Let’s be clear on one thing: in the good old USSR decent people didn’t rise through the Communist Party ranks to the Politburo, they were sent to the Siberian gulags. The Politburo was the cesspit of the Soviet system — this is the basic lens through which the Gorbachev legacy must be viewed. To remove it, as the various UK commentators are invariably doing just now, is to engage in gross revisionism of history.
The difference between Gorbachev and those who preceded him was simply that by his time the Soviet economy had collapsed, not least thanks to nearly 70 years of replacing expertise with ideology, and the arms race. The skin deep liberalisation that Gorbachev introduced was merely a last ditch effort to prop up the old system. The USSR of the 1980s could no longer afford to have 500,000 soldiers in Central Europe, to wage war in Afghanistan, or to keep up with the US military budget. That’s all. Those who ascribe Gorbachev some sort of moral high ground should look no further than his attitude to the Solidarity movement in Poland. The most we can say of Gorbachev is he was the least bad of a very bad lot.