In Memoriam Mikhail Gorbachev, Leonid Kravchuk, and Stanislav Shushkevich, Fathers of the Age of Fragility
BY MYKHAILO MINAKOV
The launch of the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022 was a historical event that put an end to the post-Soviet era. That approximately thirty-year-long period was characterized by the fragility of its political projects, which stemmed from several fundamental contradictions. The construction of new states was constantly undermined by the contest between democratization, which promoted citizens’ rights and a government that served the citizens, nationalization, which looked at the state as an expression of the ethnic collectives’ will and historical mission, and the neoliberal vision of the state as a “small government.” These competing views were among the core factors that established the context in which the start, development, and self-destruction of the unstable world of post-Soviet democracies and autocracies, oligarchies and kleptocracies, would unfold.
The post-Soviet orders (or chaos, if you like) had their own authors. These were the political leaders of perestroika (1985–1990) and the dissolution of the USSR (1990–1992). At least three of them—Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–2022), Leonid Kravchuk (1934–2022), and Stanislav Shushkevich (1934–2022)—lived to see both the emergence and the decline of the political systems and the historical epoch they created.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last CPSU general secretary and the first and only president of the USSR, died on August 30, 2022. Elected to lead the Soviet Union after a long period of gerontocratic rule in 1985, the relatively young Gorbachev declared the plan of reforms that would allow the USSR to develop. Later referred to as perestroika (reconstruction), it allowed some freedom of speech (glasnost), some room for economic entrepreneurship, and even some space for religious life, all of which paved the way for the Nobel Committee to award Gorbachev the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize. The popular movements in support of perestroika soon became the national liberation forces that promoted separation of the republics from the Union, especially the Baltic republics and those in the South Caucasus.
In 1989–1990 most of the fifteen republics constituting the USSR declared their sovereignty, and to preserve the Union Gorbachev started preparing a New Union Treaty. He received the support of the vast majority of Soviet citizens in the March 1991 referendum to reconstruct the Union. But the once formidable Communist Party had already divided into many factions that opposed the treaty. Among Gorbachev’s strongest enemies were the conservative communists, who wanted to restore the USSR to its state before perestroika; Boris Yeltsin’s group, which promoted a liberal agenda for Russian Federation and competed with the president in Moscow; and the national communists, who wanted to retain control over their republics without interference from Moscow. The political complexities that started with the late Soviet era democratization were turning perestroika into “catastroika,” the Soviet Union’s self-destruction.
Before the New Union Treaty could be signed, the conservatives organized a coup directed at displacing Gorbachev, who was then vacationing in Crimea. The coup failed as a result of Yeltsin’s and his group’s resistance and outmaneuvering the hard-liners in Moscow on August 19–21, 1991. The national liberation movements in Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, and some other republics supported this struggle. When Gorbachev returned to Moscow after the coup, the Soviet Union was already in the hands of Yeltsin and the national communists. Republican governments in Kyiv, Minsk, Moscow, and other republics were busy banning the Communist Party and the KGB and launching new—non-Soviet, national-democratic—political systems.
Up until 2022, Gorbachev hewed to the Soviet view on the post-Soviet processes and criticized them accordingly. Even in his recent interview his criticism of Putin was made from that specific late Soviet point of view. He seems to have always thought that history could have gone differently had the Union survived.
Mikhail Gorbachev left us after seeing his more successful rivals of 1991—Boris Yeltsin (1931–2007), Leonid Kravchuk, and Stanislav Shushkevich, signatories to the Belavezha Accords, which launched the breakup of the USSR—die before him. Yeltsin died in 2007 after witnessing the curbing of political freedoms in Russia by his successor, though he was spared seeing the worst unfold in Ukraine. But Kravchuk and Shushkevich saw all the ills of the recent decade in Eastern Europe, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and they left us in May 2022 after witnessing the grand finale of the post-Soviet democratic hopes for peace.
Stanislav Shushkevich, who was head of the Belarusian Supreme Council in 1991, died on May 3, 2022. He was among the founding figures of today’s Belarus, the leader of the Belarusian de-Sovietization effort, and chair of the constitutional commission that tried to establish democracy in this country in the early 1990s. Thereafter Shushkevich lived rather a long time, relentlessly criticizing the efforts of Aleksandr Lukashenko, his successor as the country’s leader, to dismantle the democratic achievements of the early 1990s and a witness to the growth of autocracy in Belarus from 1994, when Lukashenko won the presidential elections, until the repressive autocratic turn in 2020. Shushkevich was among the key opposition figures in Belarus in 1995–2015 and was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Leonid Kravchuk, the last Ukrainian Communist Party’s ideological secretary and the first president of Ukraine (1991–1994), died on May 10, 2022. Kravchuk was a leader of the founders of independent Ukraine’s and shared responsibility for Ukraine’s post-Soviet achievements and failures. After losing to Leonid Kuchma in the 1994 presidential elections, Kravchuk remained active in Ukrainian politics: if Shushkevich was in constant opposition to the Belarusian autocracy, his Ukrainian counterpart sought to be a peacemaker, bringing different parties to some level of consensus. In my recent communication with him in 2021 (about the book devoted to Ukraine’s contemporary history), he told me that he “never was tired of the surprises that the post-Soviet history” was bringing. And he thought his generation was “responsible” for being “not wise enough” to build new states in the early 1990s, when it had the chance. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was probably the last big hit for Leonid Kravchuk, the one that finally exhausted his life energies.
Grand Visions and Mistakes
The members of the generation that first tried to reform the USSR and then to build new democracies in the east of Europe made a lot of mistakes. Their political creativity was limited by the Soviet experience of the second half of the twentieth century. Their attempt to create a region marked by peaceful relations among newly independent nations, political freedom, and a market economy failed. Their legacy was vested in fragile political and legal systems that did not prevent wars, corruption, and the growth of autocracy. But this generation was also heroic: it dared to destroy the totalitarian system and tried its best to bring about a new political world.
Today, tragically, we are paying for their mistakes. But will the new generation of East European politicians be better builders when the Russia-Ukraine war ends and a space opens up for the reconstruction of life, peace, and freedom in the region? The answer to this question will depend on whether they learned any lessons from their predecessors’ efforts and understand the legacy of the generation of Mikhail Gorbachev, Leonid Kravchuk, and Stanislav Shushkevich.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more