Why Gorbachev’s legacy nonetheless threatens Putin

In the title of “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring), Gorbachev dismantled totalitarianism, abolished censorship, freed tons of of political prisoners, and held aggressive elections that inaugurated a decade of democratisation.

By jettisoning the USSR’s ideologically pushed overseas coverage, he additionally ended the Cold War and introduced humanity again from the brink of nuclear annihilation.

During his presidency, Vladimir Putin has systematically destroyed these historic achievements. On their ruins, his regime is mobilising militants behind a brand new totalitarian challenge.

Once once more, training and tradition are being policed by the state. Once once more, tons of of prisoners of conscience are languishing in prisons and labour camps. And as soon as once more, Russia is locked in a probably apocalyptic confrontation with the West.

Gorbachev’s dialogue with a dissident Nothing higher illustrates the variations between Gorbachev and Putin than how they handled their adversaries.

In December 1986, Gorbachev phoned Andrei Sakharov, probably the most vilified dissident within the USSR. Sakharov had been languishing for seven years in inside exile within the closed metropolis of Gorky for his condemnation of the invasion of Afghanistan. In a radical rupture with the etiquette of his predecessors, Gorbachev politely invited Sakharov to return to Moscow to “resume your patriotic work”.

This act of civility was only the beginning of what one liberal intellectual called “the sharp and profound Gorbachev-Sakharov dialogue, a dialogue which became one of the engines of our progress”.

When Gorbachev launched multi-candidate elections to a brand new Soviet legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies, Sakharov grew to become considered one of 2,250 new parliamentarians.

His voice might need been misplaced within the tumult of this unwieldy meeting. However, Gorbachev repeatedly intervened to permit Sakharov to take the rostrum and ship speeches that set the agenda of Russia’s democratic reforms.

After Sakharov died of a coronary heart assault in December 1989, Gorbachev lamented this “nice loss” of “a person with his own ideas and convictions, which he expressed openly and directly”.

Contrast this openness to dialogue with Putin’s unusual incapability to utter even the title of his principal adversary, Aleksei Navalny, who was topic to a decade of vilification, trumped up felony prosecutions, and violent assaults by Kremlin proxies earlier than state safety brokers poisoned him with the nerve agent novichok.

Gorbachev’s restraint

There’s little doubt Gorbachev’s biggest achievement was the comparatively peaceable dismantlement of a extremely militarised totalitarian regime with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

As his energy ebbed throughout the terminal disaster of the USSR, Gorbachev was unable to forestall excesses by navy hardliners within the Baltic states. However, on the decisive second, he resisted the temptation to wage conflict to protect the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe or suppress the nationalist actions that have been tearing the Soviet federation aside at its seams.

His reticence earned him the vilification of the neo-Stalinists and radical nationalists who dominated Russian opposition politics within the Nineteen Nineties.

But it virtually definitely saved thousands and thousands of individuals from the ethnic cleaning and genocidal massacres that devastated the previous Yugoslavia, japanese Europe’s different Leninist federation.

Gorbachev’s restraint additionally unshackled Russia’s civil society after seven many years of totalitarian regimentation. The early years of perestroika witnessed a proliferation of “casual teams”, small clubs of citizens engaged in the kind of associational life that’s the lifeblood of democratic politics.


The most important of these informals was the Memorial Society, which emerged as a group of activists petitioning for the construction of a monument to the victims of Stalinism. As Memorial grew into a grassroots human rights movement, it was denied legal status by obstructionist bureaucrats. Gorbachev, at the prompting of Sakharov’s widow, ordered its registration.

For the next three decades, Memorial shone a spotlight on atrocities in the flashpoints of the former Soviet space and on repression within Russia. Unsurprisingly, it became a principal target of Putin’s anti-NGO laws and the Kremlin’s small army of anti-Western proxies. Last December, when Memorial was banned, Gorbachev spoke out in its defence.

During his six years in power, Gorbachev evolved from a Leninist true believer into a kind of social democrat. In the end, his political credo revolved around the notion of “universal values”, which repudiated Marxism-Leninism’s division of the world into capitalism and socialism.

In the title of common values, Gorbachev grew to become the one Soviet chief to embrace the ideas of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Putin’s ‘traditional values’

For Putin’s propagandists, common values are an object of derision, a pitiful delusion that blinded naive reformers like Gorbachev to an unfolding nationwide disaster.

In its place, they provide “conventional values”, which justify attacks on international human rights norms, domestic repression, and genocidal war in Ukraine. At the same time, these propagandists slander Gorbachev as a criminal who should be tried for treason.

Despite the torrent of hatred directed at him, Gorbachev remained true to universal values. In 1993, while Putin was already mired in the corruption schemes that would make him one of the world’s richest kleptocrats, Gorbachev donated part of the money from his Nobel Prize to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a bastion of courageous reportage and liberal values in post-Soviet Russia.

When neo-nazis murdered one of Novaya Gazeta’s journalists alongside Russia’s most prominent human rights lawyer in 2009, Gorbachev accompanied the newspaper’s editor to a meeting in the Kremlin with then President Dmitrii Medvedev to demand action. Like other independent media, Novaya Gazeta became a victim of the domestic crackdown that followed the invasion of Ukraine.

Putin may have levelled Russia’s democratic institutions and pulverised its civic landscape, but he has been unable to extirpate one thing: the memory of the democratic experiment that Gorbachev set in motion.

For decades since the unveiling of glasnost and perestroika, millions of Russians have acted as free citizens, protesting, debating and associating, despite the dangers of an increasingly authoritarian environment. Those experiences cannot be unlived. They are already part of Russia’s democratic tradition. They are Gorbachev’s most enduring legacy.

This story has been printed from a wire company feed with out modifications to the textual content.

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