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The legacies left at era's end

The spectacle is over.

The crowds have dispersed, the horses are back in their stables, the uniforms have gone into their closets, and the trumpets are silent once more. The days of mourning have been completed, and our lives can now move on. In fact, this coming Monday will be the King's Birthday long weekend in Western Australia, the first in any of the realms for some 70 years.

The second Elizabethan era is now truly finished.

All the fanfare may have helped us forget that the passing of Queen Elizabeth II is not the only era-ending death to have taken place recently. Just over a week before her passing came the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, another hugely significant figure of the 20th century, and both seem to have taken with them the last vestiges of empires long gone.

Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union, the most ambitious attempt at creating a socialist utopian empire in all of human history. Elizabeth was the last head of the British Empire, the apex of the old European empires that were collectively known as Christendom.

We've mentioned before that all empires eventually fall, but these two deaths remind us that people eventually fall as well, and indeed that empires rise and fall on the backs of their leaders.

But from their examples, we see as well that there may be something more important than empires and glory, for in both these leaders, we see a willingness to give up on power for the sake of something greater: the wellbeing of others.

Mikhail Gorbachev meets Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, 1989. (Image: Lyudmila Pakhomova; Yuri Lizunov / TASS)

Abandoning an empire for the sake of its people

It seems somewhat appropriate that, in death as in life, Mikhail Gorbachev has been overshadowed by the west.

For most of this year, the world has fixed its eyes upon the land he once ruled, and the events that have been taking place in the old Soviet Union have also largely shredded whatever remained of his political achievements.

Nevertheless, for as far as he is and will be remembered in the west, Gorbachev is largely seen as a hero. Wasn't it he that brought about the end of the Soviet Union, an unquestionably wicked regime that was powered by human misery? Was it not he who opened up the eastern bloc to the rest of the world? Was it not he who boldly implemented a series of policies that were designed to free and lift up his people?

Well, in one sense, yes, he did those things. But in another, greater sense, Gorbachev was really one of the 20th century's most significant victims of the law of unintended consequences. Many of the effects of his time as leader of the USSR were positive and are thus the reasons he is hailed as a hero, but all of those effects are also events that did not play out as he intended them to.

Gorbachev had no intention of breaking up the Soviet Union, and his interest in opening up the eastern bloc was only insofar as it would strengthen the USSR. In fact, if we are to compare his intentions with the results he achieved, Gorbachev's time in charge was a disaster. His aim to keep the Soviet Union together ended with every Soviet Republic becoming a sovereign, independent nation, and no Soviet Union. His ideas to strengthen the USSR resulted in the region becoming the weakest and poorest it had been in decades, perhaps even centuries.

A common element of the life and times of Mikhail Gorbachev is that while his personal conduct was highly regarded, even up to his dying days, his political conduct as leader of the 'evil empire' had to conflict with his personal conduct, and the consequences of that clash were never what he wanted them to be.

Gorbachev looked to the west, observed the way that westerners lived and saw that it was good, and wanted to emulate that in his own country - but he also whole-heartedly believed that Soviet communism, which had sustained itself for so long on a diet of fear and loathing, was the right and true way to reach utopia.

Soviet troops killed 14 Lithuanian protestors in Vilnius in 1991. (Image: AP)

This led to utterly contradictory actions. For example, it was Gorbachev's Soviet regime which fired upon nationalist protestors who wanted to leave the Soviet Union, yet it was Gorbachev who fought so hard for the 'New Union Treaty', which would've bound together the Soviet Union by democratic agreement rather than force.

It was Gorbachev who wanted to reduce drunkenness among the Soviet peoples, but it was Gorbachev's Soviet regime which caused more drunkenness by wrecking the alcohol industry, turning people towards homemade brews of the strongest spirits they could imagine because they no longer had work at the local wineries. The Moldovan wine industry has still not fully recovered from the demolition of their vineyards in the 1980s.

Rather than learning from this, Gorbachev attempted to bring market forces into a closed economic system, observing that capitalism seemed to help uplift the people within the countries that had it. All this did was ensure that the post-Soviet nations were ruled by the so-called 'oligarchs' we hear so much about today, hardly any better than the state that preceded them and getting rich off the back of state-owned businesses being sold for a pittance.

Gorbachev wanted to be the wind turning the windmill of history, making the USSR into the greatest country in the world, having all of the good parts of the capitalist, liberal, Christianised west while sloughing off all the bad parts, but it was an utterly impossible dream. The dismal failure of the Soviet system meant that it could only survive by the means it had survived up until that point: force and obstinacy.

The good thing for the peoples of the world is that, when faced with the inevitable clash between his personal wishes and his utopian political dream, Gorbachev chose his personal wishes. He did nothing to stop the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, he accepted the split of the Soviet Union, and he rode off into the sunset, albeit ungainly and on a lame horse, mocked at home even while feted abroad.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reagan ranch in California, 1992. (Image: AP/Bob Galbraith)

There is now little trace of his legacy to be found in his homeland. His death was met with a muted response in Russia, where he is largely blamed for the collapse of the Soviet Union as a Russian empire, but also acknowledged for the personal good that he did for others. Russia is, of course, a little distracted right now, arguably putting the last nails in the Soviet coffin as they fight a tug of war with the west over Ukraine. Whatever hopes Gorbachev had for a free and prosperous socialist nation in unity with the west, they have not come to fruition.

Given that his political ambitions ended in continual failure and ended up coming to virtually nothing, it seems a little strange to hail Gorbachev as a hero of 20th century politics. If he was one, it was largely unintentionally on his part.

But, if there is more to life than politics, than Gorbachev's choice to put goodness ahead of his firm political beliefs by allowing the Iron Curtain to fall is, itself, heroic.

Of course, one could quite rightly argue that this choice caused no small amount of pain for the peoples of the Soviet Republics in the aftermath, especially those in Russia who had to endure the tyrannical gangsterism of the Yeltsin years. But even so, the end of the Soviet Union was evidently a good thing, and provided the opportunity for something better to replace it. The fact that that hasn't really happened is hardly the fault of Gorbachev.

If Gorbachev had sold his soul to keep the Soviet Union together by any means possible, going against his personal convictions for the sake of his political convictions, what would he have gained? A few years more of the USSR? Violent revolution? Assassination? He would hardly have been remembered fondly by anyone.

Rather than holding on tightly for a few more moments of glory, Gorbachev stuck to his personal beliefs, fighting for them within the confines he had set for himself and then, when it was clear he could not win the political battle, stepped aside.

For this, he deserves honour, alongside another leader who did likewise, from a similar yet very different position.

Last of her kind

When the Princess Elizabeth, at 25 years of age, succeeded her father to the British throne, she inherited an empire - albeit an empire that had lost the jewel in its crown, British India, only a few years earlier. Nevertheless, as of 1952 she was theoretically one of the most powerful people in the world, sovereign over not just Britain, but also half of Africa, much of North America including the Caribbean, the Antipodes and many of the Pacific islands, and parts of Asia.

Queen Elizabeth II, at her coronation in 1953. (Image: Cecil Beaton/Shawshots/Alamy)

She was also the head of the Commonwealth that George VI had established, including the otherwise independent India. She was head of the House of Windsor, which had, since its 'formation' during the First World War, come to embody everything that Britain aspired to be, and her televised coronation in 1953, the first of its kind, showed the full splendour of all this ascribed majesty given to her.

However, in practice, Elizabeth II shunned power. This, too, was a legacy inherited from her father, and indeed her grandfather as well. Her great-grandfather, Edward VI, was the last British monarch to flex his power independently of the government of the day, taking it upon himself to create the alliance with France that ended up dragging his country and empire into the First World War, and his mother, Victoria, was famously biased in her politics.

Elizabeth II possessed no such inclinations - not publicly, not even privately except, we can assume, to a select few that were exceptionally close to her. Instead, Queen Elizabeth spent her 70-year reign exemplifying everything that it meant to be a monarch of Britain and the realms, and of the House of Windsor. the monarchs that support and uphold a democratic state.

There was no shortage of moments where she could have exercised her power, whether it be as one African republic after the other declared the removal of the crown from their midst in the 1960s, or when the House of Lords was neutered in 1996, or during the 'Brexit' constitutional crisis after 2016.

But she never did. Time and again, she kept her opinions to herself, and entrusted every part of the governance of her nations - not just Britain, but each of her realms and former realms as well - to those elected to govern them.

In this respect, she was true to the words she stated upon coming to the throne, when she said in her accession speech to the Privy Council that she would 'in every respect' follow in the footsteps of her father, and then in her Christmas message to the nation added further that she was following in the footsteps of her grandfather.

George V looks on as Princess Elizabeth waves to the crowd, 1935. (Image: AP)

George V, George VI and Elizabeth II represented a throne unchanging, an extraordinary achievement over a century and more, and even more so given the place in the world and the radically changed culture of Britain in 1910 compared to 2022.

What does it take for someone to willingly give up power for the sake of something greater than themselves? Above all, it requires a belief in something greater than oneself, which gives one the ability to lose interest in their own glory if the time calls for it.

For Elizabeth, as for her father and grandfather, duty to her people shaped her reign more than anything else, regardless of who those people were or chose to be. This is why the outpouring of grief in her realms especially has come as no surprise, even to those who are surprised by their own personal grief at the loss of someone they may have met once, briefly, or more likely not at all.

We recognise in her the goodness of selflessness, of putting away ambition for the sake of that which matters more. Perhaps, if Russia had not devolved into the wretched state it became in the 1990s, Mikhail Gorbachev would be seen in a more positive light, for while Britain is much diminished at the end of Elizabeth's reign from where it started, it still has, to some degree or another, the ancient freedoms and rights, the legal and political system, and all those other things that the monarch promises to safeguard in return for giving up the power to rule to the Parliament.

While Charles III will no doubt continue in this way - he's certainly had plenty of time to practice - he is unlikely to face the same dilemmas that Elizabeth II did, carrying on quietly in the face of a crumpled Empire. He does not recall the splendour of an empire at its apex as his mother, or grandfather or great-grandfather could, and there is much less for him to give up. But if he was asked to give up his own glory for the sake of others, would he do it?

That is his mother's legacy, and it isn't necessarily a common one to find among the great leaders of the world. The pages of history books are strewn with the names of those who chased their own glory to the ends of the earth, only to come up empty, remembered as much for their failure as for all their successes.

Think of Julius Caesar, who ended the Roman Republic with his death; of Henry VIII, whose desperate desire to have a son and continue his line ended with the death of his only son, Edward VI, at 15, while his last will and testament dictating the order of succession was ignored, ensuring that the king of Scotland would take the English throne; of Napoleon I, whose conquest of Europe could've stopped, but he instead pushed on into Russia, annihilating his own army and ensuring he would see out his days in exile on St. Helena.

There are many more besides, of course. What did they gain from their quests to 'be the wind'? Infamy? Temporary glory? They died all the same. Was the world better for their great quests?

Power is a tempting thing. As we have seen over the past few years, it is also easy to take, and difficult to give up. But in the examples of Mikhail Gorbachev and Elizabeth II, perhaps our leaders could learn something about giving up their power for the sake of others.


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