Mikhail Gorbachev died on August 31, 2022 at the age of 91. He was by far the longest-lived Soviet leader: none of the others even made it to 80. The irony is that youth was once Gorbachev’s chief attribute. When he came to power as a fresh-faced 54-year-old in 1985, he was supposed to bring rejuvenating energy to the Soviet system, freeing it from the shackles of the legendary Politburo gerontocracy. And he did, in the same way that an antidepressant sometimes gives a patient just enough additional energy to successfully commit suicide. The revulsion that greeted his name in the catastrophic 1990s was eventually succeeded by public indifference. That might have been the best he could have hoped for after those fateful six years.
Gerontocracy is a relative concept. At his death in 1984 Yuri Andropov was only 69, decades younger than Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein and the other ancients currently presiding over the US Senate. What mattered was not the absolute age of the Soviet leadership but their generational cohort. Soviet history can usefully be understood as the story of the youth, maturity, and senescence of a single age group: people who were children in 1917. In the 1920s they benefited from the massive expansion of Soviet educational institutions and career opportunities for workers. As terror spread in the 1930s, they stepped forward to fill gaps left by junior Old Bolsheviks or bourgeois specialists. The survivors of World War II emerged into careers in the upper ranks of the party-state apparatus, and when the Politburo began to prioritize “trust in cadres” in the 1960s they found themselves, now in late middle age, occupying secure positions of power. The 1970s became an era of mass consumption driven by fossil fuel revenues, some of which could be siphoned off to fund lavish lifestyles for party nabobs (though these were spartan in comparison to post-Soviet corruption). By the late Brezhnev era, a bribe of half a million rubles could allegedly buy you the post of oblast party secretary, analogous to a governorship, in some parts of the Soviet Union. But after peaking in 1980, oil prices began to rapidly decline; the opportunity provided by this windfall had not been used to address the structural problems of the Soviet economy. Yesterday’s children of the revolution found themselves entering a new era of crisis plagued by the mental and physical calamities of old age.
Gorbachev was born in 1931, on the other side of the revolutionary chasm. Though famine and terror made their appearances in his childhood, he entered adulthood after the most traumatic periods of Soviet history had already passed. Graduating from university two years after Stalin’s death, Gorbachev became part of a generation of starry-eyed young utopians. As their elders began to make their peace with the indefinite deferral of communism, young people were determined to see it in their lifetimes. In 1967, a group of youth in the city of Novorossiisk sank a time capsule into the Black Sea filled with letters addressed to the anticipated space-faring communist future of 2017. A schoolgirl named Olga wrote, “We dream of communism, of a time when you can eat ice cream and go to the movies for free, when machines will do our homework while our teachers will be patient robots. You live under communism, and I will live under communism too, with the only difference being that you will be as old as I was fifty years ago.” Gorbachev, on the older end of this generation, was then just beginning his rapid political ascent in the nearby city of Stavropol.
The destruction of Alexander Dubček’s reform experiment in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was a harsh lesson for the utopians. Brezhnev’s generation had had enough of experiments; if you’d successfully made it “from [Vladimir] Ilyich [Lenin] to [Leonid] Ilyich [Brezhnev] without heart attack or paralysis,” as a famous quip about Anastas Mikoian went, you were probably an opportunistic careerist rather than a proper revolutionary. All over the Soviet Union the bright young things of the 1960s languished under immobile bosses, incapable of rocking the boat even if they had an opportunity to do so. Though the smartest members of Brezhnev’s cohort, like Andropov, saw that the time had come to pass the baton, it took three dead CPSU General Secretaries in three years (including Andropov himself) for Gorbachev’s chance to arrive. His main rivals for the succession were discredited in part by their lavish lifestyles: Grigorii Romanov, the head of the Leningrad party apparat, was falsely rumored to have lent his daughter a china tea set from the Hermitage for her wedding. A son of the soil rather than a hereditary intellectual, Gorbachev was authentic and unprepossessing in contrast. He cleaned out the deep-rooted patronage networks of his predecessors (like Brezhnev’s legendary “Dnipropetrovsk Mafia”) and launched a program of reforms grounded in the ideals of the post-Stalin era.
Perestroika failed for many reasons, both structural and contingent—scholars have cited factors ranging from ineffective economic policies to nationalist mobilization to the dismantlement of party authority. Some decisions had catastrophic unintended consequences: a campaign against alcoholism, despite its significant public health benefits, ultimately torpedoed the price subsidy mechanism that had assured Soviet citizens access to inexpensive food. Other failures were borne of confusion and disorientation, like the government’s inability to defuse intercommunal violence in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Still other policies were bulldozed by fatal opposition from conservative hardliners, market-friendly reformers, or ascending nationalists.
But there was one aspect of Gorbachev’s project that eventually made perestroika irrelevant. His generation was no longer young: the new Komsomol elites whose ascent had been stymied for so long were no longer invested in the survival of the socialist order, much less the building of communism. Even ordinary young people had never experienced the promise of communism as anything other than the rote pablum of bosses and hall monitors. Although it was foiled by a variety of material and structural obstacles, in a broader cultural sense Gorbachev’s bid for renewal was obsolete before it even began: having successfully forged a culture in which moderately affluent consumption was paid for by rote obeisance to political ritual, the Soviet Union could never return to the aspirations of earlier decades. Soon, Gorbachev would be shunted aside by a more cynical generation: full-throated free-marketeers like Boris Nemtsov and opportunistic entrepreneurs like the future media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. Unlike the American Baby Boomers, who have retained a vision of themselves as the protagonists of history since their teenage years, the utopians among the Soviet shestidesiatniki (“‘60s-ers”) became the occupants, if not of the dustbin of history, at least of its recycling bin. Too old when the USSR collapsed to forge new lives in its wreckage, they were also too young to have benefited much in its prime.
Seen in this light Gorbachev looks like yet another Russian revolutionary from above—a leader who tried to mobilize the masses against entrenched social elites in the service of a far-reaching agenda of social transformation. Unlike Stalin or Peter the Great, however, Gorbachev took the bottom-up rhetoric that accompanied this process seriously enough that when society began to move in an unexpected direction, he had no coercive power he was willing to substitute for sloganeering and exhortation. It was left to the more unscrupulous leaders of the newly independent states to reforge what were now called democracies around the carcass of the old system.
In Vitaliy Malskiy’s 2020 documentary interview film Gorbachev. Heaven, the visibly deteriorating ex-president offers gnomic and fragmentary recollections of his own life, coyly suggesting that he might have been the Soviet Union’s only real socialist leader. At one point he describes how, on a family outing with Andropov, he pointed out that the party had to think about the future: in all the Politburo photos of a recent parade there was not a single young face. Andropov’s response was, “What, are old people not good enough?” Gorbachev’s retort, as he tells it, was “We are a forest country, and there’s no forest without undergrowth.” His expression is smug. The camera lingers on the web of pale, bulging blood vessels in his arm. In the background, a television is always on, continually showing flashes of Vladimir Putin’s eerily ageless face.