“He led our country during a period of complex, dramatic changes, large-scale foreign policy, economic and social challenges,” the statement said. “He deeply understood the need for reform, sought to offer his own solutions to pressing problems.”
A sense of protocol may have prevented the Kremlin leader from telling us what he really thinks of the man who presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union, in what Putin once called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. For a more objective opinion, we can rely on Margarita Simonyan, the militant editor-in-chief of the state-run propaganda agency RT (formerly Russia Today).
“Gorbachev is dead,” Simonyan wrote on Twitter. “Time to pick up what was scattered.”
Simonyan appears to be directing his president, who has launched a campaign of imperial restoration with an invasion of Ukraine. And it’s tempting to look at the two leaders through a simple narrative arc: Gorbachev allowed the 15 republics of the Soviet Union to fall apart, and Putin is trying to piece together that empire by brute force.
On February 26, two days after the Russian invasion, the Gorbachev Foundation called for “an early cessation of hostilities and the immediate commencement of peace negotiations.”
And, looking back, Gorbachev himself resisted the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a wide-ranging 2012 interview with CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, the last Soviet president insisted that his efforts to preserve the USSR were undermined by the intrigues of Boris Yeltsin, who became president of independent Russia after the 1991 collapse. – and the Soviet leadership.
“In none of my speeches until the very end you will find anything that would support the collapse of the Union,” Gorbachev said. “The collapse of the union was the result of the betrayal of the Soviet nomenklatura (party elite), the bureaucracy, as well as the betrayal of Yeltsin.”
Gorbachev’s main complaint was that Yeltsin supported a so-called union treaty that would preserve the USSR as a looser federation, while working behind his back to create his own power base and organize Russia’s exit from the union.
In fact, the movements for national independence in Ukraine, the Baltic States and other republics had gained considerable momentum by the end of the era of perestroika (perestroika). And after the failed August 1991 coup organized by the hardliners, Gorbachev’s union treaty was effectively dead.
To be fair, Gorbachev wasn’t the only one who misinterpreted the situation. Just weeks before the August 1991 coup attempt, US President George W. Bush visited Kyiv—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, now remembered as the “Chicken Kiev” speech, shattered like a lead ball. Bush and his advisers may have been concerned about the nightmarish scenario of implosive disintegration then beginning in Yugoslavia, leaving a huge nuclear arsenal in unreliable hands. But within a few months, the vast majority of Ukrainians voted for independence.
Gorbachev, who began his ascent in the ranks of the Communist Party in the Stavropol region in southern Russia, may simply not have understood the national aspirations of Ukrainians or the desire for independence of other peoples imprisoned in the USSR. His willingness to brutally crack down on protests in the Soviet republics—something less frequently mentioned in discussions about his career—is a stain on his legacy.
This does not necessarily put Gorbachev on a par with Putin, who refuses to recognize Ukraine as a legitimate nation and laments what he calls “the artificial separation of Russians and Ukrainians.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a paper Gorbachev funded, praised the late leader for his gentle nature, a quality rarely seen in Putin.
“He loved a woman [his wife Raisa] more than his work,” he wrote in tribute. “I think he just wouldn’t be able to hug her if his hands were covered in blood.”
Could Gorbachev have used the remnants of his moral authority in Russia to criticize Putin more forcefully for his actions? And would the indifferent Russian public listen? This we will never know. But his reticence meant that his criticism of Russia’s slide into dictatorship was often muted.