When news broke last week that Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last president of the Soviet Union, had died, it made headlines in the West and a matter of indifference studied in Moscow. After issuing a lukewarm acknowledgment of Gorbachev’s death, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, announced that “the Russian president’s work schedule would not allow him” to attend the funeral. Instead, Putin paid his respects by dropping by the hospital where Gorbachev died. He placed a bouquet of flowers near the coffin, lingered half a minute and, his obligation fulfilled, headed for the exit. Gorbachev, in his time, not only attended a memorial for Andrei Sakharov, the country’s most prominent dissident, he stood in the rain at the foot of Sakharov’s coffin, in a prolonged gesture of humility. .
Considering Putin’s contempt for Gorbachev, one should be grateful he didn’t throw the bouquet out the window of his speeding limo. In his eyes, Gorbachev was despicably weak, the careless guardian of a great empire. He was naive. He fetishized foreign democratic values. He did not see the United States and Europe as bastions of hypocrisy and aggressive intent. During a seven-year reign, Gorbachev, Putin clearly believes, granted the people freedoms they did not deserve and reduced a superpower to the level of a global supplicant.
Putin seems to see himself as the anti-Gorbachev, an imperial revivalist reasserting the Kremlin’s authority over Russian institutions, Russian citizens and former Soviet republics. He calls the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, and he undoubtedly credits Gorbachev with the “necessity” to invade Ukraine. The regression is profound. While Gorbachev initiated the end of the Cold War and greatly diminished the risk of a nuclear conflagration, Putin is now waging his proxy war with the West on Ukrainian territory and in doing so he has threatened to use atomic weapons and destabilized reactor control. in Zaporizhia.
By his own admission, Putin was, and remains, a product of the KGB. Gorbachev was a much more complex human being. He was, as he once said, both a “product” and an “anti-product” of the Soviet system. In 2006, William Taubman, an academic who had written an outstanding biography of Nikita Khrushchev, was researching a book about Gorbachev and had a conversation with him about it. Taubman admitted he was struggling. Gorbachev was sympathetic: “Gorbachev is hard to understand,” he said, using the grandiose third person. What is really difficult to understand is how Gorbachev, the son of peasants, became himself – how a young Soviet politician promoted by Party bosses and KGB chiefs set out to replace “reptilian values with human values”, as the Russian journalist Oleg Kashin put it. .
Gorbachev was born in 1931 in Privolnoye, a village in southern Russia. When he was a child, famine killed almost half of the inhabitants, including two of his uncles and an aunt. These were the Stalin years. Gorbachev’s two grandfathers were arrested on false charges and sent to prison: Andrei Gorbachev for failing to meet an agricultural quota, Pantelei Gopkalo for belonging to “a counter-revolutionary Trotskyist organization”. Both were released after relatively short sentences, but they had suffered miserably. Gorbachev, in his memoirs, wrote of Gopkalo’s fate: “The interrogator blinded him with a bright lamp, broke his arms pressing him against the door, and brutally beat him. When these “standard” tortures did not work, they invented new ones: they wrapped Grandfather tightly in a wet sheepskin coat and placed him on a hot stove. »
As a young man, Gorbachev went to Moscow to study law and rise through the ranks of the Party apparatus. At the end of the 1950s, the Party was filled with mediocrities who had escaped the worst predators of the Stalin era. Khrushchev attempted to push the Party and Soviet society beyond the Stalinist system, inspiring a network of shestidesyatniki, “people of the 60s”, relatively liberal within the system, to begin – quietly, cautiously – to discuss the possibility of reform. It was Gorbachev’s world, an ambiguous realm of ambition, cynicism, compromise and measured idealism. These are the people who finally concluded that everything was ruined, that neither communist ideology nor its foundation of coercion and violence promised a degree of prosperity or a sustainable future.
After the quick deaths of a series of decrepit general secretaries – Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko – Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. He was confident, lively, eager to project a sense of hope; his ability to stand and talk with people on the street was considered positively Kennedy. But it was only thirteen months after he came to power, when reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, that he fully understood the corruption of the Soviet system. Local authorities sought to conceal their negligence, and the Kremlin authorities, in turn, did not recognize the accident for two days. Gorbachev said nothing publicly for two weeks. Finally, in July, he went to a Politburo meeting and berated everyone involved. “They all screwed up,” Gorbachev said. “The day after the explosion, weddings were still taking place nearby. Children were playing in the streets.
“Chernobyl was not As the communist system. They were identical,” said Yuriy Shcherbak, a doctor and journalist who later became Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States a few years later. “The system ate our bones the same way radiation did.” Such metaphors and realities did not escape Gorbachev. In the dramatic years that followed, his initiatives followed one another astonishingly: the release of dissidents from prison or exile; the policy of glasnost, which allowed unprecedented freedoms for the press, writers, artists and scholars; summit meetings with Ronald Reagan and arms control agreements with the West; a military withdrawal from Afghanistan; the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet control; multi-party elections; a reassessment of Soviet history that included critiques of Lenin; increased independence of the Baltic states and other Soviet republics.
Gorbachev, of course, made mistakes, serious mistakes. He has tried, too long, to reconcile irreconcilable ideas and bases of power. He failed to reform the KGB, which staged a coup against him in August 1991. And so on. Yet he possessed both the idealism and the political skill to generate something in the world that is, at this dark historical moment of illiberalism and global malevolence, exceedingly rare: a sense of decency and promise. . Here is someone raised in a totalitarian system who has come to believe in democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful and orderly transfer of power. To imagine. The hope is that, around the world, his example will prevail. ♦