Analysis: why Gorbachev is considered a giant in the West and an outcast at home


The tragedy of Mikhail Gorbachev is that he survived the Cold War thaw between Moscow and the United States, having done more than anyone to organize it.

The last leader of the Soviet Union died Tuesday at the age of 91, with Washington and the Kremlin on opposite sides of President Vladimir Putin’s hot war in Ukraine, launched in part to avenge the Soviet collapse precipitated by the Gorbachev regime.

It’s hard to sum up what Gorbachev meant to Western audiences in the 1980s, after one of the most dangerous periods in the clash between East and West. After generations of stern, hostile, harsh and aged Kremlin leaders, he was young, modern and fresh – a visionary and a reformer.

Gorbachev inspired sudden hope that the nuclear confrontation that haunted the world in the second half of the 20th century would not end up destroying civilization. US President Ronald Reagan and his British soul mate, Margaret Thatcher, were the most warmongering of the cold warriors. But to their credit, they achieved a moment of promise – as the British Prime Minister said of the Soviet leader: “We can do business together”.

Everyone remembers the day when Reagan went to Berlin and in front of the Brandenburg Gate – which had been disfigured by the horrible and inhuman concrete barrier between East and West – said: “Mr. Gorbachev, shoot down this wall.” It was one of the most iconic moments in modern American history. At the time, few people thought it was possible. In fact, some White House aides found the comments too provocative and tried to persuade Reagan not to say them. But ultimately, in an act of great humanity, Gorbachev did break down that wall.

After a heady series of discussions on reducing nuclear arms control and meetings with Western leaders, Gorbachev became a hero in the West. But it was his decision not to intervene with military force when popular rebellions broke out against communist regimes in the Warsaw Pact countries in 1989, which led to the liberation of Eastern Europe, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany.

This surge of freedom bequeathed 30 years of relative peace in Europe.

But while revered in the West, Gorbachev came to be seen as an outcast at home. It is often forgotten today that his objective was not necessarily to dismantle the communist Soviet Union. In many ways, its hand has been forced by decades of economic decline in the communist system and the draining impact of a nuclear arms race with the West.

But while trying to save the system, he unleashed forces that destroyed it. Far from announcing the “end of the story” as it was often said at the time, his influence had consequences that were still being felt on the day of his death, with Moscow and the West once again at loggerheads. in a chill of cold war.

At home, Gorbachev had two main ideas, Glasnost (opening) and perestroika (restructuring). The rapid collapse of the Soviet Union, shattered by perestroika, led to extreme economic conditions, disorder and a blow to national pride. All of this added to the circumstances that ultimately made a strongman like Putin attractive to many Russians.

At the time Gorbachev refused to send the Red Army to Eastern Europe to save the communist bloc, Putin was stationed with the KGB in East Germany and felt the sting of Moscow’s desertion. He came to see the demise of the Soviet Empire as a historical disaster; and once Putin took power, he set about restoring wounded Russian national prestige.

Putin (right) talks to Gorbachev (left) on December 21, 2004.

Now the world is grappling with a leader in the Kremlin, who, unlike Gorbachev, is ready to remap Europe by force – even if a restoration of the Warsaw Pact is beyond his reach, with millions of people in Eastern Europe who are now effectively living out Gorbachev’s legacy in democratic and free societies.

Gorbachev’s reign was not without flaws from a Western perspective. He sent tanks to Lithuania to crush hopes of independence for the Baltic states in 1991, months before he left power. And he was banned from Ukraine for five years after saying he supported Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

But until the end of his days, Gorbachev decried Putin’s excesses and traveled the world warning of the peril of falling relations between the world’s two leading nuclear powers. That he is remembered as a giant in the West and an outcast at home testifies to the chasm of understanding and experience which again poisons East-West relations.

Gorbachev never stopped mourning his beloved wife, Raisa, who died of leukemia in 1999. Now he follows her and her contemporaries from a remarkable moment in history – Reagan, Thatcher, President George HW Bush, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand – at the grave.

Everywhere except in Russia, he will be remembered as one of those rare characters in history who, by his character and vision, truly changed the world.


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