Last week, news broke that the final leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, had died at the age of 91 after a long illness. Gorbachev’s death was first announced by the non-profit organization he founded in 1991, and it prompted an array of reactions around the world.
Indeed, this should be expected for a man with Gorbachev’s importance to history. As “Gorby” ruled the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, older Americans will remember the actions he took to reform his country and decrease stockpiles of nuclear weapons globally. Some University of Connecticut alumni might even remember Gorbachev’s visit to Storrs in October 1996, during which he called upon his inept, frequently drunken successor, Boris Yeltsin, to resign from office.
One would assume history will treat Gorbachev kindly for these reasons, but with NATO-Russia relations at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, his true legacy remains much more complicated.
To many in the Western world, Gorbachev was a flawed, yet decent man who presided over the relatively peaceful end of an empire antithetical to the fundamental freedoms they had enjoyed all their lives. Thanks to his signature policies of glasnost (government transparency) and perestroika (less central planning in the economy), the Soviet people were freer than ever.
But Gorbachev never truly intended to make his people free; in many ways, he was just a skilled politician trying to save his country. Although he never fully moved away from communism, Gorbachev had enough sense to recognize that some major changes were needed if the Soviets were going to keep pace with NATO’s aggressive foreign policy — led by then-American President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
For Gorbachev, giving his people an inch would strengthen the negotiating power of Soviet elites as they seemed to be losing the Cold War. But when given an inch, the people took a mile and the rest is history. Down with Gorbachev came the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain and all the other communist institutions that had dominated Eastern Europe for decades. When Yeltsin took over in 1991, hopes of freedom and capitalism quickly gave way to anarchy and widespread poverty. For these reasons, many Russians and other former Soviet citizens do not maintain such a rosy view of Gorbachev today.
One of these citizens, a KGB Lieutenant Colonel named Vladimir V. Putin, watched the Berlin Wall come down while he was on assignment in East Germany. As crowds dismantled the wall with hammers and pickaxes, Putin reflected on what he would later call “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Nope, this was not a tagline he reserved for events that occurred because of the actions of the likes of Hitler or Stalin. For Putin, Gorbachev bore responsibility for surrendering the Soviet empire, and his “betrayal” needed to be undone by any means necessary.
Of course, that spiteful KGB officer would succeed Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation in 1999. An entire generation of Russian adults — those around our age and even a bit older — now only know life under the Putin regime, which has dismantled the progress toward democracy begun by Gorbachev and (briefly) Yeltsin. State-run media, police crackdowns on dissent and intervention in foreign wars, like the Syrian Civil War, have all returned to the Kremlin under Putin. And Russia’s ongoing is widely seen as Putin’s most serious attempt to reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. The invasion of Ukraine is widely considered Putin’s most serious attempt to reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev.
The aging Gorbachev had plenty to say about the incumbent Russian leader in recent years. During opposition-led protests in 2011, he accused Putin of “dragging the country into the past when it is on fire with modernization.” He opposed Putin’s decision to run for a third term in 2012 and a fourth term in 2018. Though he never spoke publicly about the war in Ukraine, opposition journalist Alexei Venidiktov alleged in July that Gorbachev felt Putin was “destroying” his life’s work.
For his part, Putin has been similarly cold toward Gorbachev since the former leader’s death last week. It took several hours for the Kremlin to issue a vague statement acknowledging Gorbachev’s “huge impact on the course of world history.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov then clarified the ambiguity by essentially calling Gorbachev a naive statesman and praising Putin’s effort to correct his “mistakes.”
But the current establishment’s attitude toward Gorbachev is most evident by Putin denying him a state funeral, given to Yeltsin in 2007, while stubbing the smaller funeral service due to a “busy work schedule.” It is worth noting that Putin paid his respects to Gorbachev privately, but the footage of him standing at the coffin was as tense and awkward as you might expect.
Ronald Reagan, the man with whom Gorbachev so notably worked to reduce nuclear stockpiles and end the Cold War, once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction… It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for [our children] to do the same.”
As the last Soviet flag came down with Gorbachev on Christmas Night 1991, Reagan’s words seemed to ring as a promise of hope for future Russians. But unfortunately for Gorbachev and his supporters, freedom went extinct in just a single generation. And with the world’s major divestment from Russia this year, the average Russian’s quality of life now resembles the early years under General Secretary Gorbachev — or worse, even further back under communism.
So the question remains: Was Gorbachev a hero or a villain of history? Its answer depends on who you ask — old vs. young, American vs. Russian, etc. These debates will continue long after the deaths of Gorbachev, Putin or even you and I. I want to believe that the world is a better place because of Mikhail Gorbachev, but I cannot confidently affirm this as I reflect on the events that succeeded his time in office.