Jacob Heilbrunn

Should Gorbachev Be Tried For Treason?

In the early 1990s, the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky wrote a diverting book review in the New Republic about Mikhail Gorbachev. His take was that Gorbachev, if I recall correctly, had to be an American agent. Who else would have so incompetently allowed the work of decades to crumble almost overnight?

Now Russian legislators are hoping to punish Gorby, as he used to be known in America, where he was always far more popular than back home. Flush with victory in Crimea, several Duma members apparently want to put the old boy on trial. Yevgeny Gydorov, a Duma member of the United Russia party, apparently believes that Gorbachev may have been an American spy. And the Guardian reports that Ivan Nikitchuk, a Communist Party deputy, wants him to go on trial. Lawyers, not historians, need to investigate why the USSR went poof. Nor is this all. It's time to ferret out domestic enemies. He says, "The fifth column in our country has been formed and works in the open, funded by foreign money." Maybe Gorbachev was on Ronald Reagan's secret payroll?

For his part, Gorbachev isn't taking the accusations lying down. He says that they are "absolutely unreasonable request from the historical point of view." Well, maybe. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that a trial—a real, honest and open trial—might actually not be such a bad thing. It could take place in a neutral territory—say, Switzerland. Recall that Trotsky submitted to a commission presided over in 1937 by the American philosopher John Dewey. It carried out no less than thirteen hearings in Mexico City, where Trotsky was living. The Dewey commission's mandate was to investigate the charges lodged against the old Bolshevik at the Moscow show trials. The result was a book called Not Guilty.

Instead of complaining about the prospect of charges, then, Gorbachev should welcome them. They would provide him a chance to clear the air, to show that the assertions being lodged by his detractors and enemies are nothing more than calumnies. It could be a great occasion for historians, politicians and diplomats from the era to reconvene and discuss it. New insights would be sure to emerge. Gorbachev, who loves publicity, would be back in the limelight, at least for a few weeks. He could even expect his own Not Guilty book.

The pickle for Gorbachev, who endorsed Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea, is that he would probably be forced to plead incompetency. It's not as though he actively wanted to see the Evil Empire disappear. To his credit, he realized that the old ways were over. But he was under the delusion that he could establish some kind of Swedish social democracy, headed by the Soviet Union, to hold together the Warsaw pact. But the second Hungary opened its borders, East Germany started to lose its population. Absent a Soviet willingness to use tanks, East Germany quickly dissolved and was incorporated, or, if you are a Germanophobe, annexed, by West Germany.

Still, a dispassionate inquiry is hardly what Gorbachev's adversaries are seeking. They want catharsis, a scapegoat that they can pin the blame on for the loss of the cherished empire. A state investigation into Gorbachev's role is improbable. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika will surely decide that the question of "Who lost the empire?" is above his pay grade. But it's clear that the debate over Gorbachev's legacy isn't over. It's just beginning.

ImageRIA Novosti archive, image #359290 / Yuryi Abramochkin / CC-BY-SA 3.0.