Gorbachev’s moral authority did little to stop Putin

“He has led our country through a period of complex and dramatic changes, wide-ranging foreign policy, and economic and social challenges,” the statement said. “He deeply understood that reforms were necessary, he strived to offer his own solutions to pressing problems.”

A sense of protocol may have prevented the Kremlin leader from telling us what he really thinks about the man who presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union, what Putin once called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. For a more rigorous opinion, we can count on Margarita Simonyan, the combat editor-in-chief of the state propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today).

“Gorbachev is dead,” Simonyan wrote on Twitter. “It’s time to collect what is scattered.”

Simonyan apparently directed its chief, who embarked on a campaign to restore the empire with the conquest of Ukraine. It is tempting to look at the two leaders through a simple narrative arc: Gorbachev has allowed the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics to disintegrate, and Putin, through brute force, is trying to repartition this empire together.

On February 26, two days after the Russian invasion, the Gorbachev Foundation called for an “early cessation of hostilities and the immediate start of peace negotiations.”

But it would be an exaggeration to say that Gorbachev has been a consistent and outspoken critic of Putin. For starters, Gorbachev emerged as a supporter of Russia’s 2014 move to annex Crimea in the Black Sea from Ukraine, a prelude to Putin’s all-out invasion of the country.

In retrospect, Gorbachev himself resisted the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In a wide-ranging 2012 interview with CNN’s Christian Amanpour, the last Soviet president insisted that his efforts to hold the Soviet Union together had been undermined by Boris Yeltsin – who later became president of an independent Russia after the 1991 collapse – and by the Soviet leadership.

“You will not find in any of my speeches to the end anything that supports the dissolution of the union,” Gorbachev said. “The dissolution of the Union was the result of the betrayal of the Soviet Nomenklatura (the party elite), by the bureaucracy, as well as the betrayal of Yeltsin.”

Gorbachev’s main complaint was that Yeltsin supported the so-called Union Treaty that would have kept the Soviet Union as a more flexible union, but he worked in parallel behind his back to establish his own power base and orchestrate Russia’s exit from the Union.

In fact, the national independence movements in Ukraine, the Baltic states and other republics had already gained significant momentum in the late era of perestroika (restructuring). And after a failed coup attempt by hardliners in August 1991, the Gorbachev Union treaty effectively died in the water.

In fairness, Gorbachev wasn’t the only one to misread the situation. A few weeks before the August 1991 coup attempt, US President George HW Bush visited Kyiv – the then capital of the Ukrainian SSR – and delivered a speech blaming Ukrainians for avoiding what he called “suicidal nationalism”.

Bush’s speech – reminiscent of today’s Chicken Kyiv speech – ended like a balloon of lead. Bush and his advisors may have been as concerned about the nightmare scenario of a devastating break-up as it was initially in Yugoslavia, leaving a huge nuclear arsenal in uncertain hands. But within a few months, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Gorbachev, who began his rise through the ranks of the Communist Party in Russia’s southern Stavropol region, may not have accommodated the national aspirations of Ukrainians—or the desires of other nations imprisoned within the Soviet Union for independence. His willingness to violently suppress protests in the Soviet republics—something rarely mentioned in discussions of his career—is a disgrace to his legacy.

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This does not necessarily put Gorbachev in the same rank with Putin, who refuses to accept Ukraine as a legitimate country, and laments what he calls “the artificial division between Russians and Ukrainians.”

It is often noted that Gorbachev – who signed major arms control agreements that cooled the Cold War and removed the world from the dangers of nuclear war – enjoys international standing while often insulted in Russia. Gorbachev’s fans like to point out that he has a deep human streak.

Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and editor-in-chief of the independent Novaya Gazeta — a newspaper that Gorbachev helped fund — praised the late leader for his gentle nature, a trait that Putin rarely notices.

He loved a woman [his wife Raisa] More than his job,” he wrote in his homage. I guess he couldn’t hug her if his hands were covered in blood. “

Could Gorbachev have used what remains of his moral authority in Russia to call Putin more forcefully for his actions? Will the indifferent Russian public listen? We will never know. But his reticence meant that his criticisms of Russia’s slide toward dictatorship were often muted.

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