With all the turmoil coming out of Russia in the past months, including war, sanctions, and agricultural hold-ups, the country finds itself in the news once again, this time for a much different reason. Last week was the end of an era, with the death of a man who was integral to the politics of the Soviet Union. Surprisingly, there was not much fanfare for the passing of this giant of a man, Mikhail Gorbachev, who died August 3, 2022 at the age of 91, from what the hospital calls a “serious and protracted disease.” Although a controversial figure, Gorbachev’s policies were integral in opening the Soviet economy in the 1980’s. He was also known for handling the USSR’s Chernobyl disaster, withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan after a decade-long standoff, and ending the Cold War.
From Humble Beginnings to the Nuclear Codes
The life of Gorbachev is very storied, and he certainly left his mark on the world around him. Gorbachev was the son of poor peasant parents, and learned to farm at a young age. Growing up in a time ruled by Joseph Stalin, he studied at Moscow State University and married fellow student Raisa Titarenko in 1953, going on to receive his law degree in 1955.
After decades of working in politics, Gorbachev’s true claim to fame was his role as the last leader of the Soviet Union, where he was at the helm from 1985 until the country dissolved in 1991. He was a champion of the Communist party, and many blame him to this day for breaking up the Soviet Union. At home, his policy of glasnost (“openness”), gave the people of the Soviet Union enhanced freedom of speech and press, while his perestroika (“restructuring”) was important in decentralizing economic decision-making, in hopes to improve efficiency. These democratic measures ended up undermining the one-party state. Citizens of his own country with allegiance to Marx and Lenin, attempted a coup in 1991, and the country dissolved against Gorbachev’s wishes. In Russia he is still controversial for dissolving the Soviet Union, weakening Russia’s influence around the globe, and leading to economic collapse. Soon after the attempted coup, he resigned, and founded the Gorbachev Foundation, which spoke out against Russian presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.
The 1980’s were a pivotal time for Gorbachev, and he was seen by those outside of his country as a forward-thinker. He worked with United States President Ronald Reagan to abandon the Cold War, as neither was interested in pointing nuclear weapons at the other. He was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. He was at the helm during the fall of Marxist-Leninist administrations in eastern and central Europe, as well as the reunification of Germany.
“Gorbachev gave an impulse to end the Cold War and sincerely believed that it will end and there will be an eternal romantic period between the new Soviet Union and the world, and the collective West as we call it,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman said.
“That romanticism did not work out,” Peskov went on. “The bloodthirstiness of our opponents showed itself and it is good that we have realized and understood it in time.”
Putin’s Response to the Fall of a Giant
Current Russian leader Vladimir Putin offered a lukewarm response to Gorbachev’s death. In remarks last week, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called the last Soviet leader, “a politician and statesman who had a huge impact on the course of world history” and offered a brief condolence to the family of the man who “led our country during a period of complex, dramatic changes. But as they say, actions speak louder than words, and Putin spent years trying to reverse the openness of Gorbachev’s policies. In fact, Putin is carrying out his war in Ukraine to recapture Russian lands, trying to reverse what he calls “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” the dissolution of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev’s watch.
Gorbachev was not granted a full state funeral, but his funeral took place in Moscow’s Hall of Columns, where former Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin had their state funerals. He was laid to rest next to his wife Raisa at Novodevichy Cemetery. Putin was noticeably absent from the funeral, citing his work schedule, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, though he did pay his respects with a bouquet of roses last week. Because of the ramifications of the war on Ukraine, there were few foreign leaders in attendance. U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan was there, calling Gorbachev “a remarkable man” and “a statesman who changed the world, with his vision for peace, for transformation in his own country and in the world.”
Although Gorbachev has what some claim to be a tarnished legacy, he rose to power at a time that required much reform. Gorbachev “deeply understood that reforms were necessary, he strove to offer his own solutions to urgent problems,” said Putin, who noted “the great humanitarian, charitable and educational work” of Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa.
Unfortunately, since his early days in the Kremlin, Putin has worked hard to undo Mr. Gorbachev’s signature policies such as glasnost, meaning openness and transparency of government and free discussion of its work.
In ill health in the last months of his life, Gorbachev had not spoken publicly on the war in Ukraine. The son of a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father, Gorbachev did share Putin’s view that Ukraine should be in Russia’s orbit, once telling a journalist: “It might not be a scientific fact, but we are the same people.” He supported Mr. Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, but told a Siberian news outlet that the worst could be avoided.
Although he personally did not speak out, two days after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February, his Gorbachev Foundation, a research institute that “seeks to promote democratic values,” issued a statement calling for a “speedy cessation of hostilities” and “the immediate start of peace talks.”
Clearly, the war in Ukraine has not been settled before Gorbachev’s death, and many questions about the future of Russia remain. For all the unrest that surrounds the name of Gorbachev, he was a man that tried to squelch the problems of the Soviet Union of the time and his legacy will live on.