Analysis: Why Gorbachev is remembered as a giant in the West and a pariah at home

The last leader of the Soviet Union died Tuesday at the age of 91, and Washington and the Kremlin were on opposite sides of President Vladimir Putin’s heated war in Ukraine, set out in part to avenge the Soviet collapse precipitated by Gorbachev’s rule.

It is difficult to summarize what Gorbachev meant to Western audiences in the 1980s, after one of the most dangerous periods of East-West confrontation. After generations of ruthless, hostile, hard-line, and aging Kremlin leaders, he was young, modern, and fresh – a visionary and a reformer.

Gorbachev inspired the sudden hope that the nuclear standoff that haunted the world in the second half of the twentieth century would not end with the destruction of civilization. US President Ronald Reagan and his British partner, Margaret Thatcher, were among the most hard-line warriors of the Cold War. But to their credit, they realized a moment of promise – as the British Prime Minister said of the Soviet leader: “We can do business together.”

Everyone remembers the day Reagan went to Berlin and against the backdrop of the Brandenburg Gate – disfigured by the ugly and inhuman concrete barrier between East and West – he said: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” It was one of the most iconic moments in modern US history. At the time, few people thought that was possible. In fact, some White House aides thought the comments were overly provocative and tried to persuade Reagan not to say them. But in the end, in a great humanitarian act, Gorbachev effectively demolished this wall.

After a series of violent talks on 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 revolts against communist regimes erupted in the Warsaw Pact countries in 1989 that led to the liberation of Eastern Europe, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the end of the Cold War, and German reunification.

This outburst of freedom left 30 years of relative peace in Europe.

Outcast in the West and outcast at home

But while Gorbachev was well-liked in the West, he came to be seen as a pariah at home. It is now often forgotten that his goal was not necessarily the dismantling of the communist Soviet Union. In many ways, he was forced by decades of economic decline in the communist regime and the draining effect of the nuclear arms race with the West.

But in his attempt to save the system, he unleashed the forces that destroyed it. Far from declaring the “end of history” as was often said at the time, his impact caused consequences that could have been felt on the day of his death, as Moscow and the West once again entered into a Cold War-style conflict.

At home, Gorbachev had two sweeping ideas, the sound (opening up) and Perestroika (Restructuring). The rapid collapse of the Soviet Union, caused by perestroika, led to harsh economic conditions, chaos and a blow to national dignity. All this added to the circumstances that made a strongman like Putin attractive to many Russians.

The moment Gorbachev refused to send the Red Army into Eastern Europe to save the Communist bloc, Putin was stationed with the KGB in East Germany and felt the twinge of desertion from Moscow. He came to see the demise of the Soviet empire as a historical catastrophe. Once in power, Putin set out to restore Russia’s wounded national standing.

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

Now the world is burdened with a leader in the Kremlin who, unlike Gorbachev, is ready to redraw the map of Europe by force — even if restoring the Warsaw Pact is beyond his reach, with millions in Eastern Europe now effectively living up to Gorbachev’s legacy in democratic and free societies.

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

But until the end of his days, Gorbachev denounced Putin’s excesses and traveled the world warning of the danger of a breakdown in relations between the two largest nuclear powers in the world. His recollection of being a giant in the West and outcast at home speaks to the Gulf in understanding and experience that once again poisons East-West relations.

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

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

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