Did Gorbachev Really 'Refuse to Shoot to Preserve His Costly Empire'? 18 Killed in Lithuania, Latvia

Max Frankel, former executive editor of the New York Times, reviewed Anne Applebaum's history of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, "Iron Curtain." Frankel, who also reported from Moscow and Eastern Europe, found Applebaum's "bulky" volume (a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning "The Gulag") old news. More controversially, Frankel awarded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev passive credit for ending the Soviet Empire, while leaving President Ronald Reagan unmentioned.

It is good to be reminded of these sordid events, now that more archives are accessible and some witnesses remain alive to recall the horror. Still, why should we be consuming such a mass of detail more than half a century later?


“Iron Curtain” is not a full history of the Iron Curtain because of Applebaum’s decision to end her history in 1956, just as Poles and Hungarians openly rebelled against Soviet control. There then followed a 30-year effort in the Kremlin to stabilize and reform all Communist societies, but the East Europeans remained restive, held captive only by Soviet armed might. The colonization became a huge burden on the Soviet economy, and the lures of Western democracy and economic achievement produced corrosive holes in that curtain. Finally, when Mikhail Gorbachev refused to shoot to preserve his costly empire, the curtain collapsed altogether and dragged down the Soviet center as well.

Did Gorbachev really "refuse to shoot"? That's debatable. In "Better Off Red?," a 2009 MRC report on the media's blind eye to the evils of Communism, authors Rich Noyes, Scott Whitlock, and Megan McCormack wrote: "While Gorbachev relaxed the repression of previous years, he did not shut down the Gulag, or allow a free press, or permit the free expression of religion. When the Baltic republics pushed for sovereignty in early 1991, Moscow’s Brezhnev-esque response was to use tanks to suppress pro-democracy forces in Lithuania and Latvia, killing eighteen."

Gorbachev also sent Soviet forces into Armenia, Moldova and the Ukraine to discourage independence movements.