Those are the bookends of the history between Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia.
In many ways, Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday, unknowingly turned on Putin. The forces unleashed by Gorbachev spiraled out of control, led to his downfall and the The Collapse of the Soviet Union.
Since coming to power in 1999, Putin has taken a hard line that has led to an almost complete reversal of Gorbachev’s reforms.
When Gorbachev came to power as Soviet leader in 1985, he was younger and more vibrant than his predecessors. He broke with the past by distancing himself from a police state, embracing freedom of the press, ending his country’s war in Afghanistan and letting go of the Eastern European countries locked in Moscow’s communist orbit. He ended the isolation that had gripped the USSR since its founding.
It was an exciting, hopeful time for Soviet citizens and the world. Gorbachev brought the promise of a brighter future.
He believed in integration with the West, multilateralism and globalism to solve the world’s problems, including ending armed conflict and reducing the threat of nuclear weapons.
In stark contrast, Putin’s worldview argues that the West is an “empire of lies” and that democracy is chaotic, uncontrolled and dangerous. While he usually refrains from direct criticism, Putin suggests that Gorbachev sold it to the West.
Returning to a communist mindset, Putin believes the West is imperialistic and arrogant, tries to impose its liberal values and policies on Russia and uses the country as a scapegoat for its own problems.
He accuses Western leaders of trying to restart the Cold War and slow down Russia’s development. He strives for a world order with Russia on an equal footing with the United States and other great powers, and in some ways is trying to rebuild an empire.
Gorbachev sometimes bowed to Western pressure. Two years after US President Ronald Reagan pleaded with him to “break down this wall” in a speech at the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev did so indirectly by not intervening in populist anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War followed.
At home, Gorbachev introduced two sweeping and dramatic policies – ‘glasnost’ or openness – and ‘perestroika’, a restructuring of Soviet society. Topics that were previously taboo could now be discussed in the literature, the news media and society in general. He undertook economic reforms to enable private enterprise and moved away from a state-run economy.
He also relaxed the dreaded police state, freed political prisoners such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, and ended the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power. Freer foreign travel, emigration and religious celebrations were also part of the mix.
Putin has deviated from Gorbachev’s changes. He focused on restoring order and rebuilding the police state. In an increasingly harsh crackdown on dissent, critics were jailed and labeled traitors and extremists, partly for calling the “special military operation” in Ukraine a mere war. He considers some critics to be foreign-funded collaborators of Russia’s enemies.
In his quest for control, he has shut down independent news organizations and banned human rights and humanitarian organizations. He demands full loyalty to the state and emphasizes traditional Russian family, religious and nationalist principles.
Gorbachev’s leadership was not without failures. His more liberal policies were uneven, such as the Soviet Union’s bloody crackdown in 1991 against the independence movement in the Baltic Soviet Republic of Lithuania and the attempt to cover up the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
In 1988, he realized that hiding bad events didn’t work, so when a massive earthquake hit Armenia in December 1988, he opened the borders to international emergency aid and allowed transparency about the destruction.
After nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, signed multiple arms control and disarmament agreements with the United States and other countries, and helped end the Cold War. For those efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
But at home, Gorbachev’s economic reforms did not go well. Freeing industries from state control and allowing private enterprise too quickly and haphazardly created widespread shortages of food and consumer goods, exacerbated corruption and spawned a class of oligarchs.
The nascent independence movements in Soviet republics and other problems so angered the Communist Party hardliners that they attempted a coup against him in August 1991, further weakening his grip on power and leading to his resignation four months later.
In the end, many in Russia felt that Gorbachev had left them with broken promises, lost hopes and a weakened, humiliated country.
One who thought so was Putin. To him, much of what Gorbachev did was a mistake. The biggest was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
The Soviet Union was disrespected, defeated and broken into pieces – 15 countries. For Putin, it was also personal, as as a KGB officer stationed in East Germany, he watched in horror as mass crowds staged the popular uprising that led to the removal of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, at one point his KGB office in Dresden.
To this day, Putin’s views on threats to his country and popular revolutions color his foreign policy and his deep distrust of the West. They support his decision to invade Ukraine on February 24.
As a justification for the war, he cites what he believes was a broken US promise to Gorbachev — a supposed 1990 promise that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe. US officials have denied making such a commitment, but Putin believes that NATO’s expansion, and in particular the prospect of neighboring Ukraine joining the alliance, poses an existential threat to Russia.
Critics argue that Putin is distorting the facts and ignoring local sentiments to claim that Ukrainians want to be liberated from the Kiev government and join Moscow.
He has also embarked on a massive effort to modernize and expand Russia’s military might, moving away from arms control agreements Gorbachev agreed to.
Putin’s war in Ukraine, his human rights violations, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to massive international sanctions that would undo the cultural and economic ties that Gorbachev had forged. But for a few allies, Russia is isolated.
While you would expect Gorbachev to have been more critical of Putin, he condemned NATO’s expansion east and said the West was wasting the opportunity that the end of the Cold War offered. He even supported the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
But in many other ways, the historical bookends between the two leaders are far apart.
Before Gorbachev came to power, Reagan called Russia an “evil empire” in 1983. Five years later, he recanted the description at a summit with the Soviet leader.
Fast forward to today, when current US President Joe Biden has called Putin a “murderer”, a “butcher” and a “war criminal” who “cannot stay in power”.
The Cold War that Gorbachev helped end is back.