It’s hard to overstate the irony of the timing. Six months and days after Russia invaded Ukraine – the same day Ukraine announced the start of its long-predicted offensive to retake the southern Kherson district from Russian occupation – the death of Mikhail Gorbachev was announced in Moscow. the first and last President of the Soviet Union and the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The counterpoint with today and between Gorbachev and Russian President Vladimir Putin appears instructive and will be widely celebrated as such. The Liberator is contrasted with the Executor: the first – Gorbachev, a deeply liberal, in tune with the forces of history; the second – Putin, rigid and repressive by nature, doing his utmost by cruel and outdated means to turn back the clock. There is some justification for this; but in many respects this counterpoint will be wrong.
Mikhail Gorbachev will go down in history as he deserves as the man who loosened the shackles of the Soviet Union and in so doing brought about the collapse of Communism in Europe. As such, he appears as the polar opposite of Vladimir Putin. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who declined to follow his predecessors in using force to keep the Soviet bloc in line, is clearly a very different man from Putin, who 30 years later unleashed a war that was destined to be — depending , as it is read – either to keep Ukraine allied with Russia, or to revive the Soviet Union by force, or something similar to the Russian Empire.
But there are two serious questions that need to be asked here. During 20 of his years in power, Putin presided over a country that was freer and far more prosperous than the country led by Gorbachev between 1985 and 1991. Inevitably, Putin’s presidency will be seen through the prism of the Ukraine war, which has pushed the country back in many – but by no means all – respects to the closed society of the USSR. But how successful will Putin be in turning back the clock?
The other question to ask is how far Gorbachev was ever the master of events and how far he was swept up in a powerful tide of political challenges and liberations that swept not only Europe but many other parts of the world at the time. including China. His legacy – rightly so – will be that he helped change both Europe and the world for the better. Millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe, and some in Russia, credit Gorbachev with dramatically transforming their countries and personal lives.
And they are right. It’s hard to overstate the contrast between the Soviet Union in 1985, when Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Russia in 1995. The color and cacophony that stormed in. The most dramatic and hopeful change, however, was the flight of fear.
When he resigned as Soviet President and dissolved the USSR, the fear that had held Russians in suspense and half of Europe behind a wall was gone. Whether out of weakness or wisdom, Gorbachev had renounced violence to maintain his power. Therefore, the bloodshed that tainted the Soviet empire at every stage of its development was largely absent when it collapsed, and this is to its eternal credit.
Gorbachev took office in his mid-50s, after three elderly and ill leaders died in office within 30 months, Gorbachev looked and sounded different. Often accompanied on official occasions by his beloved wife Raisa, he gave a “human face” to Soviet communism. With the terms “glasnost” and “perestroika”, which became his trademark, he flouted many a broken Soviet taboo.
How far he was a master of this process, however, is another matter. In the summer of 1991, his efforts to transform a rigid unitary system into a consensual federation failed. He was briefly overthrown by a coup; Power shifted irrevocably to Russian President-elect Boris Yeltsin, and the center could no longer hold its own. On December 8, the heads of state of the three republics that formed the Soviet Union in 1924 terminated this treaty. On December 25, Gorbachev resigned.
Gorbachev remained a player – albeit a fading player – through the Yeltsin decade, but began to have a little more say during the Putin years through his charitable foundation. That he, like Yeltsin, was able to enjoy a decent retirement in his home country (health permitting) was a plus in the context of Soviet and Russian history, where previous leaders died in office or became non-persons. Much of his status, however, was underpinned by the admiration he enjoyed abroad as the leader whose actions – or inactions – had contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the downfall of an ideology that had held half Europe captive since the end of the second World War.
However, the international approval that Gorbachev enjoyed was not shared by most of his compatriots. Until his death, many Russians blamed him for the humiliation of their country, the loss of great power status and, for many, the decline of a multi-ethnic ideal. This was largely why Gorbachev’s inconsistent attempts to play a post-Soviet political role failed miserably. He didn’t seem to understand the contempt felt by many Russians, who blamed him for their country’s loss of great power status.
It is to be hoped that a new generation of Russians will understand what they owe to the last Soviet leader in terms of political and personal freedom, and will do him the honors he deserves. At the time of his death, however, that day seems even further away than it has been since his retirement.
In many ways, Russia’s war against Ukraine can be viewed as a conflict that was mercifully avoided when the Soviet Union broke up, but always lurked in the wings as a possibility if the two most powerful and populous post-Soviet nations could embark on any new relationship as two sovereign ones develop states. Mikhail Gorbachev deserves all the immense credit he received as a leader who accepted his country’s dissolution with dignity rather than trying to hold it together with violence.
Ultimately, however, the power of the Soviet Union had dwindled to such an extent that he probably had no other choice. In the end, was he a mover or a victim of history? The collapse of the Soviet Union itself, and the preceding collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe, may have been remarkably peaceful, as many observed at the time. Gorbachev’s refusal to use force outside Soviet borders earned him the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize. But has the hasty and actual collapse of the Soviet Union actually created problems for the future – for example in the status of Crimea and Ukraine? Suspension between East and West – helping to trigger the all-out war Russia is now waging against Ukraine?
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/gorbachev-was-a-man-loved-by-many-but-hated-by-russians-41949522.html Mary Dejevsky: Mikhail Gorbachev was a man loved by many but hated by Russians