PARIS — Mikhail S. Gorbachev believed the Soviet Union could be preserved without recourse to violence. This proved to be a misunderstanding of the nature of the repressive empire he ruled. The Soviet imperium collapsed in 1991, its ending embraced by the West as a victory for freedom and liberal democracy.
“Every Soviet leader before him knew you had to send in the tanks from time to time,” said Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden. “In a way, Gorbachev’s greatness lay in the fact that he was wrong.”
If Poland held its first free elections since 1945 in the summer of 1989, if Czechoslovakia had a “velvet” and not a violent revolution later that year, if the Berlin Wall fell bloodlessly on Nov. 9, 1989, and if half a million Soviet troops traipsed home from Eastern Europe without firing a shot, it is because Mr. Gorbachev turned his back on the use of force.
“It is evident, for example, that force and the threat of force can no longer be, and should not be, instruments of foreign policy,” Mr. Gorbachev told the United Nations on Dec. 7, 1988 — a message that never reached the in tray of Russia’s current president, Vladimir V. Putin.
Europe became whole thanks to Mr. Gorbachev. It is less clear what the West gave in return.
The open question, as the continent is again torn by war, is whether the United States and its allies, giddy with the possibilities opened up by Mr. Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika, simply gobbled up his gift without serious reflection on its implications for Western security and societies.
President Bill Clinton suggested in 1997 that great-power territorial politics were over. A new era had dawned, he said, in which “enlightened self-interest, as well as shared values, will compel countries to define their greatness in more constructive ways.”
A quarter-century later, Mr. Putin defines greatness through force in the pursuit of restored empire. But Mr. Clinton’s was not an isolated Panglossian view in the West in the decade after Mr. Gorbachev’s actions led to the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union.
There was a feeling that history would naturally flow the West’s way because the chief ideological alternative in Moscow had crumbled. There was, it seemed, no alternative to the march of liberalism. Some imagined a “Third Way,” combining the best of capitalism and socialism. It went nowhere.
This was an idealistic, and ultimately dangerous, mind-set because it tended to give the failings of Western societies a pass. Still, it was no more idealistic than Mr. Gorbachev’s belief in a reformed communist society that was more open to individual initiative, more democratic, and ultimately more free.
In many ways, as Michel Duclos, a special adviser to the Institut Montaigne think-tank in Paris said, “Gorbachev was a Soviet Dubcek” — a reference to Alexander Dubcek, the Czechoslovak leader whose attempt to bring “socialism with a human face” to his country in 1968 led Soviet tanks to rumble into Prague.
In the same 1988 speech to the United Nations, Mr. Gorbachev also said something long unthinkable in a Soviet leader: “We are, of course, far from claiming to have infallible truth.”
Not only did Mr. Gorbachev, with a few exceptions, renounce violence, he renounced the infallibility of communist doctrine, the belief that the Soviet state had a monopoly on truth and could create a workers’ paradise, by the gun and the gulag if necessary.
“This was Mr. Gorbachev’s double renunciation, and of course what Putin is doing today is precisely the contrary,” said Jacques Rupnik, a French political scientist focused on central Europe. “Gorbachev detonated something he could not control. He made history but he did not know what history he was making.”
The history Mr. Gorbachev dreamed of was set out in part in an address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 1989. He spoke of a “common European home” and a “restructuring of the international order existing in Europe that would put European common values in the forefront and make it possible to replace the traditional balance of forces with a balance of interests.”
It was necessary, he said, that “the idea of European unification should be collectively thought over once again.”
This is the great chimera that has hung over Europe for more than three decades now. If the Cold War had ended, if the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact had been disbanded, could some new architecture be imagined in which Russia was not a rival, let alone an enemy?
Even in 2019, when he invited Mr. Putin to France to discuss a reordering of a Europe with a NATO that had suffered a “brain death,” Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said: “Russia is European, very profoundly, and we believe in the Europe that stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”
The war in Ukraine has changed Mr. Macron’s thinking. Of late, he has been forceful in denouncing Russian imperialism and violence. Between Lisbon and Vladivostok, there lies European soil bloodied yet again.
While it is tantalizing to reflect on the “common European home” imagined by Mr. Gorbachev, the fact is Russia after Mr. Gorbachev has not wanted to become a normal nation state that does not pose a threat to its neighbors.
“It has wanted an imperialist czar,” said Mr. Duclos.
Mr. Putin, who once said “the borders of Russia do not end,” appears to have been proved right in his conviction that an imagined “Russkiy mir,” or Russian world, stretching far and wide over countries including Ukraine, is an idea that lies deep in the national psyche.
“What Russians cannot accept about Gorbachev is that he gave away the empire for nothing,” said Mr. Rupnik.
But the attempt to restore it has been costly. If Poland and Hungary sought NATO’s protection by joining the alliance, it was for a reason. Just as Russia has forged a passionate Ukrainian nationhood through its invasion, so it has redoubled the relevance of NATO, the very organization it believes should have disappeared with the Soviet Union.
So it is that as 100 million central Europeans are free thanks to Mr. Gorbachev, the united European continent at peace he imagined seems more distant than ever at the moment of his death. History does not move in straight lines.
For China, which crushed protest at Tiananmen Square just as Central Europe was breaking free of its Soviet shackles in 1989, the lesson was clear. Mr. Gorbachev was weak; the only way to modernize was through authoritarian reform backed by force.
But the West’s debt to Mr. Gorbachev for bringing down a totalitarian empire is enormous. “He was a man of peace, although bitter at the end of his life, who willed the end to the Cold War and reduced the risk of nuclear confrontation,” said Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador to Moscow.
When President John F. Kennedy confronted the imminent Soviet threat to a free Berlin in 1961, he said: “We cannot negotiate with people who say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.”
That was Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev’s line. Mr. Gorbachev favored negotiation over tanks, changing the world and losing his country.