The Kremlin on Wednesday praised the late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as an extraordinary statesman who helped end the Cold War but had been badly wrong about the prospect of rapprochement with the “bloody” West.
The comments highlighted President Vladimir Putin’s view of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which Gorbachev unwittingly presided over, and which the Kremlin leader has lamented as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and which he would reverse given the chance.
Putin, who on February 24 began what he called a “special military operation” by Russia against Ukraine, one of the 15 former Soviet republics, has said before that the disappearance of the Soviet Union meant the “disintegration of historical Russia” and of what he had built for 1,000 years.
While many in Western countries revere Gorbachev, who died in Moscow on Tuesday at the age of 91, for helping to end the Cold War, many Russians see him as a bumbling politician who accidentally destroyed a great country, triggering years of hardship. economic, humiliation and loss of geopolitical weight.
Others inside Russia, notably those who have long criticized what they say has been Putin’s brutal crackdown on dissent and free speech, see Gorbachev as a democrat and someone who tried to do the right thing.
In a carefully worded telegram to Gorbachev’s relatives, Putin expressed his condolences, describing the late leader as someone who had enormous influence on world history and had tried to reform the USSR.
“He led our country through a period of complex and dramatic changes and enormous economic and social foreign policy challenges,” said Putin, who worked in the KGB security service when Gorbachev was in power.
However, Putin, beyond the brief statement, did not offer any assessment of the Gorbachev period between 1985 and 1991.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, was more forceful. He described Gorbachev as an extraordinary statesman who had helped end the Cold War, but whose role in history was controversial.
“I sincerely wanted to believe that the Cold War would end and that it would usher in a period of eternal romance between a new Soviet Union and the world, the West,” Peskov said.
“This romanticism turned out to be wrong. There was no romantic period, no 100-year honeymoon materialized, and the bloodthirsty nature of our adversaries was shown. It is good that we realized it in time and understood it,” he added. Peskov.
A LEGACY THAT DIVIDES
Gorbachev suffered from intermittent health problems for years and was rarely seen in public, but he had occasionally made calls for better ties between East and West and tried to encourage more dialogue between Washington and Moscow on nuclear weapons.
Some Moscow residents told Reuters they had a largely negative view of Gorbachev, even as they mourned his passing.
“In the late 1980s, it seemed to us that he was someone who was going to change the Soviet Union in a good way,” said Vladimir Kalintsov. “However, in the end it turned out to be someone who collapsed the Soviet Union (…) and that led to many wars in the former Soviet republics.”
Larisa Kalashnikova, another Moscow resident, said: “I have a negative view of him. He did a lot of damage to our country.”
In Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second city, Oleg Tikhomirov, an artist, had a more positive opinion.
“It’s a real shame,” he said of her death. “I think he was the kindest and most humane of all our presidents and he gave us freedom, something we don’t have enough of right now.”
The belligerent political talk shows that have made up the bulk of Russian state television programming since Putin sent his troops into Ukraine largely ignored Gorbachev’s death.
On the Rossiya-24 channel, a talk show showed a list of tributes to Gorbachev in Western media, while presenter Olga Skabeyeva pointed out that the reactions in Russia would be “fundamentally and radically different”, but that it would be “indecent” to discuss them so soon after his death.
Jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny had kind words for the last leader of the Soviet Union, noting that he had ordered the release of political prisoners.
“I am sure that his life and story, which were central to the events of the late 20th century, will be evaluated much more favorably by posterity than by contemporaries,” according to a message from Navalny posted on Twitter (NYSE: TWTR ) . for his allies.
Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov, a friend who edits the Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper Gorbachev helped finance and which has often been critical of the authorities, said the late politician despised war and realpolitik.
“He gave the world and his country an unlikely gift: 30 years of peace, without the threat of global or nuclear war. The gift is over and there will be no other,” Muratov wrote.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former member of the Russian parliament and critic of the Kremlin, praised Gorbachev for freeing hundreds of millions of people from tyranny and drastically reducing the number of nuclear warheads.
Gorbachev gave Russia a chance at freedom, he added. “It’s not their fault that we couldn’t use it.”