What is to be made of a man who changed the world — hero or villain? Sinner or saint? Visionary or romanticist? The jury is probably evenly split on the leader who dismantled the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War to change the world. Such ambivalence means the last President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, will not even get a State funeral in his homeland Russia — the press secretary said the funeral will have “elements” of a State funeral, such as honorary guards, etc., but would not elaborate on how the ceremony will differ from a full-fledged State funeral. Gorbachev was lionised abroad but vilified at home but, when history judges him, it cannot ignore the enormous contribution he made in creating the greatest opportunity ever for world peace.
The general peace that reigned in the decade after the Iron Curtain came down was, however, unlikely to last forever. But, as Cold War II seems ready to erupt, if it has not done so already after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Gorbachev is not the man to blame. And yet Putin uses the dismantling of the mighty Soviet Union during Gorbachev’s reign — on the premise that its rigid dictatorship had to make way for social democracy for the sake of humankind — to justify his efforts to undo the changes that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate had brought about in the demolition of the once mighty empire over 30 years ago.
As the thinking of Karl Marx gave way to that of Mahatma Gandhi in Gorbachev, a bipolar world, on the brink of nuclear war, made way for a unipolar world to be dominated by the US. The global policeman and keeper of the peace of the free world, may have shown the tendency to go to war against any nation favouring Russia and even followed the Soviets into Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack. But the Russians were left fuming over the economic miracle promised by their leader that never came.
As the political architecture of Eastern Europe changed drastically with the fall of Communist regimes, the year 1989 came to be equated in historical terms with 1789 and the beginning of the French Revolution and Gorbachev was hailed as the man who not only saw “tomorrow” but also made it possible. However, in Russia, the supermarket shelves, filled with vodka besides the basics, didn’t have much more than American cola and pizza to offer.
His successor Boris Yeltsin may have hit the nail on the head when he said that Gorbachev had tried to unite the impossible — Communism with the free market and political pluralism with the Communist Party. Nation after nation may have drifted away to freedom but the Russians alone seemed not to know what to do with their newfound privileges. The fear of the State may not be a desirable aspect of life, but the people seemed to reconcile with that in yearning for the protection of the great State that would provide everything for them.
“It will never be possible to turn society back,” Gorbachev, who became an itinerant statesman after defeat in a presidential poll, admitted in later life. The biggest question swirling now, decades after “Perestroika” and “glasnost” joined the lexicon, is whether Gorbachev wished to demolish the Soviet system altogether or merely wanted to reform it and route it towards an enlightened path of social democracy and personal freedoms. At the end of this remarkable man’s life, the free world will always see the best side of Gorbachev while the Russians will only see the other villainous side.