Mikhail Gorbachev went far beyond Nikita Khrushchev’s “Back to Lenin” approach. When he came to power in March 1985, he tried to instill new life into a dying body. This explains the inconsistencies and blunders of the first three years (1985-1988). He knew from his mentor Yuri Andropov that touching the Stalin question would inevitably open a Pandora box. And yet he did it.
Glasnost meant the return of repressed memories, the rebirth of pluralism, and the return of civil society. It meant telling the truth about the horrible crimes of the past. It meant admitting that the regime contained violence against society in its deepest matrix. By the end of the 1980s, Gorbachev, Yakovlev, Georgy Shakhnazarov and their supporters realized that liberalization was not sufficient. The next step was democratization. But an intrinsically authoritarian culture like Bolshevism be democratized without renouncing its defining features? The answer came in August 1991 with the anti-Gorbachev putsch and four months later with the end of the USSR. Altogether, he was a world-historical personality attuned to the turbulent and perplexing times in which he lived. No hagiography would do him justice. The same can be said about endeavors to negate his real merits.