It’s hard to separate the judgment of history from the hottakes, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s telegram of condolence on the death of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is of little help.
“He led our country through a period of complex, dramatic change, massive foreign policy and economic and social challenges,” the statement said. “He deeply understood that reforms were needed. He strove to provide his own solutions to urgent problems.”
A sense of protocol may have prevented the Kremlin leader from telling us what he really thinks about the man who led the collapse of the Soviet Union, something Putin once called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. For a more straightforward opinion, we can rely on Margarita Simonyan, the belligerent editor-in-chief of state propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today).
“Gorbachev is dead,” Simonyan wrote on Twitter. “Time to collect what is scattered.”
Simonyan appears to be channeling its president, who has embarked on a campaign of imperial restoration with the invasion of Ukraine. And it’s tempting to look at the two leaders through a simple storyline: Gorbachev broke up the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, and Putin uses brute force to rebuild that empire.
On February 26, two days after the Russian invasion, Gorbachev’s founding called for an “early cessation of hostilities and immediate start of peace negotiations.”
But it would be going too far to say that Gorbachev has been a consistent and outspoken critic of Putin. For starters, Gorbachev has emerged as a supporter of Russia’s 2014 move to annex the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine, a prelude to Putin’s large-scale invasion of the country.
And looking further back, Gorbachev himself opposed the breakup of the Soviet Union. In an extensive 2012 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the last Soviet president emphasized that his efforts to keep the USSR together had been undermined by a scheming Boris Yeltsin — who became president of an independent Russia after the 1991 collapse — and by the Soviet leadership. .
“You will not find anything in any of my speeches to the end that supported the breakup of the union,” Gorbachev said. “The breakup of the union was the result of betrayal by the Soviet nomenklatura (party elite), by the bureaucracy, and also by Yeltsin’s betrayal.”
Gorbachev’s main complaint was that Yeltsin supported a so-called union treaty that would have kept the USSR as a looser federation, but at the same time established its own power base behind his back and orchestrated Russia’s exit from the union.
In reality, national independence movements in Ukraine, the Baltic States and other republics had already received a significant boost from the late perestroika era (restructuring). And after the failed August 1991 putsch by hardliners, Gorbachev’s trade union treaty was in the water.
Frankly, Gorbachev was not alone in misjudging the situation. Just weeks before the August 1991 coup attempt, US President George HW Bush visited Kiev—then the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic—and delivered a speech urging Ukrainians to avoid what he called “suicidal nationalism.”
Bush’s speech – remembered today as the “Chicken Kyiv” speech – flew like a lead balloon. Bush and his advisers may have been concerned about the nightmare scenario of an implosive rift like the one that then began in Yugoslavia, leaving a vast nuclear arsenal in precarious hands. But within a few months, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence.
Gorbachev, who began his rise in the ranks of the Communist Party in Russia’s southern Stavropol region, simply failed to understand Ukrainians’ national aspirations — or the desires of other nations trapped within the USSR for independence. His willingness to violently crush protests in Soviet republics – something rarely mentioned in discussions about his career – is a blot on his legacy.
That doesn’t necessarily put Gorbachev in the same league as Putin, who refuses to accept Ukraine as a legitimate nation, and deplores what he calls the “artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians.”
It is often noted that Gorbachev — who signed major arms control agreements that lowered the Cold War temperature and steered the world away from the dangers of nuclear war — enjoys international stature, while he is often reviled in Russia. Admirers of Gorbachev like to point out that he had a deeply humanistic streak.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta — a newspaper Gorbachev helped fund — praised the late leader for his gentle nature, a quality rarely noticed in Putin.
“He Loved a Woman” [his wife Raisa] more than his work,” he wrote in a tribute. “I think he just couldn’t hug her if his hands were covered in blood.”
Could Gorbachev have used the rest of his moral authority in Russia to more forcefully indict Putin for his actions? And would an indifferent Russian audience have listened? We’ll never know. But his reticence meant that his criticism of Russia’s slide toward dictatorship was often muted.