Chapter 4

Fighting on the Streets of Berlin

This essay is a review of:

The Gorbachev Factor

by Archie Brown

Reformer of the Impossible
by Esther Kim

            “Gorbachev behaved within the Soviet Union, as well as in his dealings with American and European leaders, more like a Western politician than any of his predecessors ever did”.[i] Archie Brown in The Gorbachev Factor analyzes Gorbachev’s leadership and the effect it had on the Soviet Union. Inspired by early education and his hatred for Stalin, Gorbachev believed in westernization which resulted in his reforms. He still believed in Communism; however, he wanted to transition Communism to a form of government that could benefit everyone. Gorbachev establishes new domestic and foreign policies by transitioning to democratization and westernization. 

            By providing background information of Gorbachev’s earlier life, more insight on Gorbachev’s political career is given. The position of General Secretary was not a powerful position to begin with prior to Gorbachev’s occupation; however, Gorbachev strengthened the position and power of General Secretary. With a powerful positon in the Soviet society, Gorbachev could now progress the Soviet Union to a more Westernized form of government, an idea he received from his education and his childhood trauma from Stalin’s dictatorship. Rewarded for his hard work in Stavropol, Gorbachev was promoted to Moscow, the capital of Russia as well as the center of Soviet politics. Later, Gorbachev, the youngest member in the top leadership of the Soviet Union, was able to rise to the inner circle of the political system, and eventually succeeded Chernenko as General Secretary. Gorbachev “long ago . . . had internally rebelled against the native System” even during his early political life.[ii]

            As Gorbachev rose to power, he embraced new concepts more boldly than his predecessors. Under Gorbachev it “[was] a time not only of dramatic institutional and policy change but also of fundamentally changed thinking.” [iii] He also used his power of appointment to grant him more power. With the power, he altered the balance of influence first before he could change the balance of power. There was also conceptual change, which proved to be important especially in the Soviet society. Although Gorbachev’s political career seemed successful, he made two major mistakes in his economic reform policies and his resolution of the “national question”. His resolution of the ‘national question’ was to try to change the Soviet system, and his economic policies were to change within the system. Because both needed radical reforms to allow Gorbachev’s policies to work, he was left to face the opposition of the parties that needed to cooperate with him in order to make it work.  Because the parties did not approve of his reforms, it met effective resistance; it was difficult to carry through what he originally planned to do so. Because of the resistance, his plan failed.

            Gorbachev changed policies from “authoritarianism to political pluralism, moved from a command economy with virtually 100% state ownership of the means of production to a market economy with a substantial private sector.”[iv] To achieve his goals, Gorbachev reorganizes the Central Committee; the reorganized Central Committee abolishes the Socialist Countries Department as well as supporting Gorbachev’s principles of the economic reform. He granted the other Communist countries to choose their own form of political system as well as economic systems. He also held a presidential election, thus, becoming the President. In addition, using his power of appointment, he appointed more supporters and pushed for more reform from the people. To gain support for his reforms, Gorbachev changed his foreign policies by negotiating with other countries more. Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty clearing the way for the Soviet Union; they were no longer identified as the nation that desires to conquer the world. He also gained trust from the Western European countries, allowing more communications to occur. To the Eastern European countries, Gorbachev allowed liberation of Communism. By warming up to foreign countries and altering policies, Gorbachev made it possible for more reforms to pass.

            In the end, Gorbachev tries to answer the “national question” once more, but faces a coup that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Many disagreed with Gorbachev’s decision to retreat from the brutal ways of the Soviet Union. Although Gorbachev tries to advocate for his ideas of reform, the Soviet citizens oppose, making it impossible to carry on. Because the Soviet citizens were intent on dissolving the Soviet Union during the coup, it is impossible for him to win the fight. The radical  democrats, who fought against Gorbachev, was intent on overthrowing Gorbachev even when given the option to allow him to cooperate with Yeltsin, a leader that the radical democrats supported. Although Gorbachev pretends that the coup has not affected him, he and his family were actually in a bit of a shock when discovering of the coup. Although the coup itself was failed, it succeeded in allowing Gorbachev to be withdrawn from power. Not satisfied with the results, the people continued to fight against the government which led to Communism weakening and later to be fully extinguished. Gorbachev loses to the turmoil – which resulted from the coup – and the Soviet Union flag collapses on December 25. In the end, Brown asks “why Gorbachev’s success or failure should be judged by the limitations on his political horizons at a particular point in time”; Gorbachev may have failed in the end to fully reform Communism in the Soviet Union, but he has succeeded in pushing Russia towards a better direction.[v] Brown questions those who criticize Brown for a particular decision Gorbachev has made instead of his whole political career. He also concludes that although Gorbachev made mistakes and failures, success and failure cannot be judged only through his decisions, but also through his efforts in stopping the outcomes and the effort and thought to avoid any turmoil. Gorbachev, although he could not reform Soviet society fully, is considered to be a reformer.

            In The Gorbachev Factor, Brown describes Gorbachev’s role in the Soviet history as well as European history. His main goal was “to examine how important Gorbachev was as a mover or facilitator in the Soviet Union’s transition from orthodox Communism to a different kind of political system.”[vi] Brown believes that Gorbachev was in fact a mover and a facilitator in the transitioning of the Soviet system, and provides examples of how Gorbachev provided more democratic ideals – like introducing the positon of a president into the Russian government. Introducing new democratic ideals shifted the direction of where Communism was leading the Russians; the direction of reform changed from going back to the past to embracing more of the Westernized ideals. Because Gorbachev has succeeded in changing the direction of Communism, Brown concludes that Gorbachev was indeed a reformer.

            Archie Brown is a professor at Oxford who studied Russian history, especially Communism and the Cold War, for many years. Most of his books refer to Communism, particularly Gorbachev and the rise and fall of Communism. Because of his interest in Russian politics, Communism, and the Cold War, Brown studied Gorbachev himself for many years by interviewing people who knew him and reading many works about him. As a result of his research, Brown concludes that Gorbachev is not the leader that tore down Communism, but a reformer that tried to push Communism to a better direction because “it was necessary to change the system.[vii] After developing interest in Gorbachev’s role in history, he researched Russia during the time of Gorbachev and was convinced that Gorbachev was a reformer. Because of Brown’s perspective of Gorbachev as a positive influence, he focuses more on Gorbachev’s achievements rather than his failures. Researching about Gorbachev and severe criticism of Gorbachev influenced Brown’s approach on Gorbachev. 

            When the book was written by Brown in 1996, most people thought of Gorbachev in a negative light. After Communism fell apart and the Cold War ended in 1991, many people viewed Gorbachev as the leader who led Communism to fall. Many believed that Gorbachev’s decision to reform Communism was impossible and the “Gorbachev cannot be taken seriously as a reformer because there is no such thing as reform communism – ‘Communism is unreformable.’”[viii] They also believed that Gorbachev brought the Soviet Union down and effected the Soviet’s economy in a negative light. To most people, Gorbachev was viewed in a negative light because of the limited access to data and also due to the negative representation of Communism itself. Because of these views, Brown has found interest in Gorbachev and decided to look into the factors and the decisions of Gorbachev’s road to reform. With his research, he found many aspects of Gorbachev that was not known which could change some people’s perspectives; therefore, Brown wrote The Gorbachev Factor to inform and convince others of Gorbachev’s significant role in history.

            Professionals view Brown’s analysis of Gorbachev in a positive light as well. Legvold, in Foreign Affairs, says that “Brown explores the more problematic issues within the elite politics of the periods and examines Gorbachev’s motivations and role.”[ix] Because Brown provided a more complex analysis, his book is more credible than other books that do not provide as much information as Brown. More extensive research leads to a better understanding of Gorbachev; therefore, a better analysis of him. It also focuses on the problematic issues they had, which does not really support the point Brown tried to make with Gorbachev. It also asserts how although the book is limited in scope, it provides enough content for any interpretations. In Slavonica, it says that “Brown makes no attempt to conceal Gorbachev’s mistakes, some of them large and tragic.”[x] Because Brown does not choose to hide Gorbachev’s mistakes, it provides a more critical view of Gorbachev and tends to be less biased. Brown’s decision to portray the negative and positive aspects of Gorbachev reminds how tough the circumstances that Gorbachev faced were. Pointing out the mistakes also allows other perspectives to analyze Gorbachev and understand him better as well. With more research and less bias, Brown’s analysis of Gorbachev is credible.

            Personally, The Gorbachev Factor provided an accurate description of Gorbachev. Giving a critical view of Gorbachev yet a more positive view at the same time, it provided a chance to analyze many aspects of Gorbachev’s political life. During his political career, Gorbachev was “someone who rejected utopian grand designs on a principle, a pragmatist and not and ideologue” based on his decisions and beliefs.[xi] In order to support his idea, Brown describes the struggles Gorbachev went through and his efforts to change the Soviet Union.  Although Brown provided more positive outcomes and factors of Gorbachev, he did not fail to criticize and list the mistakes that Gorbachev made. He also describes the factors that Gorbachev faced – both political and environmental – in order to understand Gorbachev’s actions. Throughout the book, many uncovered events that Brown discovered through his research also shows which were not available to other people before. Because of his through research, Brown portrays Gorbachev in an accurate way.

            Brown answers the common question of whether or not the time under Gorbachev was progressive; under Gorbachev, it was progressive since “there was a conscious aim on Gorbachev’s part to transform it.”[xii] Gorbachev was not entirely progressive – he still wanted to keep Communism and its form of government – he remodeled many domestic and foreign policies to identify as a progressive. However with Gorbachev as leader, the Soviet Union was going towards a new direction - Westernization. Although it was not progressive compared to other European countries, it was progressive since it reversed the conservative Russian ideals that refused westernization along with capitalist and democratic ideals; for example, Gorbachev established a Congress and an election in 1989. He also chose to reform a society that was thought to be impossible to reform and a society that was against democratic policies; his decision created many controversies due to the rapid changes it would bring. Progressives are known to think beyond the people in that time and to push for change of any social, political, or economic aspects. Gorbachev, constantly pushing for change within the Soviet Union, brought a progressive era to Russia.

            The Gorbachev Factor proves to be credible and able to judge Gorbachev under a critical yet positive view. Many new aspects are provided to present Gorbachev in a more positive light and to clearly show Gorbachev’s role in history. The Gorbachev Factor “will remain for future generations to appreciate fully Gorbachev’s historic rule.”[xiii]



1. Brown, Archie. The Gorbachev Factor. New York. Oxford University Press, 1996. 7.

2. Brown, Archie. 88.

3. Brown, Archie. 89.

4. Brown, Archie. 155

5. Brown, Archie. 306.

6. Brown, Archie. ix.

7. Brown, Archie. 129.

8. Brown, Archie. 15.

9. “The Gorbachev Factor. By Archie Brown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 406 Pp. $30.00.” Rev. of The Gorbachev Factor, by Robert Legvold. Foreign Affairs 75.6 (1996): 161-62. UCI. Web. 21 May 2016.

10. White, Anne. “Archie, Brown. The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).” Rev. of The Gorbachev Factor. Slavonica 3.2 (1996/1997): 88. UCI. Web. 21 May 2016.

11. Brown, Archie. 308.

12. Brown, Archie. 309.

13. Brown, Archie. 318.