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FRONTLINE EXCLUSIVE

Russia remains divided over legacy of ‘father of perestroika’

Print edition : Sep 08, 2022 T+T-

Russia remains divided over legacy of ‘father of perestroika’

A warm welcome in Bonn to the then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa, on June 13, 1989.

A warm welcome in Bonn to the then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa, on June 13, 1989. | Photo Credit: AP

Reactions to the demise of Mikhail Gorbachev were both laudatory and trenchant.

Mikhail Gorbachev, lauded globally as the engineer of peaceful rapprochement between Moscow and the West, the person who facilitated the end of the Cold War and the one who initiated dramatic changes in Soviet Russia, faced opposition and vicious criticism at home. He lived in near obscurity in Russia since 1991, when his political career ended—along with a Soviet period of Russia’s troubled history during the 20th century.

Twice, at the beginning of his reign and at the end of it, he took unprecedented bold steps, the consequences of which—both negative and positive—are still being felt in present-day Russia. Having replaced the elderly Konstantin Chernenko at the highest post in 1985, Gorbachev initiated reforms of the rotting political and economic Soviet system. In 1991, he emerged as the only leader in the entire history of the USSR who voluntarily gave power to political opponents.

“Agreeing then to accept the essentially highest state post of general secretary of the central committee of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], I understood: it is impossible to live like this any longer and I will not allow myself to remain in this post if I am not supported in the implementation of fundamental changes,” he said in his Nobel lecture on June 5, 1991, in Oslo City Hall, a year after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

He, however, acknowledged that Soviet society “turned out to be unprepared” for changes. Several months later, in his farewell address on December 25, 1991, he admitted that starting reforms “on such a scale and in such a society as ours” was a “risky business”. But even then he was “convinced of the historical rightness” of perestroika.

Strong reactions

Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first to react to the reports of Gorbachev’s death. He said: “Mikhail Gorbachev was a politician and statesman who had a huge impact on the course of world history. He led our country during a period of complex, dramatic changes, large-scale foreign policy, economic, and social challenges.”

It is no secret that Putin has criticised Gorbachev’s policies that led to the dramatic events of 1991. No one, including Gorbachev, knew at that time how to change the system that badly required reform, while holding the country together, Putin said in a 2017 interview to Oliver Stone.

The reforms eventually led to the collapse of the USSR. “In fact, the health care system has been destroyed, the army has turned out to be in a deplorable state. And millions, millions of people were left below the poverty line,” Putin said, noting that 25 million Russians people found themselves “abroad overnight”. He considers it one of the biggest catastrophes of the 20th century.

In his more recent statements, Putin has referred to Gorbachev’s rapprochement with the West that eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Europe’s Eastern bloc as “humiliating” to Russia.

“Gorbachev gave impetus to the end of the Cold War, and he sincerely wanted to believe that it would end and an eternal romantic period between the new Soviet Union and the West would come. This romanticism was not justified; a romantic honeymoon did not work out, the bloodthirstiness of our opponents showed itself,” Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

Alexey Kudrin, a former Finance Minister of Russia and outspoken liberal politician, remembers Gorbachev as the author of “new thinking” and perestroika (reform) that “were designed to give the country and the whole world a new breath”.

Peace and war

Many commenters, both in Russia and abroad, noted the striking symbolism of the fact that Gorbachev’s demise came at the time of Russia’s withdrawal from the democratic changes implemented by him, both at the domestic level and internationally.

“We are living in a new world. The Cold War is over, the arms race and insane militarisation of the country, which has scarred our economy, public consciousness and morality, have been stopped. The threat of world war has been withdrawn,” Gorbachev said in his last public speech as Soviet leader in 1991.

With Russian and Ukrainian troops supported by West-supplied weapons massacring each other in Europe’s deadliest battle since the Second World War, and global leaders unleashing nuclear threats, Gorbachev’s hopes for “the new peaceful world” seem to remain pure history.

One of the most outspoken journalists in the country, Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, who was co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for defending freedom of expression in Russia, pointed out that Gorbachev despised war and real politics: “I heard that he managed to change the world but failed to change his country. Maybe so. But he gave both the country and the world an incredible gift—he gave us thirty years of peace.”

But that “gift” is no more, he concluded in an emotional message on the newspaper’s website. Novaya Gazeta suspended operations in March, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.