Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday, aged 91, was celebrated in the West as a great leader but in Russia he was reviled for causing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its empire and superpower standing.
A state-run polling company ranked him the most unpopular Russian leader of the 20th century, even less popular than a murderous tyrant like Stalin. More than 70 per cent of Russians believed their country had moved in the wrong direction during his rule, found a poll conducted in 2021, while President Vladimir Putin, described the demise of the Soviet Union, presided over by Gorbachev as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.
Many had blamed him for trying to change too much too soon, accusing him of a degree of naivety in believing radical political and economic reform of a totalitarian state with a command economy could be brought about smoothly. It could not, people became worse off as a result of his economic reforms, while the political freedoms granted through the policy of glasnost caused the situation to veer out of control. The collapse of the Communist Party and the break-up of the Soviet Union could not be stopped, but was this such a bad thing?
Gorbachev also brought the Cold War to an end which led to the fall of the Iron Curtain that not only divided Europe for 40 years. Countries like Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania were free of Soviet control and Communist party rule, while the way was paved for the reunification of Germany. These countries regained their freedom thanks to Gorbachev and transformed from police states to liberal democracies. The Baltic states, Georgia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics also left the Union and followed the path of independence and democracy.
“He gave freedom to hundreds of millions of people in Russia and around it, and also half of Europe,” said former Russian liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky. “Few leaders in history have had such a decisive influence on their time.” Perhaps the people of Russia believed the greater freedoms they enjoyed in the late 80s and early 90s thanks to Gorbachev’s reforms were too high a price to pay for the loss of the Soviet empire which stretched over almost half of Europe. The people of this half – the liberated, Soviet satellite states of Europe – in contrast, owe Gorbachev a great debt of gratitude.
There was not a hint of exaggeration in UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ comment that Gorbachev “was a one-of-a-kind statesman who changed the course of history”, and that the “world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace.”