Why was Gorbachev so popular in West, so unpopular in Russia?

·7-min read
© Lisi Niesner, Reuters

The death of Mikhail Gorbachev prompted gushing tributes from across the West on Wednesday but much less of a reaction in Russia. FRANCE 24 examines why Gorbachev is lionised in the West for his role in ending the Cold War, but scorned in Russia for overseeing the collapse of the Soviet Union, which provoked the economic collapse of Russia’s dark 1990s.

Reactions to Gorbachev’s death diverged widely between most of the West, on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other.

The Soviet Union's final leader from 1985 to 1991, Gorbachev was a “man of peace whose choices opened up a path of liberty for Russians”, said French President Emmanuel Macron. “His commitment to peace in Europe changed our shared history.”

Perhaps the most fulsome praise came from ex-German chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up under communist tyranny in East Germany. Merkel lauded Gorbachev as a “unique world politician” who “exemplified how a single statesman can change the world for the better”.

But when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram of condolence to Gorbachev’s family on Tuesday, he stuck to stating facts – saying that “he led our country during a period of complex and dramatic changes and large-scale foreign policy, economic and social challenges”.

FRANCE 24 discussed why Gorbachev is so popular in the West and unpopular in Russia with our Russia correspondent Nick Holdsworth.

How quickly did then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan identify Gorbachev as a viable partner? And what prompted them to do so?

The key change in the late Cold War occurred when Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa Gorbacheva met Mrs Thatcher in London in 1984, before he became Soviet leader. In Gorbachev, Mrs Thatcher saw someone who was thoughtful and not rigid in his thinking. And Raisa was a true asset; she wasn’t a politician but she certainly had diplomatic skills. Mrs Thatcher and her husband Denis hit it off with them on a personal level.

As we know, Reagan had a very close relationship with Mrs Thatcher, so Gorbachev’s relationship with Reagan was really predicated on the good rapport he had developed with her earlier. A close relationship developed between Gorbachev and Reagan at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986. And Pavel Palazhchenko, Gorbachev’s translator and gatekeeper, was very much part of the picture. You had a very, very good interpreter who understood the political situation and its nuances.

Why did Gorbachev come to be so lionised in the West upon the fall of the Iron Curtain? And do you think this stellar reputation will endure?

Gorbachev understood his place in history; he understood that the Soviet Union needed reform – that it needed a much better relationship with the West and that it had no future unless it dropped its Cold War attitude.

Gorbachev also had innate charm. He was from southern Russia, and people from there are noted for being softer in terms of how they address issues. And he had the right people around him.

I think Gorbachev’s reputation in the West will endure. His single greatest achievement was to oversee the shift from the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation without nuclear war. This could have really collapsed – there were clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh [in the Caucasus] and the Baltic states as the Soviet Union fell apart, but things could have escalated really badly and they didn’t. Gorbachev was very conscious that parts of the communist bloc had nuclear weapons on their territory as communism fell – and he oversaw things like the transfer of nuclear warheads out of places like East Germany.

We came close to disaster and we didn’t get there – and I do think that was Gorbachev’s great achievement, which will endure in people’s memories.

What explains the very negative perceptions of Gorbachev in Russia? Why does he seem to get so much of the blame for Russia’s precipitous economic and demographic collapse in the 1990s after the fall communism, instead of then president Boris Yeltsin and his liberal economic reformers?

Gorbachev honestly believed he could reform the Soviet Union while maintaining the Communist Party’s power – but he didn’t understand, as his predecessor Yuri Andropov did, that the Communist Party’s power was the Soviet Union. Gorbachev set in play a wave of reform – perestroika; glasnost – and the momentum of these movements took the power away from him. So he was a victim of the forces he set in motion and in this way people blamed him for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dreadful situation in Russia in the 1990s.

And it was just complete collapse in the early 1990s. I have a friend who was 14 when the Soviet Union fell. She was living in the provinces. Her family had a savings account for her to buy a car when she reached 18 – which would have been in 1995. But when she reached 18, because of hyperinflation it was just enough to buy a new pair of shoes.

Russians went from relatively benign, stable economic standards – when the price of things like Lada cars stayed the same – to everything going, virtually overnight. It was an enormous shock that Russia went through.

Part of the reason why Gorbachev is blamed more than anybody else for what happened is goes back to this period in 1991 when Gorbachev was a dead man walking and Yeltsin was hovering. Every day he was criticising Gorbachev and all this was televised.

Yeltsin was an unwitting populist; [by contrast with the intellectual Gorbachev, his earthy style] seemed to be so different from what the Russians had had before. I remember my landlady in Moscow going to vote for the first time ever, in 1996. I remember her coming out of the voting booth beaming, putting her thumbs up, saying “I voted for Yeltsin!” She thought he was great.

Gorbachev didn’t have that common touch – so Yeltsin was able to run rings around him.

Then you got those liberal reformers and western neoliberals coming in advising economic shock therapy and that sort of stuff. There were some voices [within Yeltsin’s government] saying we need to ease the transition with price controls and what have you. So [seeing as he was in charge as Russian president from 1991] it was Yeltsin’s responsibility, the rapidity of the change.

But people had already identified Gorbachev as the man who let things fall apart and the image had stuck.

More recently, I remember the editor of the Echo of Moscow – the independent radio station that got shut down – saying Gorbachev was appalled by the invasion of Ukraine but didn’t feel it was his place to say anything.

Gorbachev didn’t really defend his legacy; he was always diffident, cautious. But his legacy might later be seen as profoundly positive in Russia, if some of the more aware Russians – the ones who haven’t left – reassess what they had then in comparison to what came after.

It is very striking just how much disdain the Chinese Communist Party has shown towards Gorbachev for allowing reform to lead to collapse. Do you think Gorbachev will remain a case study for how not to do things in Beijing?

Yes – with China under President Xi Jinping you’ve got a situation where the party’s control is absolute, and from their perspective the horrors of the collapse of the Soviet Union do indeed provide a lesson in what not to do. Gorbachev is a bit of a bogeyman example for China, to definitely steer clear of emulating.

The other lesson for China to take from Gorbachev is to ensure that people keep getting consumer goodies, that they’re distracted from politics and not thinking about change. The Soviet Union was in many respects already a basket case by the time Gorbachev took over – but if Gorbachev had ensured people were really well-fed and well-paid and had consumer goods, things might have been different.