What Is At Stake Now: My Appeal For Peace And Freedom by Mikhail Gorbachev

The Blurb On The Back:

Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, world peace is at risk again.  The President of the United States has withdrawn from the disarmament treaty with Russia, Europe is disintegrating, China is surging forward and a wave of nationalism and populism is destabilising established political institutions and endangering hard-won liberties.  Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp relief the fragility of the global order and the speed with which it can slide into chaos.

In view of this dangerous and unpredictable state of affairs, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last great statesman of the 1989 revolution, has written this short book to warn us of the grave risks we now face and to urge us all, political leaders and citizens alike, to take action to address them.  He focuses on the big challenges of our time, such as the renewal of the arms race and the growing risks of nuclear war, the new tension between Russia and the West, the global environmental crisis, the global threat of diseases and epidemics, the rise of populism and the decline of democracy.  He argues that self-serving policies and narrow-minded politics aimed at the pursuit of national interests are taking the place of political principles and overshadowing the vision of a free and just world for all peoples.  He offers his view of where Russia is heading and he urges political leaders in the West to recognise that re-establishing trust between Russia and the West requires the courage of true leadership and a commitment to genuine dialogue and understanding on both sides.

Now more than ever, the responses to the great challenges we face cannot be purely national in character but must be based on a collaborative effort in which political leaders put aside their differences and work together to advance the human security for all.  

You can buy WHAT IS AT STAKE NOW by Mikhail Gorbachev from Amazon USA, Amazon UKWaterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in reducing nuclear weapons and improving world peace.  This book (translated from Russian by Jessica Spengler) is a short, shallow summary of the current crises facing the world (including nuclear armament, global warming, and the rise of populism) but lacks insight, practical answers and defends Russian aggression with ‘what-aboutism’.

For those of us in Generation X, who grew up during the 1980s in the shadow of the threat of nuclear war, Mikhail Gorbachev was a towering figure whose talks with US President Ronald Reagan to reduce nuclear weapons and efforts to introduce glasnost and perestroika to the Soviet Union ultimately ended in the downfall of communism and his overthrow in a military coup.  Since then he has continued to participate in international affairs and retains a presence as elder statesman on the global stage so I was interested to pick up this book in which he aims to summarise the current challenges facing the planet and encourage world leaders and people to engage in dialogue to tackle and solve these problems.

And that right there is my big problem with this book because if you’re looking for some kind of insight from a former global leader (or indeed, leader of a global superpower) as to how we resolve these problems then this is not for you.  I found that infuriating.  Gorbachev has a real opportunity here to give some guidance based on his own experience of making compromises, persuading his own people to make compromises and negotiating with formidable personalities or even to admit to where he made mistakes in his own political decision making that could help to shape strategies for dealing with the current fraught global environment.  Instead he’d rather just parrot out the problems that we already know we’ve got because we’ve all been talking about them for years and years and years.  

It’s especially frustrating because Gorbachev was Soviet leader when Chernobyl happened, he was there when concerns about the environment and global warming first began to be voiced – he has an opportunity here to reflect on what he could have done, what should have been done differently and what the difficulties were in doing so that needed to be overcome.  Instead he goes for wiffly, waffly talk about people coming together and overcoming their differences and blah blah blah.  It’s not that this isn’t a necessary step but given how intransigent global players seem to be, something needs to happen to unlock that.

He talks about the US (under Trump) withdrawal from nuclear weapons treaties and the threat of nuclear war, populism and lack of morality in politics, globalisation and the threat to the environment, US unilateralism and the decline of democracy and social democracy.  With the exception of nuclear weapons (where Gorbachev has a particular interest), there is no real insight or depth here and if you have been keeping track of current affairs you’re really just being told what you already know.  There’s also a strange irony to be had in reading his thoughts on the importance of democracy when he never stood or won a democratic election.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the book is that there is very little criticism of Russia here.  Instead, Gorbachev wags his finger at the US and EU for not taking Russia’s feelings into account when looking after its and their own interests.  It’s particularly hypocritical when he complains about how former Soviet nations were allowed into NATO when they’re part of the Russian sphere of interest, overlooking the fact that they wanted to join NATO because they were worried about Russia trying to invade and this kinda borne out by Gorbachev then defending the annexation of Crimea on the basis that the people wanted it.  There’s also a shocking moment where he seems to dismiss the Tiananman Square massacre as something that was sad but China then improved living standards so … :shrugs:

Gorbachev also seems to take billionaires at face value in their efforts to improve the world and yet is silent on things like their role in squirrelling their company’s profits away via complicated tax structures and how that in turn starves government from being as effective as he wants it to be.

Ultimately I just found the book to be a big, empty disappointment and it made me wonder what the point of it was because I’m not convinced it improves Gorbachev’s relevance or reflects well on his legacy.  It’s sad because he was a towering figure when I was a child but this book just makes him seem out of touch.   On the positive side, I commend Jessica Spengler’s translation (with two sections translated by Leo Shtutin) as this is a very readable book and clearly set out.

WHAT IS AT STAKE NOW was released in the United Kingdom on 18th September 2020.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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