I have been reflecting on the passing of Mikhail Gorbachev on August 30 at age 91. Strangely, the first thought that came to my mind was about how differently Gorbachev, had he risen in the age of social media, would have impacted history.
Of course, his impact on world history cannot be overstated even some three decades before the advent of social media. What came to my mind was hash-tagging of Gorbachev’s two extraordinary legacies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). The world would have hash-tagged the heck out of these two Russian words in the current era. Gen Z has next to no awareness of Gorbachev, let alone the concepts of what perestroika and glasnost within a deeply entrenched Soviet society.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who is often seen as an anti-thesis of Gorbachev and also as someone who rejected his worldview, expressed “deep condolences”, saying he would send a telegram to Gorbachev’s family and friends. At a time when Moscow is so mired the bloody invasion of Ukraine of Putin’s choosing, the reminder of Gorbachev’s life and work would remain controversial. As someone instrumental in ending the Cold War, which led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union on December 31, 1991, Gorbachev has often been viewed in Russia as a leader who destroyed the Soviet Union as a superpower long rivaling the United States.
I remember that sometime in August of that year Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were placed under house arrest as the frenzy of the Soviet collapse was at its peak. The exact date was August 18, 1991, when General Igor Maltsev, commander-in-chief of the Soviet Air Defense Troops, put the Gorbachevs under house arrest. He later recalled that he feared they would be killed. Had that happened he would have died at 60 and not slid into a hazy oblivion at 91.
I would not like to go into all the complex history of the Soviet disintegration here and the eventual abortive coup by Gennady Yanayev, who was Gorbachev’s vice president. He died in 2010 as an obscure Communist Party functionary.
I was posted in Delhi from Bombay in 1989 when Gorbachev was very much a global superstar generously helped by the U.S. mainstream media which is always in search for celebrity. By that time the somewhat Hollywoodized action of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a B-list actor once, grandiloquently asking Gorbachev on June 12, 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” had already become part of the Cold War folklore. If you were in the U.S. then, you would probably think that Reagan asked Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall and a couple of minutes later the Soviet leader yielded to a combination of the U.S. leader’s folksy charm and aggressive charisma by tearing down the wall. In reality, it was only two years later, on November 9, 1989, that the Berlin Wall was dismantled.
Soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, I was involved in ghost-writing a book that took off on the historic disintegration. In that I had written about how despite pretensions to the contrary no one really saw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union in the dramatic manner it did.
Gorbachev will remain a controversial figure in Russia’s history even though he would also be seen as a great statesman. Unlike Putin, Gorbachev had a natural charisma, somewhat accentuated by his large, red birth mark on his balding head, that the West latched on much to the chagrin of still the deeply entrenched Soviet society.
As an aside, Gorbachev seemed to have a soft corner for India generally and its then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi particularly. By some coincidence, the two leaders rose to their top national roles respectively not too far apart from each other; Gandhi in 1984 and Gorbachev in 1985. About a year or so later, Gorbachev was in New Delhi making his first Asian visit anywhere. The two created what came to be known as the Delhi Declaration aimed at complete nuclear disarmament by turn of the 20th century.
In a span of about six years between 1985 and 1991 Gorbachev transformed not just the Soviet Union as its last president—read broke down in a sense—but also changed geopolitics. It is customary to claim here in America that Reagan ended the Cold War when the reality is far more complex. Gorbachev probably played a much greater role in it considering that he was up against such a rigid, militarized and secretive society. It is no wonder that he sincerely thought that that August 1991 that he and his family would be killed in the runup to the abortive coup by his Vice President Yanayev.
With Putin overwhelmingly dominating the Russian discourse since 1999, twice as prime minister (1999-2000 and 2008-2012) and twice as president (2000-2008 and 2012 until today), there is not much expectation that Gorbachev’s legacy would be preserved in his own country in any significant way. As if to make a point Putin did not attend Gorbachev’s low-key funeral but even reportedly denied him an official state funeral. For someone who has considered the disintegration of the Soviet empire as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and viewed Gorbachev as instrumental in it, it is only logical that he does the barest minimum for the last leader of the Soviet Union.
The fact that Gorbachev is more popular in the West generally and America particularly has only reinforced the view of many Russians, including Putin, that he was a “stooge” of the West.
[Photo credit: Mikhail Gorbachev (Photo courtesy: The Gorbachev Foundation, https://www.gorby.ru/en/]