Sep 1, 2022

The death of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Plus, comparing Hillary's emails to Trump's classified documents.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

We have a full newsletter today: A correction, a preview of tomorrow's newsletter, vacation, the death of Gorbachev, and a question about Hillary's email versus Trump's documents.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 2010. Photo: Flickr/Veni


In yesterday's second quick hit, we published: "Texas health officials confirmed the death of a person with monkeypox, the first known death from the virus in the U.S." In fact, Texas health officials confirmed the death of a person with monkeypox, but are investigating whether it was the primary cause. This is an important distinction we should have fleshed out. The patient was immunocompromised, and several news reports have noted that they had other health issues besides monkeypox.

This is our 68th correction in Tangle's 162-week history and our first correction since August 16th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

An important note.

First, we are taking a brief vacation for Labor Day and will be off on Monday and Tuesday.

However, tomorrow, Tangle subscribers will be receiving our much-requested edition on nuclear energy. We'll be exploring the pros, cons, risks, and the question of whether a sustainable energy future can happen without nuclear energy. If you are a paying Tangle member, you'll get the email. If you want to become a Tangle subscriber to get Friday editions, you can subscribe here.

If not, we'll be back in your inbox on Wednesday. Have a great weekend!

Quick hits.

  1. Democrat Mary Peltola won a special election for Alaska's sole congressional seat, defeating former Republican Governor Sarah Palin in a Ranked Choice Voting race. The election was to replace Republican Don Young, who died last year, for the remainder of his term. In November, there will be another vote to fill the seat for a full two year term. (The victory)
  2. The FDA authorized a new Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 booster vaccine designed to target a wide range of Omicron subvariants. (The shots)
  3. The UN Human Rights Office issued a long-awaited assessment that said reports of torture, forced medical treatment and detention in Xinjiang, China, were credible. (The claims)
  4. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency arrived at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine to assess the security risk from the war. (The visit)
  5. Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman (D) has declined to debate Dr. Mehmet Oz (R) in Pittsburgh next week, setting off a flurry of insults from Oz's campaign in an increasingly combative race. Fetterman is leading Oz in the polls and cited his recovery from a stroke for declining the debate. (The debate)

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Today's topic.

Mikhail Gorbachev. On Tuesday, the 91-year-old former Soviet president died in a hospital, officials in Moscow said.

Reminder: The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, consisted of 15 republics representing various regional ethnicities. Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and was the last Soviet leader. He helped usher in the end of the Cold War but his reforms that provided more openness in the USSR also led to its downfall. Historically, he is most famous for leading arms reduction deals with the United States and Western Europe and removing the Iron Curtain that had segregated the USSR, East Germany and 15 other countries from western Europe in the wake of World War II.

In the late 1980s, when pro-democracy protests broke out in Soviet bloc nations in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev responded differently than his predecessors had, opting mostly not to put them down with force (this was not true in Kazakhstan, or other nations later, as the Soviet Union began to collapse). The protests evolved into calls to disintegrate the Soviet Union, which led to the independence of those 15 nations: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan.

The Soviet Union collapsed in part due to Gorbachev's internal reforms, something Russia's current president Vladimir Putin has called the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the twentieth century. Many Western leaders, however, view Gorbachev as a hero for eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons and helping to bring peace. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, and current European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said he opened the way for a free Europe.

Why it matters: Gorbachev is a divisive figure. He is in part responsible for ushering in a post-Soviet world that allowed independent nations to thrive, something that has been upended by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But many Russians never forgave Gorbachev for the turbulence his reforms unleashed, and the subsequent collapse in living standards after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia's current president, Vladimir Putin, is often viewed in contrast to Gorbachev, who allowed more personal and political freedom. Gorbachev also once dismissed the possibility of reclaiming Ukraine as "absurd," a reality Putin is now pursuing.

“Gorbachev gave an impulse to end the Cold War and sincerely believed that it will end and there will be an eternal romantic period between the new Soviet Union and the world, and the collective West as we call it,” Dimitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's press secretary, said. “That romanticism did not work out. The bloodthirstiness of our opponents showed itself and it is good that we have realized and understood it in time.”

Because Gorbachev's legacy is so complex, and his life had such a broad impact, there is a wide range of opinions about him from across the political spectrum. Today, we'll share some views from the right and left here in the states, and a couple opinions from abroad.

What the right is saying.

In National Review, the editors called Gorbachev "the good loser."

"After a period in which the USSR had been led by a senile drunk, an intelligent but ailing kidney patient, and an aged bag-carrier, it wasn’t much of a challenge for the energetic and outgoing Gorbachev, a stripling in his mid fifties, to make a good impression, both at home and abroad, when, in 1985, he took over in the Kremlin," they said. "In his first speech as the Communist Party’s general secretary, Gorbachev included references to democratization and glasnost (openness), but these were words designed to signal only that he intended to mount a serious attempt to reverse the USSR’s all-too-visible decay. Drawing inspiration, even at this late date, from, dispiritingly, Lenin, he remained a true believer, not in what the increasingly moribund Soviet Union had become — for all its strategic power, no one with any brains could believe in that — but in what he still saw as the potential and the promise of the revolution that had set it on his way.

"We should not sentimentalize 'Gorby.' While there is some evidence that he had some qualms about the way the Soviet Union was being run from early on in his career, he would not have risen so far and so fast within its totalitarian apparat without being considered both capable and ideologically trustworthy by those in charge of the party, many of whom had earned their spurs in the Stalin years and had track records to match," they said. "When Gorbachev, a tough Soviet politician, reached the Soviet pinnacle, he was set on reform as a practical necessity, not out of any particular sense of moral obligation. Under the circumstances, when his initial 'reforms,' many of them — a politically and fiscally catastrophic anti-alcohol campaign aside — little more than slogans, failed, and the economy’s problems grew more acute, it is to his enormous credit that he didn’t then revert to traditional Soviet-style repression"

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said his greatest achievement was allowing the Cold War to end without a war or a worse conflagration that the world feared.

"He understood that the country he inherited in 1985 when he became general secretary of the Communist Party was losing the Cold War to a revitalized West. Its economy wasn’t the juggernaut of central-planning genius that the CIA had assessed at the time. It couldn’t deliver consumer goods of any quality to its people, as anyone who visited the country during that period could observe," they wrote. "Ronald Reagan had reversed the U.S. malaise of the 1970s with a defense buildup and reforms that unleashed America’s private economy. Western leaders had deployed medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe despite a furious Soviet propaganda campaign. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, though it never fulfilled its largest ambitions, convinced many Russians that they couldn’t compete with U.S. technology and vitality. Gorbachev’s reforms were intended to revive the Soviet regime to be able to compete with Reagan’s America.

"As is often the case when a tyranny eases up, his reforms released forces that he and the Party couldn’t control," they said. "The countries of Eastern Europe, long enslaved as members of the Warsaw Pact, saw their moment to break free. Gorbachev refused to send in the tanks as his Soviet predecessors had done in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that Gorbachev and Reagan struck in 1987 did not turn out to be the first step toward nuclear disarmament. The U.S. withdrew from it in 2019 after Vladimir Putin’s cheating became intolerable. But the deal did build mutual trust between Gorbachev and Reagan, and later George H.W. Bush, and those relationships helped to bring the Cold War to an end with freedom as the victor."

What the left is saying.

In Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky criticized Gorbachev's time leading the USSR.

"Gorbachev’s entire record atop the Soviet hierarchy was that of a flailing, clueless loser, always one step behind the times," he wrote. "He started out as Communist Party leader in 1985 with a campaign to eradicate drunkenness, which created endless lines for vodka and ruined winemaking in Moldova for decades to come because vines were mowed down. Russians only drank more and more as the Soviet economy collapsed. Gorbachev launched an economic “acceleration” drive that sank like a lead balloon because it stopped well short of embracing capitalism. He thought he was bringing Communism closer to the people rather than dismantling it. In a memoir, Gorbachev quoted his own notes from 1985: 'The current propaganda of Marxism is boring, young people are losing interest… If we want new policies to gain support, we need to restore faith in Socialist ideals.'

"Shortages were atrocious. I remember a year without toilet paper in Moscow, the capital," he said. "While growing up in Siberia, my wife doesn’t recall using anything but smeary newsprint for hygiene. Store shelves emptied of everything but three-liter jars of sweetened birch sap. Nothing worked. Amid the economic mismanagement, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew up in 1986; and Gorbachev, the originator of glasnost — that is, his policy of 'openness' —  waited 18 days to address the nation about it, allowing hundreds of thousands of people to be exposed to the fallout... When people in the former Soviet republics began rebelling and demanding independence, he — to put it generously — did little to prevent bloody crackdowns, even if there’s no clear evidence that he ordered them himself."

Dave Andelman said it’s not impossible to think that without Gorbachev, communism would still reign in Eastern Europe.

"Gorbachev set to work dismantling the system that had proved so dysfunctional in its first seven decades, clearly unable to meet the challenges of the modern world," he wrote. "He completed the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and told east European leaders they were effectively on their own. By 1989 the nations of eastern Europe had severed their ties with the Kremlin and the process began with the republics of the Soviet Union. Reagan's 1987 challenge to Gorbachev to 'tear down this Wall,' had come to fruition. While Gorbachev continued to express a belief in communism and its political party as a progressive force, after briefly surviving a failed coup attempt in August 1991 he was finally forced to resign in December of that year in favor of a febrile and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin. The Soviet Union collapsed a day later.

"Gorbachev concluded the preface he wrote for our book with what might effectively be his epitaph: 'What we need today is precisely this: political will. We need another level of leadership, collective leadership, of course. I want to be remembered as an optimist. Let us assimilate the lessons of the 20th century in order to rid the world of this legacy in the 21st -- the legacy of militarism, violence against the peoples and nature, and weapons of mass destruction of all types.' But one big question remains," Andelman said. "Had Gorbachev not been in place to undertake his reforms, setting the Soviet Union on the path toward a dismantled Russian empire, would the way have been clear for a Vladimir Putin to arrive with his own even more toxic vision? As the war in Ukraine grinds on, it's a question that hangs in the air."

From abroad.

In The Washington Post, Natan Sharansky, who was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union released during Gorbachev's term, said Gorbachev played a complicated but unique role.

"During his final speech, he expressed regret that the U.S.S.R. had fallen apart, but also emphasized his personal achievements, including the promotion of political and religious freedom, the introduction of democracy and a market economy, and, of course, the end of the Cold War," he wrote. "All politicians boast of their achievements when they conclude their terms in office. In this case, however, what Gorbachev said was not a boast, but rather an understatement. Just a few years earlier, the Soviet Union had been one of history’s most frightening dictatorships, sending its troops far and wide, ruling over roughly a third of the globe, and controlling hundreds of millions of its own citizens through intimidation.

"And while Soviet dissidents (I was among them) told the world that the regime was internally weak, our predictions of its downfall were dismissed as wishful thinking by Western experts mesmerized by the U.S.S.R.’s seemingly unshakable power," he said. "Yet the regime did fall — and it did so without the firing of a single shot. In the eyes of the West, this outcome was the direct result of the decisions of one person: Gorbachev. It isn’t surprising that he was revered in the free world and was honored with the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize, or that terms he introduced to the political lexicon — glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) — helped define the era."

In DW, the German writer Miodrag Soric said Gorbachev failed, and made the world a better place.

"By loosening the shackles of repression that held the Communist empire together, he gave millions of people their freedom back and with it their dignity — among them Russians, Ukrainians and other people in the Soviet Union. They regained their national identities as Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Latvians and so on, becoming citizens with civil rights. They were no longer expected to think of themselves as the proletariat standing in front of empty supermarket shelves and at the same time, pretending to live in some kind of paradise," he said. "It is tragic that Gorbachev has passed away now, of all times.

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the people of the Baltic states, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, East Germans, Romanians and others joined what Gorbachev once called the 'common European home.' Only his own Russian compatriots still cannot decide to do so," he said. "Russia is a belated nation. Even worse, the current Kremlin leader, Vladimir Putin, also wants to prevent Ukrainians and Belarusians from taking the path to freedom and democracy. Putin wants a return to pathos, utopia and slavery. He wants people to serve the state, not vice versa, like in Communist times. As in the Communist dictatorship, any public dissent is dangerous in today's Russia, where citizens are lied to via the state-controlled media. Just like the members of the erstwhile Politburo, Putin suffers from the delusion that Moscow is surrounded by enemies."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

I don't have a lot to say.

Gorbachev deserves credit for pushing Russia toward a more open and free society. And he did something so few leaders have done in world history when he embraced — at least to a degree — disarming his own country. I struggle, though, with the image of him as a man who peacefully allowed internal protests to thrive, given the documented instances of those protesters being met with violence. As the Soviet Union began to fall, Gorbachev also tried to roll back some of his reforms — especially media liberalization. So it's hard, in retrospect, to view him as a saint.

And, of course, modern-day Russia is a product of Gorbachev's legacy. In many ways, he fomented a virulent brand of nationalism that has spread through Europe and even to the U.S. There are, of course, some strong appeals and many benefits to nationalism. But when it becomes militaristic, as it has in Putin's Russia, the downsides become crystal clear.

There are already books written about Gorbachev and surely there will be many more. Any man as powerful and complicated as he was is tough to sum up in a newsletter, but the pieces above are all worth reading and taking in. However anyone feels about him, there is no doubt he changed the global order — and no doubt we are still feeling the ramifications of his time.

Your questions, answered.

Q: You compared Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of an email server. I was surprised in the lack of nuance and in the whataboutism implicit in your comparison: do you really think it’s a distinction without a difference that (to quote Asha Rangappa) Ms. Clinton “had 5 classified documents, was a government employee at the time, with a TS/SCI clearance, communicating with people authorized to receive the info, in the course of official business and cooperated”?

This seems like a key distinction worth acknowledging if you’re going to compare the two while implying it would be overreach or unfair for DOJ to pursue charges against Trump and not Clinton.

— Casey, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tangle: I don't think this is a good representation of my position. In comparing Trump and Hillary, I said quite clearly that Trump may not want the "Hillary standard," which involved nearly a decade of media coverage, multiple investigations from multiple agencies, and several highly combative congressional investigations. I also said the cases were “fundamentally different,” in that Trump was holding hard copy classified documents while Hillary was transmitting classified information on a private server, and that Trump is facing several charges while she faced one.

I also said: "In order to warrant an indictment of Trump, the redacted material would probably need to make it clear that he was intending to misuse the documents and understood he was breaking the law. Or, perhaps most likely (given the signs of a potential obstruction charge), they'll need to show clearly that Trump was attempting to conceal or destroy government records. They may very well do one or all of those things, but they haven't yet."

Clinton transmitted tens of thousands of emails on her private server. 113 contained classified information, and three of those had classified markers. A specialist working for Clinton also deleted tens of thousands of emails with a program called BleachBit, and then Clinton claimed he acted on his own in deleting those emails. The FBI determined that the email deletions were not an intentional act of obstruction, but they did end up finding 17,000 work-related emails that were deleted and not turned over. It was all very complicated and, frankly, shady.

When FBI Director James Comey made the case for not indicting Clinton, he argued that you need certain elements that did not exist in the Clinton case to prosecute: Clearly intentional and willful mishandling of documents, vast quantities of material exposed, indications of disloyalty to the U.S., or efforts to obstruct justice. Part of the complexity of Clinton's case was that there was a lot of debate about whether some of the classified documents she transmitted were clearly classified, i.e. whether she intentionally disregarded the law. In 2018, when Trump was in office, a Justice Department report found that in some cases the classification markers were not clear.

So, my point is that Comey established a certain standard. And I said, further, that every new bit of information we've gotten has made things look worse for Trump. After our piece was published, the DOJ filed a new report with photographic evidence of the clearly-marked classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, and evidence of obstruction, which means they may be going after Trump for trying to conceal the crime of mishandling classified documents.

Again, everything that has happened since makes me think the raid was justified in order to retrieve the documents. I also think we will need more evidence to justify an indictment. I do believe the cases are quite different from each other, but I also think in order to indict a former president over mishandling classified documents — which is not exactly the most nefarious of crimes —  the DOJ is going to have to have a slam dunk case that clearly articulates how this was worse than Clinton’s. In no way did I imply they don't have that case, just that they better have it if they really want to indict him.

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Under the radar.

Republicans in tight swing state races appear to be backing away from abortion and Trump, a sign the party may be adjusting its strategy. Blake Masters, a Senate candidate in Arizona who had called abortion "demonic," has now scrubbed his website of abortion language and released a new ad claiming he only opposed late-term and partial birth abortions. North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Ted Budd made Trump's endorsement less prominent on his website, and Adam Laxalt, the Nevada Republican Senate candidate, scrubbed it completely from his homepage. The changes in the swing states have set off speculation that Republicans may be starting to moderate their positions heading into November, as polls show a tightening of the battles for the House and Senate. The New York Times has the story.

Have a story you think is slipping under the radar? Submit one here.


  • 47-44. Democrats’ advantage over Republicans when voters are asked which party they would support in their congressional district, according to a new Wall Street Journal poll.
  • 52%. The percentage of voters who said the FBI search of Trump's home was part of a legal and proper investigation to determine whether former President Trump was involved in any wrongdoing.
  • 41%. The percentage of voters who said the search was just another example of the endless witch hunt and harassment the Democrats and Biden administration continue to pursue against former President Trump.
  • 64%. The percentage of Republicans who said the search will make them more likely to vote in November.
  • 56%. The percentage of Americans who say members of their political party are a significant source of community in their life.

Have a nice day.

A small study in Norway suggests painting a single wind turbine blade can reduce bird fatalities by 70%. Wind energy, which is becoming one of the world's most popular forms of energy, is also responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of birds and bats every year. Many proposed interventions have been floated, including turning off wind farms during migrations or installing special whistles only bats can hear. But a new study suggests a very low-cost and simple solution does the trick: Paint one blade of each turbine black. Anthropocene has the story.

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