Near the dilapidated dormitory where I lived for a few months in 1989, close to the notorious Lefortovo jail in east-central Moscow, signs painted on the fence of a disused sports field, if memory serves, bore an upbeat slogan borrowed from the Olympics: “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”
But to a foreigner in the Soviet Union at that time, things seemed to be headed in the opposite direction. Moscow was drab and threadbare and there were lines at shops for staples like bread, butter, and cheese, some of which were rationed, while the command economy meant that a store might have nothing anybody wanted but be bursting with a single, shoddily made item that nobody needed.
If the economy appeared to hold little promise amid the plodding pace of “perestroika” reforms, the picture was brighter when it came to “glasnost” -- openness in a long-closed society, and steps toward democratic reform. Newspapers and the “fat journals” were examining the crimes of the Stalin era, now safe to criticize, and the first elections in which voters had a genuine choice were held that spring.
Less than three years later, the Soviet Union was no more: its first and last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned on December 25, 1991, stepping down as the leader of a country that was doomed by a complex combination of economic strains and the desire -- among both individuals nationwide and the individual republics that made up the U.S.S.R., from the Baltics and Ukraine to the South Caucasus and Central Asia -- for freedom from its restrictive dominion.
For a man who had such a momentous global influence until that day, his direct role afterwards was in many ways minimal. He ran for president in 1996 but received about 0.5 percent of the vote in the first round of an election won by the incumbent Boris Yeltsin, his longtime rival in a power struggle in which Yeltsin had already prevailed five years earlier.
While Gorbachev changed the world by letting the countries of the Warsaw Pact break free of the Soviet yoke in 1989, perhaps acknowledging that to try to stop them with force would be folly, he certainly did not want the Soviet Union to fall apart. He authorized deadly crackdowns in hopes of keeping it together against the will of millions of citizens, including a KGB and military operation in Lithuania that killed 14 civilians in January 1991.
In the decades after its demise, a frequent theme in Gorbachev’s comments was the argument that the Soviet Union could have been preserved, albeit in a looser form that he was trying to establish as a way to avert its collapse. But this notion commanded little attention in Russia or abroad after the fact: that ship had sailed.
Over more than two decades of cautious relations with Yeltsin’s successor, President Vladimir Putin, Gorbachev was at least tacitly supportive at some crucial junctures.
But while his lack of clout means that even vocal opposition might not have made much of a difference, he issued some stark warnings that -- had Putin heeded them -- could have resulted in a very different Russia from the one that exists today, which has unleashed a massive, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and rolled back the gains attained under Gorbachev and Yeltsin on human rights, democracy, and basic freedoms.
In 2005, in comments marking 20 years since his own rise to power, Gorbachev urged Putin to beware of people close to him who advocated harshly restricting freedoms in order to suppress unrest over unpopular economic moves -- a warning, however naive it may have been about Putin’s own plans and proclivities, against heeding the hawkish hard-liners who have now long dominated his inner circle.
"I think they are trying to convince him that it's possible to do all this, as long as you tighten the screws -- I mean in terms of democracy," Gorbachev said.
Years later, when Putin had stepped into the prime minister’s post to avoid violating presidential term limits and was becoming eligible to run for the top office again in 2012, Gorbachev implored him not to do it.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich has already served two terms, and one more as prime minister. I would not run for president if I were in his place,” Gorbachev said in comments published on his 80th birthday. He pointed to Hosni Mubarak, saying that the ousted Egyptian leader had “stayed too long, people were fed up with him.”
“People...do not want to be a mass, a flock led for decades by the same shepherds,” Gorbachev said. He said that Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the “tandemocracy” partner who was president from 2008 to 2012, both “must understand: their time is limited.”
Putin, of course, did not heed that advice: He switched places with Medvedev in 2012 and is now serving a fourth presidential term, after an election in 2018. Moreover, in 2020 he engineered a constitutional change that allows him to run again in 2024 -- and again in 2030, when he would turn 78 -- if he wants to.
'An Incredible Gift'
Putin may feel that he had the last laugh: He has repeatedly weathered large protests over economic hardships and political issues, including dismay over his return to the Kremlin in 2012. And he has done it by cracking down harder every time, for now he faces no threat of major unrest.
Less clear is the eventual result -- for Putin and his legacy, as well as for Ukraine, Russia, and the world -- of his current effort to reverse some of the key outcomes of the Gorbachev era and the collapse of the Soviet Union, primarily by using force to try to subjugate Ukraine.
Gorbachev turned 91 one week after the February 24 invasion, which dramatically widened the war that had simmered in eastern Ukraine since 2014. He had been ailing for some time and had said little or nothing in public about the war since then.
But Dmitry Muratov, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and editor in chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, suggested that Putin has overturned Gorbachev’s greatest achievement -- with disastrous results.
“He despised war,” the Russian news outlet RBK quoted Muratov saying of Gorbachev, who helped fund the creation of Novaya Gazeta with money from his own Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1990.
“I’ve heard people say that he changed the world but was unable to change his country. Maybe so. But he gave the country and the world an incredible gift -- he gave us 30 years of peace, without the threat of global and nuclear war,” Muratov said. “But the gift is gone, it has disappeared. And there will be no more gifts.”