Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire, only to see that legacy succumb to Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russia, died Tuesday at the age of 91, after a prolonged illness.
Few people shaped modern geopolitics more than Mr. Gorbachev, who ascended to the post of general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1986 after his two immediate predecessors died within 13 months of each other. A relatively young 54 when he came to office, Mr. Gorbachev was the first and only Soviet leader born after the Russian Revolution of 1917. He opened the country’s closed political and economic system to changes that would eventually explode it.
Mr. Gorbachev’s greatest contribution was to tell the Red Army to stand down when his predecessors would have ordered bloodshed. Soviet troops stood aside as the Berlin Wall fell and other pro-democracy uprisings erupted across Eastern Europe in 1989. As the threat of nuclear war receded, the man affectionately known in the West as “Gorby” was awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.
Just as famed were Mr. Gorbachev’s world-changing policies of perestroika (“reform”) and glasnost (“opening”) in which the USSR went through wrenching economic and political changes that brought about the collapse of the totalitarianism system that had lasted from Vladimir Lenin through Leonid Brezhnev to Konstantin Chernenko, Mr. Gorbachev’s immediate predecessor. The vacuum was filled by an era of wild street politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola arriving in Moscow while the 15 republics that made up the Soviet Union each went their own way.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised Mr. Gorbachev on Tuesday as “a one-of-a-kind statesman who changed the course of history. He did more than any other individual to bring about the peaceful end of the Cold War.” Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Russian President would send a telegram of condolences to Mr. Gorbachev’s family and friends.
In an early 2000s conversation with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Gorbachev said the ideas that grew into perestroika and glasnost were born during an early 1980s visit to Canada, one that took place just before he rose to the post of general secretary. Mr. Gorbachev, who was born into a poor farming family in southern Russia, and who worked on a collective farm in his youth, was hosted at a farm outside Windsor, Ont., by then-agriculture minister Eugene Whelan. Another guest was Alexander Yakovlev, the Soviet ambassador to Ottawa.
Mr. Gorbachev said it was while walking alone in the quiet of Mr. Whelan’s fields that he and Mr. Yakovlev realized they shared a belief that the USSR was in desperate need of reform. It was a walk that changed the world – and not a conversation they could have safely had in Moscow.
After he ascended to the top job, Mr. Gorbachev brought Mr. Yakovlev into the Politburo, the small group of officials who governed the USSR. They were joined by another like-minded reformer, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
The tolerance the reformers showed as Eastern Europe ditched its experiment with communism did not extend to the USSR itself, which Mr. Gorbachev tried in vain to hold together. Fourteen people were killed in Lithuania in 1991 in clashes that began after Soviet troops took over government buildings in response to a declaration by the country’s parliament restoring Lithuania’s independence after five decades of Soviet occupation.
Mr. Gorbachev’s reformist credentials were also tarnished by his decision to order a business-as-usual approach even as Soviet officials became aware of the 1986 nuclear explosion at the Chernobyl facility in northern Ukraine.
Mr. Gorbachev frequently found himself trapped between those, including his onetime protégé Boris Yeltsin, who wanted to see reforms go faster, and hard-liners who resisted any kind of change.
In August, 1991, the hard-liners moved against Mr. Gorbachev, attempting to seize power in Moscow while Mr. Gorbachev was on holiday in Crimea. The coup attempt failed when Mr. Yeltsin rallied his supporters outside the White House in Moscow – an event that marked the ascendancy of Mr. Yeltsin and an independent Russia, and the beginning of the end for Mr. Gorbachev and the USSR.
On Christmas Day that year, Mr. Gorbachev announced his resignation. Within days, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, replaced by a Russian Federation headed by Mr. Yeltsin as president, as well as 14 other independent countries.
Over the three decades that followed, Mr. Gorbachev was hailed as a hero in the West for helping to bring about the end of the Cold War, even as he was reviled in Russia for destroying the country’s empire. Accusations that Mr. Gorbachev was a “traitor” who had sold his country out grew louder as Russia descended into political chaos and a deep economic crisis in the late 1990s.
The depths of Mr. Gorbachev’s unpopularity at home were made clear when he ran against Mr. Yeltsin in Russia’s 1996 presidential election, finishing seventh with less than 0.5 per cent of the vote.
Afterward, Mr. Gorbachev faded into semi-retirement, making only occasional pronouncements on the direction Russia was taking under Mr. Yeltsin and his chosen successor, Mr. Putin.
A harsh critic of Mr. Yeltsin’s tumultuous rule, Mr. Gorbachev was initially a supporter of Mr. Putin, and attended his first presidential inauguration in 2000. But Mr. Gorbachev turned critic when Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012, accusing the former KGB agent – who openly lamented the collapse of the USSR – of having “castrated” Russia’s fledgling democracy,
Mr. Gorbachev was equally critical of what he saw as American triumphalism, and a lack of respect for Russian interests. He was critical of the post-Cold War enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Eastern Europe, moves he said violated a verbal promise he had received that NATO would not expand eastward.
NATO’s eastward growth, and the possibility that Ukraine could one day join the alliance, were used by Mr. Putin to justify his Feb. 24 decision to invade Ukraine. Western scholars have noted the promise to Mr. Gorbachev was never put into writing.
Sergey Utkin, a Russian scholar of international relations, said that while Mr. Gorbachev’s rule ended in “failure,” he had “started an urgently needed reform and allowed people to talk freely, for the first time in many decades.”
Mr. Utkin said the changes unlocked by Mr. Gorbachev were continuing. “Even though it now seems like we are back in the old vicious circle, I think, we made quite some progress since then and gained experience that will help us in the future. … The transformation launched by perestroika is to be continued.”
The Ukraine war and Russia’s slide back into dictatorship are a sad ending to the euphoric era dubbed “Gorbymania.” The Soviet leader and his chic wife Raisa, who died in 1999, were global celebrities to the extent that Mr. Gorbachev was featured in a 1998 television commercial for Pizza Hut.
Mr. Gorbachev’s mixed legacy at home was the advertisement’s central theme. “Because of him, we have economic chaos!” one man says after the former leader was spotted eating in a Moscow branch of the American restaurant. “Because of him, we have new opportunities,” another customer rebuts.
An old lady eventually solves the argument by pointing out that Mr. Gorbachev had brought Russia many things, including Pizza Hut. But that, like so much else, has been undone by Mr. Putin.
Pizza Hut, like many international brands, has now ceased operations in Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.
SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, August 29, 2022