The death of Mikhail Gorbachev is a reminder of the contingency and moral complexity of history, and yet, of the need for moral clarity. Gorbachev was a tyrant, raised to power in a tyrannical system, ruling over millions who wanted no part of his rule and were given no say in the matter.

His empire covered nearly half the world, from Berlin to Vladivostok. He sought to reform that tyranny, in order to make it more powerful and effective. Had he been dealt the hand that history dealt Leonid Brezhnev, he may well have made the same decisions. His handling of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was far from admirable. And yet: Gorbachev made his country politically and economically freer, and he was willing to make peace with the United States on terms that were realistic about his position of weakness, rather than spiraling down the rabbit hole of belligerent denial that has characterized so many tyrants.

Pro-life officials must dispel dangerous misinformation about abortion laws.
In the end, he went out of power relatively peaceably, presiding over the least bloody collapse of a tryannical empire in world history. He lived to a ripe old age in a world made vastly better without that empire.

In his day, he was hailed as the true hero of the end of the Cold War. Time magazine made him “Man of the Decade” for the 1980s, one of the most embarrassing of the media’s “Gorbasms.” We have enough distance now that it is safer to grudgingly acknowledge that his adversaries had much more to do with how things ended: Ronald Reagan most of all, but with the help of Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Helmut Kohl, George H. W. Bush, and others.

But we should not be grudging ourselves. The most important fact of all is that, on the biggest questions of his career, Gorbachev chose the paths of less conflict, less bloodshed, and more liberation. These were decisions of statecraft that required prudence, courage, unblinking realism, and even a certain amount of humility. For that, history should remember him fondly, not as a victor but as a man who accepted defeat with grace. R.I.P.

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