Mikhail Gorbachev’s death feels like a news item in one of these stories – a jarring detail in the background to alert us that somewhere, somewhere, something has gone wrong. Could Gorbachev, who had been one of the most powerful men in the world, really have died in near-dark circumstances as Russia waged a war of conquest against Ukraine? Imagine describing this scenario in 1985, when Gorbachev became the youngest leader in Soviet history. Certainly, in the main timeline, his death would be much more significant. How did we get to this world, where his death appears as a fortuitous detail against a resurgence of war and environmental calamities?
Many alternative histories are based on the idea that a single misstep would have led to disaster or salvation. Thinking about Gorbachev’s death in a world far different from the one he intended to create invites reflection on whether our history went wrong and how well it could have gone. It’s hard to resist the idea that we live in an alternate reality in which a decision has gone wrong, a mistake has been made, that has left the would-be reformer to become the architect of his country’s demise.
For young Americans, like my undergraduates, today’s USSR is hardly seen as an object of threat or fascination. Yet the defunct socialist superpower nonetheless endures as our other national. We are still mining the rubble of the Soviet Union to provide the raw materials for our political hatreds. The Right Turning Point USA pairs a photo of Vladimir Lenin with that of Bernie Sanders; on the left, accusations abound that Donald Trump is a KGB asset. Soviet symbols no longer refer to a country that ever existed: they are mostly empty signifiers of something foreign to despise, myths of pure wickedness.
These tropes reflect the enduring narrative power of the Cold War. Whatever international relations theories academic scribblers might concoct to explain the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, the diffuse popular narrative of American rivalry held that it was one big confrontation. which would end in triumph or apocalypse. By this logic, America would be the hero of the story, regardless of the end of the conflict – either fighting for freedom or redeeming the Soviet Union as a free nation.
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Neither executive was correct, and many disagreed with them even then. Yet interpretations don’t have to be correct to be powerful. The fantasy of an eschatological confrontation with the Soviets shaped our collective sense of how history was supposed to unfold. He provided a logic of the story of the future and prophecies through which to understand the present.
This meant that most Americans never really understood Gorbachev or the transformation of his countries. They didn’t need it: all they needed was to know whether they should consider him a villain or a hero. Once that was set, they knew how the timeline was supposed to end.
Like all leaders of the “evil empire”, Gorbachev started out as a villain to Americans. Yet while he was in power, many Americans came to approve of his reforms in the Soviet Union and even of the young leader himself. A Gallup Poll December 1988 found Gorbachev ranked second as the man most admired by Americans, behind Ronald Reagan and ahead of George HW Bush. (Donald Trump placed 10th.) Gorbachev overwhelmingly overtook that year’s Democratic nominee for president, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis — an unprecedented level of popularity for the leader of America’s most powerful adversary.
In part, favorable impressions of Gorbachev reflected relief at diminishing Cold War tensions and a diminished likelihood of a nuclear fire. These favorable impressions also stemmed from a misunderstanding of the purpose of glasnost and perestroika, its signature policies of openness and reform. They seemed to be measures to make the USSR more like us (or at least like Western Europe). But Gorbachev was not so much about making the Soviet Union a Western country as about fixing a system that was teetering toward stagnation. He believed that communism, properly modified, would eventually supplant 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 a few tweaks to run smoothly.
The collapse of the USSR meant that these niceties were swept into the dustbin of history – or, more accurately, relegated to the footnotes of dusty academic tomes. The abrupt fact that Gorbachev’s loss of power coincided with the birth of a democratic Russia left the impression in the minds of many Americans that his reforms had mostly worked. In reality, the dissolution of the USSR proved the total failure of the reforms. From his point of view, the story had already gone wrong; the Americans were simply too fascinated by the apparent vindication of their own narrative to realize it.
Ironically, Gorbachev became a hero for Americans even as he became a villain at home. While Gorbachev and his successor, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, still seem to Americans to be Westernized gentiles, many Russians still blame them for the chaos, crime and impoverishment of the 1990s. was celebrated in the West, the interpretation that his reign had been a calamity spread in large Russian circles, finding its ultimate expression in President Vladimir Putin’s speech in 2005 remark that the Soviet collapse was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
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Even Gorbachev is now notorious pizza hut advertisement, which features a debate in Russian about his legacy between older and younger generations, is notable because it portrays a version of Russian public opinion that was more subtle than most Americans’ views of the former leader. The advertisement is, on the contrary, too nuanced in its presentation of the pro and anti-Gorbachev sides as equals: Gorbachev was and remains wildly unpopular in Russia — more hated than Joseph Stalin – which explains why the advertisement was made for the export market, and not for distribution in Russia. The real-life context of publicity, in which Gorbachev’s difficult financial situation pushed him to become a pizza pitcher, speaks 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 also did not experience the future we expected. Victory in the cold war did not ensure the consolidation of freedom and democracy in the long term. Russia is further from the West than it has been for almost a century. Putin’s long rule dismantled what remained of the potential foundations of a pluralistic Russian political system, even as it cemented an isolated oligarchic capitalism dependent on oil and gas exports. Emerging countries like China also do not seem likely to defer to US leadership. Meanwhile, threats to democracy at home and around the world keep going up.
We don’t live in the future promised by any Cold War narrative, American Where Soviet. The future they promised cannot be reclaimed. Reality isn’t bound by the genre conventions of alternate history – there’s no switch we could throw to fix our timeline. History knows neither fatality nor deviations: there is no real path to return to, only a route traced by helmsmen who make mistakes, make mistakes and sometimes even display flashes of genius. Attempts to force history onto the correct timeline have led to such calamities as the American invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Instead, we can acknowledge, as even Marx should now acknowledge, that any seemingly inevitable end point in history often turns out to be a mere hitch before the next leg of the journey. The future is not a story whose end we know or whose alternatives we can see with multiversal detachment: it is something we recreate with every choice in an endless, unknowable present.