Accessibility links

Breaking News

Freedom And Fear: Russians Deeply Divided Over Gorbachev's Legacy

The late Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev leaves behind a legacy that has divided his fellow Russians.
The late Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev leaves behind a legacy that has divided his fellow Russians.

Russian historian Andrei Zubov was 33 years old and attending a conference in Leningrad in 1985 when he heard that Mikhail Gorbachev, 54, had been elevated to the post of general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

"I remember I couldn't believe my ears," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "I understood right away that the enormous iceberg of that totalitarian, communist machine was falling apart…. Until that moment, there was only a dead end."

Gorbachev's death on August 30 at the age of 91 has again exposed deep divisions among Russians, with many excoriating him for supposedly destroying a global superpower while others praise him for opening up a previously unimaginable world of individual opportunity.

In the years before Gorbachev came to power, Zubov said, "we felt like we were living in an occupied country."

"Decent people tried to isolate themselves entirely or at least to have minimal contact with the dirt and the lies the completely suffused the Communist Party system," he said.

Many Russians -- including many who loudly support Vladimir Putin and believe he has "raised Russia from its knees" over 23 years as president or prime minister -- blame Gorbachev personally for the collapse of the Soviet empire, ignoring strong evidence that the system had grown unviable.

"It all happened because of the weakness and lack of will of a man who in the course of six years destroyed our homeland," Vladimir Solovyov, a hard-line pro-Kremlin publicist and television personality, said on his vlog the day after Gorbachev's death. "In just six years, he betrayed the entire socialist camp. Did he understand what he was doing? No, he didn't."

Obituary: Mikhail Gorbachev -- The Man Whose Empire Crumbled
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:10:52 0:00

Pro-Kremlin historian Modest Kolerov wrote on Telegram that Gorbachev's passing filled him with "pain…for the country he intentionally destroyed and the tens of millions of victims that resulted from that murder. I'm glad he lived so long because now even the youngest of our children know what he was…. The U.S.S.R is dead. Russia lives. The struggle continues."

St. Petersburg blogger Anatoly Nesmiyan expressed disappointment that Gorbachev was never the primary defendant at a "tribunal to investigate the crimes against our country."

Others, however, focused not on what Gorbachev purportedly did to the Soviet Union, but on what he did for individual Soviet citizens. For a brief period at least, the perceived balance of power between the state and the individual -- weighted heavily in favor of the former throughout Russian history, and particularly from the Bolshevik takeover through dictator Josef Stalin's Great Terror and the Era of Stagnation -- shifted under Gorbachev.

"Gorbachev rejected enormous power, dismantled a totalitarian government, and gave our countries freedom," wrote Fyodor Velembovsky, a former opposition politician and activist with the now-banned Memorial human-rights group, which was created under Gorbachev's liberalization and managed to preserve hundreds of first-hand accounts of Stalin's crimes before being banned by Putin, on Twitter.

"Gorbachev placed the interests of people above the interests of the state," Kirill Martynov, a journalist formerly with Novaya Gazeta -- which was created by Gorbachev using money from his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize -- and who now heads Novaya Gazeta.Europe, told RFE/RL. "The significance of Gorbachev has yet to be appreciated."

Aleksei Tabalov, a former staffer for opposition politician Aleksei Navalny from the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, wrote on Facebook that Gorbachev wanted to save the Soviet Union, but failed.

"He failed because the Soviet Union was built from the beginning upon fear," he wrote. "But under Gorbachev, fear left the Soviet Union. And that, most likely, was his greatest achievement."

'He Destroyed A Totalitarian Monster'

Former television journalist Maria Phillimore-Slonim wrote on Facebook: "I will always be grateful to him. He gave us hope."

"The main thing that Gorbachev, personally, did for me, personally, was at our first meeting he washed away forever my fear in front of the throne," exiled businessman and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in prison under Putin on charges that he says were politically motivated, wrote on Telegram. "And that changed my life."

Historian Yury Pivovarov also lauded Gorbachev for lifting the veil of fear that dominated life in the Soviet Union.

"He didn't destroy the country," Pivovarov said. "He destroyed a totalitarian monster, and that is to his eternal glory. But this is also an achievement of the Russian people. We were the first nation in the world to create a totalitarian regime and to destroy it by ourselves, without foreign tanks."

But he laments that no thorough de-Stalinization or de-communization was ever carried out in Russia.

"And now we have added the task of de-Putinization as well," he said.

Under Putin, journalist Martynov added, "Gorbachev's legacy is being erased line by line."

"He was against war, and these guys have launched a war," he said. "He was for parliamentarism, and parliament has been erased. He was for freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, but these have been destroyed. And so on, one after another."

"Gorbachev was the one who brought an end to the phenomenon of political prisoners in our long-suffering country, but now they are back," Martynov added, noting that Navalny had to express his condolences to Gorbachev's loved ones from prison.

Written by RFE/RL feature writer Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Mikhail Sokolov and Ilshat Zaripov.