I still vividly remember the skepticism, surprise, and disbelief with which Sovietologists watched Mikhail Gorbachev in the second half of the 1980s. Skepticism that he was truly the radical reformer he claimed to be in 1985-1986. Surprise at the breathtaking changes he introduced under the guise of glasnost and perestroika in 1987-1988, and disbelief that he was abandoning the East European Communist regimes in 1989 and leading the Soviet Union toward dissolution in 1990-1991.
The USSR had experienced radical reform in the past—in the 1920s after Lenin’s death and in the 1950s after Stalin’s—but both times the Party elites feared that change would destabilize the system and cracked down. In contrast, Gorbachev pushed reform as far as it could go, with the result that communism collapsed and the Soviet empire ceased to exist. He didn’t want the USSR to be relegated to, as Soviet propagandists used to say, the “ash heap of history,” but once he attacked the Communist Party apparatus and enabled other parties to compete, the Party lost its ability to hold the country together and the non-Russians took advantage of the chaos in the center to promote their sovereignty and independence. The failed putsch by hardline apparatchiks in mid-1991 proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Most Russians came to despise Gorbachev for losing the empire and the state, but he remained wildly popular in the rest of the world, showing that even people raised in the Russian Communist tradition could be enlightened, modern, and liberal. Gorbachev failed to reform the USSR. But he did so much more that has earned him a permanent positive place in history: he dismantled totalitarianism, reined in the secret police, freed political prisoners, gave people and countries a voice, and significantly reduced tensions with the West. We lived in a better world for one decade thanks to him.
Until Vladimir Putin came along and, exploiting popular disillusionment and economic pain, replaced Russia’s incipient democracy with fascism, reinstated the secret police, killed political opponents, deprived people and countries of a voice, significantly increased tensions with the West—and started a genocidal war in Ukraine. Putin destroyed Gorbachev’s achievements while at the same time manipulating them in such a way as to persuade Russians that his policies were superior to Gorbachev’s. Although Gorbachev did not publicly comment on the war, he told the journalist Alexei Venediktov that he was “upset” over Putin’s policies. “’Gorbachev’s reforms – political, not economic – were all destroyed,’ Venediktov said.’Nilch, zero, ashes.’”
Putin is Russia’s anti-Gorbachev, in terms both of personality and politics. Putin is a thug; Gorbachev was a gentleman. Putin is an imperialist and fascist; Gorbachev gave freedom to scores of nations and struggled to build a democracy.
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Ironically, Putin is well on the way to reducing his empire to “nilch, zero, ashes.” The invasion of Ukraine is a strategic blunder of world-historical proportions, one that has mortally weakened Putin’s realm, regime, and himself. In an eerie replay of the late 1980s, Putin’s two decades of anti-reforms have been met with skepticism, surprise, and disbelief in the West. Skepticism that he was serious about dismantling democracy. Surprise at the stupidity of his invasion. And disbelief that he was consciously leading the Russian Federation toward an ignominious end.
Gorbachev will be missed by millions. Fittingly, Putin’s demise will be cheered by millions.
Expert Biography: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”
August 31, 2022 at 11:16 am
There is a wave of ‘country destruction’. Russia, USA, where else will it wash over?
Scooter Van Neuter
August 31, 2022 at 11:30 am
August 31, 2022 at 11:39 am
Putin and Lavrov are a disgrace to Russia and Putin would not be fit to polish Mikels boots if he were alive still ,God Bless Mr M. Gorbachev RIP Sir. The above gruesome twosome are the scum of Russian society you know whenever they are telling lies because their lips move, rest my case.How a Russian insider has not made this little sad demented Neo Nazi Despot and leader of the Designated StatedTerrorist country Russia, Before any silly Russian starts shouting its not us it’s the West propaganda open your funking eyes read the real true of this man Putin an Ogre a murderer a corrupt thief who has robbed Russia blind to name all jis atrocities would take a melenium he does not deserve to be still on this earth he is a liability to mankind and the Universe why Russians support this pathetic tiny little piece of Russian Scum and Coward who knows ,ridding this tiny Bastard from each would be doing mankind a tremendous favour and help give peace a chance.PUTIN IS A CUNT FULL FUCKING STOP.
August 31, 2022 at 11:48 am
Msgr. Motyl once more shares a Ukrainian nationalist screed largely disconnected from reality. Unlike him whose object is to defend Ukraine uber alles, As an American military officer whose loyalty is to defending the United States, I completely disagree with him and his conclusions. His throw away line about the “irrelevance” due to positive “world opinion” of old Gorby being vastly unpopular in Russia and of Russians’ view of him as having presided over disaster is particularly illuminating. This is akin to a British historian writing about how Benedict Arnold, while unpopular in America, is quite looked up to in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.
Msgr. Motyl is mistaken that Americans at least will miss an old totalitarian like Gorby or Castro, and who gives two hoots about whether a sub-par de facto tributary client state of the United States like most of the (about to be subsumed into a European superstate) Western Europe “counties’” populations believe. Going by their perspective is akin to giving the Melotians a heckler’s veto over Athenian policy in the Peloponnesian War. The great question is—how is Gorby viewed by his OWN people? What did he do FOR THEM? It is THEM and them alone, one’s own people alone to whom any leader or government owes a duty. Our government exists solely to defend the liberties of our American people… Msgr. Motyl should recall the purpose of government.
August 31, 2022 at 12:59 pm
While I agree that Putin is bad for Russia he didn’t destroy it. WE DID. After the collapse America sent over ivy league academics to help Russia get democracy rolling. Turning them into a kleptocracy run by corporations headed by crony politicians and the Russian mob.
Putin may be hammering in the last few nails but we killed Russia in its infancy and plopped it into the coffin
August 31, 2022 at 1:25 pm
Don’t be so quick to sing Gorbachev’s praises. He never wanted to end the Soviet Union. His goal was a reform along the lines of China’s capitalist makeover. Even the economic reforms he backed were forced on him because Reagan made the USSR spend tons of money on their military to try and keep up with the US. If Gorbachev had succeeded in his aim the USSR would still be around today — in some form. Let’s be glad events got out of his control and true freedom was seized by the people of Eastern Europe and Russia.
August 31, 2022 at 2:23 pm
Gorbachev BETRAYED the soviet union. No ifs and buts.
History and aspiring leaders need to learn from gorby’s earth-shaking mistakes.
One of gorby’s worst errors (perhaps his worst) was removing andrei gromyko from post of foreign minister.
With gromyko (a man totally devoted to USSR) out of the way, gorby promoted many spineless characters to strengthen his position and inadvertently paved path for eventual dissolution.
Gorby took on the main role of dealing with western leaders when it should have been best left to a steely guy like gromyko. Gorby fully (& fatally) enjoyed the associated limelight, the trips abroad, holidays, photo ops while neglecting critical tasks at home.
That’s a VALUABLE lesson for all aspiring leaders to learn. Never be in charge of everything, let real experts handle real minefield of foreign dealings and focus on the job at hand.
There is a BIG grain of wisdom in the adage jack of all trades but master of none.
from Russia with love
August 31, 2022 at 3:56 pm
Gorbachev is an ambiguous figure. it is impossible to say unequivocally who is hated in Russia more – Gorbachev or Hitler. Opinions about his funeral also differed. there are those who believe that it is tedious to build his grave immediately in the form of a public toilet. another part of the population believes that his corpse should be sent abroad and he has no place in Russian soil.
one thing can be said unequivocally – the hatred of the Russian population towards Gorbachev is very great.