Political scientist Fyodor Krasheninnikov, who emigrated from Russia, noted that the Kremlin did everything to ensure that Mikhail Gorbachev’s funeral was “silent.” No speeches were made in memory of this historic politician. As Krasheninnikov lamented, “Everything that can and should be said at his grave is impossible for public utterance in Moscow in September 2022. Mikhail Gorbachev did everything to stop the USSR from being a dictatorship—a threat to democracy and world peace. Vladimir Putin has turned Russia into a citadel of evil, aggression and militarism, in which Gorbachev no longer had a place” (DW, September 5).
However, crowds of people came out in droves to say goodbye to the late Soviet leader. Moscow lawyer Mikhail Biryukov pointed out, “Many thousands of people in line for many hours to bid farewell to Gorbachev is the only form of political protest available today” (Svoboda, September 5).
For the current Russian authorities and their propaganda, Gorbachev was a “traitor and destroyer.” Indeed, Pravda, which was the official government newspaper under Gorbachev and remains a mouthpiece for the Kremlin under Putin, only published negative comments about the Soviet president (Pravda.ru, August 31). Putin defiantly did not attend the funeral, and the event was not granted official status, as is customary in such cases when former presidents pass away.
Such a policy can be defined as “backwards perestroika.” In 2005, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” and has dedicated his indefinite rule to correcting it. In truth, both leaders have opposing modes of thinking. Gorbachev, although a party leader, was a civilian who harbored a desire for reforms, which was rare for Soviet communists. Putin comes from the special services, for whom control over society and “the fight against state enemies” are the most critical.
Therefore, in fact, the entire Putin era appears to be a consistent liquidation of Gorbachev’s historical legacy. The last Soviet general secretary was opposed to wars with other countries; in 1989, he withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan. And at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Gorbachev Foundation declared “the need for an early cessation of hostilities and the immediate start of peace negotiations” (Gorby.ru, February 26).
Nuclear threats to other countries, which have become popular under Putin, would have been unthinkable under Gorbachev, with his strategy of global nuclear disarmament. Inside the country, the Soviet leader advocated parliamentarism, opening in 1989 the first Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union with independent politicians. Today, the Russian State Duma makes decisions only at the direction of the presidential administration. In 1990, Gorbachev signed a law on freedom of the press, an incredible policy compared to the previous repressive Soviet regime. Today, freedom of the press has been completely destroyed by Putin’s censorship. Gorbachev released all Soviet political prisoners, but in Putin’s Russia, their number exceeded 1,000 even before start of the war with Ukraine (Memohrc.org, February 9). And the number of police arrests of citizens for subsequent anti-war actions, often simply for posters displaying the message, “We want peace,” exceeded 16,000 (Ovdinfo.org, accessed September 17).
Gorbachev stopped appointing party governors to various regions and introduced the direct election of local authorities. Today, the appointment of governors by the Kremlin has been restored. The union and autonomous republics of the Soviet Union in 1990 proclaimed their sovereignty—but today, Russia, despite its official declaration as being a “federation,” is, in fact, a hyper-centralist unitary regime, where all regional self-government has been eliminated. In addition, the Kremlin is trying to retake control of all former Soviet republics.
The Soviet president did not want to preserve the previous USSR but rather transform it into a model similar to the future European Union—that is, a voluntary association based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Gorby.ru, accessed September 18). Fighting against the signing of the New Union Treaty, in August 1991, a putsch broke out—the old party nomenklatura and security forces felt they were losing power. As a result, the Gorbachev treaty project was completely destroyed “on the other political side”—the Belovezhskaya agreements of December 1991, which were signed by the leaders of the republics, who were elected precisely thanks to Gorbachev’s reforms. The main participant in those agreements, Boris Yeltsin, never built an equal federation in Russia, but by the end (1999), he transferred power to Putin, a veteran of the KGB, who, in principle, denied treaty statehood. So the putsch, paradoxically, still won.
Of course, in just six years, it was impossible to accurately carry out such an unprecedented transformation of a gigantic country with centuries of imperial history. And Gorbachev himself, in a 2001 interview, named his two main mistakes. First, he tried too long to reform the Soviet Communist Party, instead of pushing the party conservatives from power at once. Second, he delayed for several years the development of a new Union Treaty—until the period when slogans of independence already began to prevail in different republics. But the Soviet leader explained this by saying that he wanted to carry out this transformation smoothly, avoiding potential social conflicts as much as possible (Svoboda, September 1).
Of Gorbachev, US historian Nathaniel Knight said: “Although he did many important things, the most important one is that he ended the Cold War. He allowed the fall of the Berlin Wall. He gave Eastern European countries the opportunity to leave the Communist bloc and did not resort to violence” (Svoboda, September 3).
In a word, as this author wrote last year in an article dedicated to Gorbachev’s 90th birthday, the Soviet general secretary changed the planet but lost in Russia (Region.expert, March 2, 2021). He is unacceptable to the current Kremlin leadership because Putin is too clearly pursuing a policy opposite to Gorbachev: restoring an empire instead of building a treaty state, as well as renewing the Cold War with the West instead of building on Gorbachev’s “new thinking.” In his book Perestroika and New Thinking, published in 1987 and frightening then to party conservatives, General Secretary Gorbachev placed universal human values above “class” squabbles. Today, Putin today again refuses universal human values, preferring “national” and “traditional” norms.
Today’s Russia has paradoxically returned to the pre-perestroika era, or rather, it has fallen into a synthesis of the Soviet and Tsarist empires, as constructed by Putin’s political technologists. This historical revenge is incompatible with the modern global world. In Russia, after defeat in war, an era of reforms has usually followed. Thus, perhaps, a “new Gorbachev” may appear soon.