaching obscurity while Russia wages a war of conquest against Ukraine? Imagine describing that scenario in 1985, when Gorbachev became the youngest leader in Soviet history. Surely, in the prime timeline, his death would be a much bigger deal. How did we end up in this world, where his death seems like an incidental detail set against a resurgence of war and environmental calamity?

Many alternate histories turn on the idea that one wrong step would have led to disaster or salvation. Thinking about Gorbachev’s death in a world far different from the one he intended to make invites reflections about whether our history went wrong and how it could have gone right. It is hard to resist entertaining the possibility that we are living in an alternate reality in which some decision went awry, some mistake was made, that left the would-be reformer to become the architect of his country’s demise.

For younger Americans, like my undergraduate students, the actual U.S.S.R. barely registers as an object of either threat or fascination. Yet the vanished socialist superpower nevertheless endures as our national other. We still quarry the rubble of the Soviet Union to furnish the raw materials of our political hatreds. The right-wing Turning Point USA pairs a photo of Vladimir Lenin with one of Bernie Sanders; on the left, accusations fly that Donald Trump is an asset of the KGB. Soviet symbols no longer refer to a country that ever existed: they are mostly empty signifiers of something to be despised, myths of pure villainy.

Those tropes reflect the lasting narrative power of the Cold War. Whatever theories of international relations academic scribblers might concoct to explain the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, the diffuse popular account of the rivalry among Americans held that it was a grand confrontation that would end in triumph or apocalypse. According to that logic, America would be the hero of history, whichever end the conflict led to — either by fighting for freedom or redeeming the Soviet Union as a free nation.

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Neither frame was right, and many dissented from them even at the time. Yet interpretations do not have to be correct to be powerful. The fantasy of an eschatological showdown with the Soviets shaped our collective sense of how history was supposed to unfold. It furnished a logic of the history of the future and prophesies through which to understand the present.

That meant most Americans never really understood much about Gorbachev or the transformation of his countries. They didn’t need to: All they needed was to know whether to regard him as villain or hero. Once that was set, they knew how the timeline was supposed to end.

Like all leaders of the “evil empire,” Gorbachev began as a villain to Americans. Yet while he was in power, many Americans came to approve of his reforms to the Soviet Union and even of the young leader himself. A December 1988 Gallup poll found Gorbachev ranked second as the man most admired by Americans, behind Ronald Reagan and ahead of George H.W. Bush. (Donald Trump ranked 10th.) Gorbachev massively outpolled that year’s Democratic nominee for president, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis — an unprecedented level of popularity for the leader of the most powerful U.S. adversary.

Partly, favorable impressions of Gorbachev reflected relief at lessening Cold War tensions and the receding likelihood of nuclear fire. Those favorable impressions also derived from a misunderstanding of the purpose of glasnost and perestroika, his signature policies of openness and reform. They seemed like moves toward making the U.S.S.R. more like us (or at least like Western Europe). But Gorbachev did not aim to make the Soviet Union into a Western country so much as to repair a system tottering toward stagnation. He believed communism, suitably modified, would ultimately outcompete capitalism. For Gorbachev and others steeped in the Soviet system, the ultimate course of history was no less certain than for Americans — the timeline just needed some tweaking to come out right.

The collapse of the U.S.S.R. meant those subtleties were swept up in the dustbin of history — or, more accurately, relegated to the footnotes of dusty academic tomes. The blunt fact that Gorbachev’s loss of power coincided with the birth of a democratic Russia left the impression in many Americans’ minds that his reforms had mostly worked. In reality, the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. proved the reforms’ utter failure. From his perspective, history had already gone awry; the Americans were just too entranced by the seeming vindication of their own narrative to realize that.

Ironically, Gorbachev became a hero to Americans even as he became a villain at home. While Gorbachev and his successor, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, still seem to Americans like Westernizing good guys, many Russians blame them for the chaos, crime and impoverishment of the 1990s. As the former Soviet leader was feted in the West, the interpretation that his rule had been a calamity gained currency in mainstream Russian circles, finding its ultimate expression in President Vladimir Putin’s 2005 remark that the Soviet collapse was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

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Even Gorbachev’s now-notorious Pizza Hut commercial, which features a debate in Russian about his legacy between older and younger generations, is notable because it portrayed a version of Russian public opinion that was more subtle than most Americans’ views of the former leader. The commercial is, if anything, too nuanced in its presentation of the pro- and anti-Gorbachev sides as equal: Gorbachev was and remains wildly unpopular in Russia — more detested than Joseph Stalin — which explains why the ad was made for the export market, not for broadcast in Russia. The real-life background to the commercial, in which Gorbachev’s straitened financial circumstances made him willing to become a pitchman for pizza, spoke volumes about how history had already gone off the rails for him.

If Gorbachev did not experience the history he hoped for, it is also fair to observe that Americans have not lived out the future we expected, either. Victory in the Cold War did not ensure the consolidation of freedom and democracy in the long term. Russia is more estranged from the West than it has been in nearly a century. Putin’s long reign has dismantled what remained of the potential foundations for a pluralist Russian political system, even as it has cemented an isolated oligarchic capitalism dependent on oil and gas exports. Nor do rising countries like China seem likely to defer to American leadership. In the meantime, threats to democracy at home and around the world continue to mount.

We don’t live in the future promised by any Cold War narrative, American or Soviet. The futures they did promise can’t be recovered. Reality isn’t bound by the genre conventions of alternate history — there is no switch we could throw to fix our timeline. History doesn’t recognize inevitability or deviations: There is no true path to return to, only a course charted by helmsmen who err, commit misprisions and occasionally even display flashes of genius. Attempts to force history onto the right timeline have led to calamities like the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Instead, we can recognize, as even Marx would have to admit by now, that any seemingly inevitable endpoint of history often proves to be a mere hitching post before the next stage of the journey. The future isn’t a story whose ending we know or whose alternatives we can view with multiversal detachment: It is something we make anew with every choice in an endless, unknowable present.