Russians divided over Gorbachev legacy

·3-min read

For some he brought winds of change that could have paved the way for a better Russia, for others economic hardship and bitterness.

But despite his controversial legacy, many Russians on Wednesday agreed that Mikhail Gorbachev, who has died at the age of 91, was a key figure in the country's history.

Gorbachev was in power between 1985 and 1991, stepping down in the final days of the Soviet Union.

Some Russians lament the end of the Soviet era, holding Gorbachev personally responsible.

Among them is 70-year-old Vladimir Zavkov, who did not mince words speaking to AFP in central Moscow, calling Gorbachev a "traitor".

"For me he is some kind of illiterate politician, who let such a great country fall apart. And anything good he may have done is crossed out by that," said the retired Zavkov.

Another Muscovite, Nadezhda Aleksina, was not so harsh, but did admit that Gorbachev was "controversial".

"For Russia, I think he was a really significant figure. It was thanks to him that Russia appeared. So I think it's a big loss for many," said Aleksina, a web designer in her 30s.

Gorbachev was superseded by the younger Boris Yeltsin, who became the first president of modern Russia.

Yeltsin's transition of Russia to a market economy was marked by galloping inflation and food shortages in the 1990s, a time remembered bitterly by many Russians today.

Some believe that without the collapse of the Soviet Union they would not have had to live through these economic hardships.

- 'Traitor' or reformer? -

"We may not have been rich then, but we were guaranteed jobs," said Tatyana Silayeva, a retired 67-year-old.

As for Gorbachev, Silayeva said she views him "very negatively".

"He did a good deed for the United States -- he let our country fall apart. And for us, he turned out to be a complete traitor."

Gorbachev was credited with diffusing soaring Cold War-era tensions between Moscow and Washington, earning him respect in the West.

He was awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a historic nuclear arms control pact with then US president Ronald Reagan.

"He gave both the country and the world an incredible gift -- he gave us 30 years of peace. Without the threat of global and nuclear war," Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of newspaper Novaya Gazeta, wrote in a tribute to Gorbachev.

During his tenure, Gorbachev championed freedom and change, and in particular used part of his Nobel prize winnings to help set up Novaya Gazeta -- a leading independent publication for over two decades.

Novaya Gazeta, however, suspended publication in late March following Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine, with independent media facing unprecedented pressure.

The growing crackdown on media and activism under President Vladimir Putin during his more than 20 years in power has been seen as a reversal of Gorbachev's legacy.

However, for prominent post-Soviet rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, the reforms started by Gorbachev cannot be undervalued.

"People who show aggression today are people who want to return to the Soviet system. These are people who were slaves and want to keep it that way," the 80-year-old told AFP.

"They do not want to appreciate the one who gave them freedom. And Gorbachev gave us freedom."

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