Disdained by Putin, Gorbachev walked a tightrope to defend his legacy

REUTERS/Christian Charisius/File Photo
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) listens to former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev during a news conference following bilateral talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at Schloss Gottorf Palace in the northern German town of Schleswig, Germany December 21, 2004.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent his 22 years in power relentlessly hacking down the legacy of the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The two rarely met, and Gorbachev, who died Tuesday in Moscow at age 91, cautiously couched his remarks about the Russian leader, even when they weren’t critical. Unlike Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev never requested or received a guarantee of immunity from arrest or prosecution, he said.

Gorbachev’s criticism of Putin was often indirect, as in his 2015 book “The New Russia,” in which he wrote that Putin had taken “advantage” of a flawed constitution drafted on Yeltsin’s watch – for example, by using an imprecise provision on term limits to return to the presidency in 2012.

“The constitution’s major flaw . . . was its ‘super-presidential character,’ ” Gorbachev wrote. “In combination with our monarchist tradition and the deferential attitude to higher authority typical of the Russian national character, this presented a real risk of creating an autocratic regime.”

Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union a catastrophe and despised Gorbachev’s legacy, but nonetheless refrained from personally persecuting Gorbachev, and almost never mentioned him – an accommodation that perhaps reflected Putin’s own display of that national character.

Asked in 2011 what he would have done in Gorbachev’s place as the Soviet Union unraveled, Putin said Russia needed to “fight for the territorial integrity of our state consistently, persistently and fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand.”

In Putin’s condolence telegram to Gorbachev’s family and friends, his attitude was conveyed in what he did not say, according to analysts. He did not praise Gorbachev’s greatest reforms, merely noting that the Soviet leader understood the need for change and “strove to offer his own social reforms to our urgent problems.”

Putin’s disdain for Gorbachev and evident ambivalence about his death highlighted a stark gap in global public opinion. While Gorbachev is revered in the West for helping tear down the Iron Curtain and giving democracy a chance, he is loathed by many in the former Soviet Union for the chaos and deprivation that followed in the 1990s – tumult that, in some ways, continues even now.

Gorbachev initially welcomed Putin’s presidency, but called his third term in 2012 “a mistake.” In 2013, he said Russian politics was turning into an “imitation of democracy,” with corruption rampant. In 2016, he called Putin’s policies “an obstacle to progress.”

But it is Putin’s vision of a revanchist, imperialist Russia that won out.

Like most Russians, Gorbachev supported Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, but after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Gorbachev, who was in poor health, called for an end to the hostilities, saying that “there is nothing more precious in the world than human lives.”

Alexei Venediktov, a prominent liberal media figure, who spoke to Gorbachev by phone in July, said then that the former Soviet leader opposed the war and knew that Putin had left his reforms of free speech and openness in ashes.

“I can tell you that Gorbachev is upset,” Venediktov told Russian Forbes magazine. “Freedom is Gorbachev’s life’s work.”

The Interfax news agency reported Wednesday that there would be no state funeral, in what would be a stunning snub to a former state leader. Gorbachev’s daughter said a memorial would be held in the old Soviet House of Unions, in a ceremonial room known as Pillars Hall.

Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the denial of a state funeral would send a message that “we are really living in an absolutely new and different period of history which annihilates and liquidates all the achievements of Gorbachev’s period.”

As leader, Putin has crushed the media and civil society, returned to totalitarianism, installed former KGB and other security officials in key positions, destroyed nongovernmental organizations, invaded Ukraine, and isolated Russia from the West. Gorbachev famously appeared in Pizza Hut commercials.

The first McDonald’s opened in Moscow’s Pushkin Square under Gorbachev. More than 30 years later, under Putin, McDonald’s and other Western companies have left or suspended operations.

Gorbachev’s reforms promoted freedom of speech, truth-telling and “glasnost,” or openness, allowing new media outlets to spring up – policies reversed by Putin and the hard-liners in his circle.

Under Putin, corruption grew more entrenched, but he capitalized on high oil prices to stabilize the economy, while curbing independent-minded oligarchs.

Gorbachev praised Putin’s economic record from the early 2000s, but also recounted voicing concern about a conflict between Putin’s government and Vladimir Gusinsky, a Russian media tycoon and founder of NTV, Russia’s first private TV station after the Soviet collapse. Gusinsky was arrested and forced to sell his media assets.

Among Russians, Putin is hardly alone in his view of Gorbachev. Communists and hard-liners consider Gorbachev a traitor for allowing East European countries to break free of Soviet control, and for presiding over the dissolution of the Communist Party in 1991.

Sam Greene, a professor of Russian politics at King’s College London, said the fact that Putin ignored Gorbachev as a public figure over the years symbolized how much the Russian leader was trying to undo Gorbachev’s legacy of giving people a say in the future of their country.

“Putin has increasingly built his public legitimacy on the back of nostalgia . . . for the Soviet Union,” Greene said. “That is a myth to a certain extent. He talks about pride and power, but ignores the reality of the problems and dysfunction that Gorbachev came to power to deal with.”

The Kremlin on Wednesday focused on Gorbachev’s role as the leader of a powerful state who wrought historical change – and who would be remembered for better or worse.

“A statesman who will forever remain in the history of our country – many argue about the role he played,” said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, adding that Gorbachev wrongly hoped that “an eternal romantic period would begin between the new Soviet Union and the West

“No romantic honeymoon happened,” Peskov said. “The bloodthirstiness of our opponents showed itself.”

The Kremlin’s propagandists portrayed Gorbachev’s death, as they now regard all major events, through the prism of Moscow’s war against Ukraine, which is depicted as Putin’s effort to defend Russia from NATO and rebuild it as a great world power.

State television anchor Olga Skabeyeva said Western admiration of Gorbachev was unfounded. Skabeyeva praised Chinese state media, which she said “highlighted the naivete and immaturity of Gorbachev, whose devotion to the West plunged the country into an era of economic and political instability.”

Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov said Gorbachev and others were “responsible for the tragedy of Russia’s collapse.” Referring to the war against Ukraine, Markov said: “Now the special military operation is assembling Russia again.”

Mark Galeotti, director of the Mayak Intelligence consulting firm, said Gorbachev’s image was undone by the centerpiece of Kremlin propaganda: that Putin saved Russia from the 1990s, portrayed as “an unmitigated hellscape of anarchy, collapse and national humiliation.”

“The conventional wisdom became that Gorbachev was a kind of failure,” Galeotti said. “Who was there to champion him, to be perfectly honest?”

He noted that while Gorbachev supported the annexation of Crimea, he also questioned recent election results and tacitly criticized Putin.

“Generally, whenever Gorbachev was speaking about the need to avert some kind of global catastrophe and world war, he was implicitly challenging Putin, who is a man for whom a little bit of challenge goes a long way,” Galeotti said. “And therefore, I think there has begun to be a sort of a more specific attempt to demonize Gorbachev as not being patriotic enough.”

Dmitry Muratov, editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which Gorbachev helped found in 1993, wrote in a remembrance that Gorbachev was fundamentally a man of peace.

“He despised war. He despised realpolitik,” wrote Muratov, a winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. “He was sure that the time to resolve issues of the world order by force had passed. He believed in the choice of nations. He released political prisoners, stopped the war in Afghanistan and the nuclear arms race. He told me that he refused to press the nuclear attack button even in training!”

Muratov, whose newspaper closed this spring in response to Putin’s crackdown on the media after the invasion of Ukraine, added: “He did not consider killing a virtue.”