oDR: Opinion

Gorbachev’s legacy is lauded by the West. The reality is more complicated

Gorbachev was heralded by the West but his political legacy feels largely irrelevant today

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Thomas Rowley
31 August 2022, 11.11am

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has died at the age of 91

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(c) Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

It was in 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev recalled, that he met Margaret Thatcher at Chequers.

The relationship between the pair has since been romanticised, with Thatcher famously referring to Gorbachev as “a man one could do business with”.

In his recollection of the trip, Gorbachev remembered the encounter as “open and friendly”, adding: “nevertheless, our ideological differences immediately became apparent”.

Yet for two leaders thousands of miles apart geographically, politically and ideologically, the two had much in common.

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Thatcher appeared to chart a single-minded course of renewal in her leadership of the UK. In fact, she was often out of her depth, making haphazard, off-the-cuff decisions as the head of a state under immense strain. The irony is that she appeared as if she knew what she was doing.

Such a description could also be apt for Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who died yesterday at the age of 91.

The scale of Gorbachev’s folly as he tried to save the Soviet system was much greater, of course. The implosion of the Soviet empire destroyed the lives of generations, through war, displacement and economic hardship – a tragedy that is hard to understand in its breadth. Though it is by no means his fault alone, some share of the responsibility lies with him.

While the slow end of Soviet power was peaceful for the West (and in other circumstances it might not have been), it was punctuated by state repression in Almaty, Tbilisi and Vilnius – and emerging violence in Moldova, the South Caucasus and Tajikistan. Yet Gorbachev retained his popularity in the West as the noble, if tragic reformer who put a peaceful end to the USSR.

Even that part of his legacy seems slightly irrelevant today. Six months into Russia’s merciless war to take control of Ukraine, the “peaceful end” to the Soviet Union feels like a myth, as Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reinflate the balloon of Russian imperialism rumble on. The target: precisely the “territory” (read: Ukraine) which was “lost” in 1991.

Ukraine has to be where Russian imperialism ends, not least for Ukraine’s sake. But the way the Putin system comes to a close matters, just like it did for the Soviet Union. After all, what will come next?

Some of the questions that we ask about Gorbachev are relevant to Putin, though: regardless of the veneer of confidence and ideological commitment, is he out of his depth? And what will his legacy be?

Despite evidence that Russia’s February 2022 invasion was poorly planned, the war against Ukraine appears to suit Putin. In the two years before the invasion, there were signs that popular resistance to the Kremlin in Russia was at a high point. This came after years of unsuccessful reform, elites gathering up the goods and the constant repression of those brave enough to speak out in protest.

The invasion of Ukraine stymied the growing sense among the Russian public that the Kremlin had nothing really to offer. It has redrawn the domestic political map in favour of nationalism and ‘security’, if only temporarily. But it has also introduced fresh instability and unpredictability into a fractured system.

Putin will have ever more internal challenges to deal with as the war continues. A rise in nationalist and militarised groups, discontent at the frayed economic situation, and fractures with regional elites are all potential threats.

In contrast to Gorbachev, the question of legacy is rather more sobering for Putin. If the last Soviet leader supervised a transition that was at least peaceful externally, then Putin seeks to make Russia a resurgent power through violence – one that is likely to crumble as a result of its foreign campaigns.

Ukraine has to be where Russian imperialism ends, not least for Ukraine’s sake. But the way the Putin system comes to a close matters, just like it did for the Soviet Union. After all, what will come next?

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