faculty & experts
09 September 2022

The Gorbachev Legacy

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was wildly popular abroad.  He was unpopular at home. Why? Honorary Professor Andre Liebich examines the differing East and West attitudes around the polarised political figure. 

In the West, particularly in Germany, Gorbachev was celebrated as the individual who had put a peaceful end to the Cold War – which had dominated American-Soviet relations for at least 40 years – and who had allowed the peaceful reunification of Germany. In Russia, he was seen as the man who had dissolved the Soviet empire and who was responsible for the humiliation that followed.

Both assessments are unfair. Perhaps because of the current concern about the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, it was recalled that Gorbachev took several days to announce to the world the Cernobyl tragedy. This is not to take into account the swathes of bureaucracy with which Gorbachev had to contend. Gorbachev dreamt of a common European home in which Russia would take an important place. The countries of the west – the United States in particular – prefer to see Russia as an outlier.

East Europeans bristle at the suggestion that their liberation from communism was due to the restraint of a Soviet leader rather than their own efforts. Russians lay the blame for the economic misery of the perestroika years and the discrediting of democracy that followed on Gorbachev alone.  It is true that Gorbachev was no economist.  His efforts in that direction were half-hearted and misguided. It is also true that the bad reputation of democracy in Russia is due to the Yeltsin years, the 1990s, when Gorbachev was no longer in power. His one attempt to challenge Yeltsin in a presidential campaign was an abject failure: Gorbachev garnered less than one per cent of the vote.

Like most Russians, Gorbachev approved of the annexation of Crimea.  He did not approve of the present war against Ukraine, as it represented everything he had combatted.  The question remains, however: did Mikhail Gorbachev, admirer  of Lenin, prepare the way for Vladimir Putin, admirer of Stalin?