Two tragic Heroes

One was at the helm of affairs of the political scenario of his country fifty years before the other, in a different part of the world.

Two tragic Heroes

Photo: SNS

One was at the helm of affairs of the political scenario of his country fifty years before the other, in a different part of the world. One was leading nearly half a billion of his countrymen in their struggle for freedom against the mightiest colonial power while living in a subcontinent perceived as one of the poorest regions in the world.

The other was leading a country considered to be one of the superpowers of the world and a dreamland for millions aspiring for new world order. Yet in terms of their beliefs and their acts, history will remember both Mahatma Gandhi (1869- 1948) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022) as the two tragic heroes of two halves of the 20th century ~ the utopians who were firm in their beliefs but failed in making their countrymen accept what they stood for.

Mahatma Gandhi’s greatest contribution in history was his experimentation with non-violent non-cooperation against the mighty rulers. His struggle awakened his countrymen against the evils of colonial rule and facilitated the process of India’s freedom. His commitment to nonviolence came from his firm belief that if one was fighting for a right cause without any violence (Satyagraha), the ruler, no matter how ruthless he may be, cannot be immune to his fight.


Yet on 15 August 1947, when Gandhi was observing a fast at Hyderi Manzil in Calcutta, he was perhaps the most unhappy person in the country. He witnessed his motherland get divided on religious considerations, leading to unprecedented violence and complete mayhem.

India won freedom, which Gandhiji had struggled for throughout his life, but all at the cost of the politics of hatred, violence, and suspicion that he despised. India won freedom but Mahatma did not see the non-violence he had practised and preached win. Gandhi won his battle against the colonial power, but Gandhism apparently failed.

When Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022) came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 his country was in complete command of things so far as the global balance of power was concerned. But the standard of living of the people of the USSR and their allies in East Europe was far below that of their western counterparts. Corruption, bureaucratic sloth, and economic inefficiency were overwhelming in the totalitarian party-state. The human rights record was in shambles and there was deep discontent against Russian hegemony amongst the people of nonRussian Soviet States, and amongst the people of East European allies.

Gorbachev led his regime to go ahead with restructuring (Perestroika) and openness (Glasnost) in the economic and political structure of the Soviet State to change the prevailing situation. His regime consciously decided to spend less on spreading Soviet influence elsewhere (withdrawal of the Soviet force from Afghanistan was an example), and instead concentrated on rebuilding a liberal, socialistic nation in the way Lenin had perceived it before and immediately after the revolution of 1917. As Gorbachev’s regime went ahead with restructuring, expectations of the people who had not tasted openness in their system for the previous seven decades, increased by leaps and bounds and they started accusing the leadership of not carrying out the reforms sufficiently fast.

In that pressure of expectation of his countrymen, perhaps Gorbachev moved too fast; that at one stage led the party-state to collapse and right-wing elements under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin took over. Perhaps Gorbachev failed to appreciate that free political choice cannot exist in a party-state. The Soviet Union and her alliance with the East European nations disintegrated giving rise to a unipolar world where there was no counterbalancing bloc against Nato’s possible aggression. The ultra-nationalists and the Communists in Russia, therefore, hold Gorbachev responsible for reducing Russian influence in the new world order. Today, after 30 years of disintegration of the Soviet Union, the average Russian enjoys greater civil rights as compared to the generation under Soviet rule (recent excesses by President Putin apart).

The overwhelming grief of a substantial segment of the population of Russia after the death of Gorbachev and the general sentiment of people in the rest of the world revealed that many still considered him as one who gave his citizens much-needed civil rights, one who ended the cold war and one who had recognized the aspirations of East European allies.

If Gorbachev’s Russia, following what Khrushchev did in Hungary (1956) or Brezhnev in Czechoslovakia (1968), had invaded to stop the reunification of Germany or prevented militarily the anti-Communist upsurge in Ukraine or Poland, or crushed the nationalistic aspirations of people of non-Russian Soviet States, perhaps the old world order would have prevailed and the Soviet Union would have survived for some more time. But democratic values in Gorbachev restrained his regime from doing so. He paid the price for it and turned out to be the tragic hero of the second half of the 20th century. Gorbachev initiated reforms on too many fronts in too short a time.

Unlike Deng Xiaoping, he believed that providing people with the option to choose from many in a market economy and providing them political freedom are two sides of the same coin. But the iron curtain of the centralized Soviet structure was not prepared to accommodate the democratic decentralization of political power and the limited market economy that he had perceived for his nation. Even when the system was about to collapse, his commitment to non-violent democratic values prevented him from using force against the left extremists or against the right-wing critics.

Most people failed to appreciate that Russian hegemony cannot coexist with a liberal political structure. Many, therefore, perceived President Gorbachev as a failed navigator who could not prevent the collapse of a system that he was presiding over, though his countrymen today are much better off in terms of the human rights and civil liberties that were of enormous value to him. Gorbachev failed but his values prevailed in the new Russian Federation.