House debates

Thursday, 8 September 2022


Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich

12:16 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

On 30 August the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, died in Moscow at the age of 91. Those who remember or have heard about how tense the late Cold War was in the seventies and eighties may remember Gorbachev as the fearsome name and face of the USSR. It is important to note that Gorbachev, a Communist Party faithful who rose to be general secretary in 1985, was no pushover or pro-Western, as critics have claimed. Gorbachev did all he could to preserve and expand the power of the Soviet Union. When he spoke of restructuring Moscow's foreign policy and its economy, and bringing transparency to its society, Gorbachev envisaged the Soviet party state that had emerged from the 1917 revolution growing its industry and military capabilities to keep contesting the Cold War.

In 1986 Gorbachev made a landmark speech in Russia's Pacific Fleet headquarters of Vladivostok that signalled that only the tone of Russian strategic policy had changed. This speech and the constant port visits of Soviet submarines into the South Pacific sent shockwaves through Canberra. Many of our hard-nosed defence planners worried that the Soviet Union had overcome Australia's area denial strategy in the Pacific. But, as we know from history, Gorbachev's social and economic reforms unleashed forces that had long been heavily repressed by the brutal hand of the Soviet state. Gorbachev's legacy is defined by what he did next.

When the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union began agitating for independence, Gorbachev, a committed Leninist, hesitated. At first, protesters were violently repressed in Georgia, but when the contagion of freedom which he had caused spread to the Baltic states, Gorbachev backed down. The Baltic states are free today thanks to this decision. He resisted the pressure from his security apparatus, and every instinct of the Soviet state to crush any open threats to the party's monopoly over power. Russian nationalists to this day resent this decision for destroying Russia's sphere of influence in Europe and for fatally undermining the Soviet Union itself. But from my perspective Gorbachev should also be remembered as a proponent of freedom who helped to end the costly Cold War.

Gorbachev would later visit Australia in 2006 to lobby the Howard government to sign the Kyoto protocol. We know from our former ambassador to Russia Peter Tesch, who bought him his first Akubra, that Gorbachev was curious about Australia's prosperous, multicultural society that didn't throw its weight around against its neighbours.

Mikhail Gorbachev remains a divisive figure amongst Westerners, Russians and Ukrainians. Gorbachev's memory is painful for many Ukrainians because of his share of responsibility in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and because he endorsed Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. But we also know from witnesses that, to his dying day, Gorbachev was crushed by the war in Ukraine—as all of us are in this place. As the war escalated earlier this year, a sick Gorbachev called for an end to the hostilities.

Among his remarkable acts of statesmanship and courage was his decision to unilaterally withdraw half a million Soviet troops from Germany and eastern Europe. That's a force eight times the size of the ADF. He chose to withdraw them rather than unilaterally keeping Soviet forces dominating half of Europe, as many of his advisers wanted to do. Those who criticise him in modern Russia say that Gorbachev was tricked by the West into selling out Russia's interests. But, in a 2014 interview, Gorbachev, who was himself closely involved in these negotiations with the US, rejected the idea that the West had deceived him into withdrawing troops. Still, Gorbachev was given no state funeral in Russia.

But, as we remember his life, let us keep in mind not only his contribution to the only period in history in which Russians briefly tasted real freedom for one generation; let us also remember his lasting contribution to international peace and security, and to Australia's security by extension of that. Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who knew Gorbachev well, recalled that he refused to press the nuclear attack button even for simulated attacks during training. We can only hope that this spirit will guide the leaders of nuclear weapons states who weigh such huge responsibilities. Vale, Mikhail Gorbachev.


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