Gorbachev’s death mourns in West as Putin, Russia reacts coldly

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Gorbachev criticized some of Putin’s policies in later years and lamented the “militarization of world politics”. Meanwhile, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century”, for which many in Russia blamed Gorbachev.

While Putin was timid in his assessment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov argued that, according to state news agency Tass, Gorbachev’s search for “romantic” peace between Moscow and the West was an empty dream.

“This romance did not happen. There was no romantic period or honeymoon,” said Peskov. “The bloodlust of our rivals showed itself.”

Gorbachev ran arms control agreements and advocated economic restructuring and greater openness at home through policies of “glasnost” or openness and “perestroika” or restructuring, while winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for helping to end the Cold War.

But these reforms ultimately helped weaken the USSR to the point of collapse, and it was the way it handled these events that made many in Russia and post-Soviet countries suffer.

US President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev laugh together during the 1991 Moscow Summit.
Presidents George Bush and Gorbachev laugh together during the 1991 Moscow Summit.via Getty Images file by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG

Some accuse him of overseeing the destruction of an empire and a way of life, while others accuse him of failing to make a smooth transition to democracy and capitalism.

He challenged his image of a typical Soviet leader – his purple birthmark made him instantly recognizable, while his appearance in a Pizza Hut television commercial and the late ’90s episode of “The Simpsons” gave him near-celebrity status in the West.

In contrast, he was a pariah in his hometown until then, as many people struggled with unemployment, corruption and instability in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Studio technicians make last-minute adjustments before interviewing former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost on October 27, 1996.
Gorbachev became a popular figure in the West after leaving office and appeared on TV shows in the US and UK.Adam Butler / PA Images via Getty Images file

Vladislav Zubok, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, who has written extensively about Gorbachev, said that this is what made the difference in the expected reactions to his death.

“He sits on two very different histories – one date called the end of the Cold War and the victory of the West, and that makes him a hero. And another history is Soviet death, collapse, chaos and misery, which makes him the bad guy,” he said.

Although the end of the Cold War is perceived in the West as Gorbachev’s greatest achievement, in Russia it is seen as “surrender and surrender before the West,” said Nikolai Petrov, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London.

“What is valued in the West is perceived by many in Russia as a manifestation of weakness,” Petrov said.

Mikhaïl Gorbatchev at his cottage in Moscow on November 11, 1989.
Gorbachev at his Moscow dacha in November 1989.Via Getty Images file Vlastimir Nesic/Gamma-Rapho Shine

Amid a largely modest response in the Russian media, this mixed legacy was summed up in an editorial by state news agency Ria: “Russia and the West bid farewell to different Gorbachevs.”

On Wednesday, there was still no decision on whether Gorbachev would receive a state funeral, and that would often be a foregone conclusion for a figure like him.

Many Russian politicians also expressed mixed feelings about Gorbachev’s death.

Sergei Mironov, leader of the pro-Kremlin party Just Russia, told state news agency Tass on Wednesday that Gorbachev gave the Soviet people “hope for change” but eventually lost their country.

Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny said his perception of Gorbachev had turned from “brutal anger” to “sad respect” to the contrary.

Navalny, Gorbachev’s legacy a series of tweets behind bars, “will be viewed much more favorably by posterity than by their contemporaries.”



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