Much like his legacy, reaction to Gorbachev’s death is sharply divided
By Neil Macfarquhar
Reaction to the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, as with his life, was divided sharply into two main camps.
He was especially revered in the West and among some Russians for bringing down the curtain on the brutal, oppressive Soviet system, ending the tense years of the Cold War that had brought the world to the brink of a nuclear confrontation. Some Russian hard-liners and others reviled him for the very same thing, damning him for letting the power of the Soviet Union dissipate.
Those divisions were heightened by the fact that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has buried much of Gorbachev’s legacy of peaceful engagement in the past six months by invading Ukraine and by taking Russia down the very authoritarian path that Gorbachev had started to dismantle.
Tributes poured in from politicians, activists, journalists and others.
President Joe Biden praised Gorbachev for having had “the courage to admit that things needed to change” and for embracing reforms to guide his people out of the effects of years of isolation and deprivation.
“These were the acts of a rare leader — one with the imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it,” he said in a statement. “The result was a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described Gorbachev in a statement as a unique leader “who changed the course of history.” He did more than anyone to end the Cold War, Guterres said, by “pursuing the path of negotiation, reform, transparency and disarmament.”
Boris Johnson, the soon-to-depart prime minister of Britain, wrote on Twitter, “I always admired the courage and integrity he showed in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion.”
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, speaking to the BBC, said that “the people of Eastern Europe, and the German people, and in the end the Russian people, owe him a great debt of gratitude for the inspiration, for the courage in coming forward with these ideas of freedom.”
Official reaction from Russia, where the news came late at night, was muted. Putin, who has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “worst catastrophe” of the 20th century, expressed condolences to the family through his spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, who said there would be a broader statement Wednesday.
Russian hard-liners were quick to condemn Gorbachev.
Igor Girkin, a former colonel in Russian intelligence and previous commander for the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, wrote on Telegram that Gorbachev was a “traitor” who deserved “eternal shame.”
Some on Ukrainian social media also remembered that Gorbachev had stalled in telling the world about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, exposing countless Ukrainians to deadly radiation.
Ultimately, Gorbachev left a divided legacy, said William Taubman, an American political science professor who with his wife, Jane, interviewed the leader at least eight times for a 2017 biography.
“The legacy is a dual legacy that consists of what he achieved against tremendous odds and also what he failed to achieve,” Taubman said. “Much to his credit was the end of Soviet totalitarianism, the end of the Cold War, the liberation of Eastern Europe and the partial democratization of the Soviet Union itself.”
In the end, however, he failed, Taubman said, because those freedoms began to recede even under his rule: “He was a decent man, too decent for the country that he was ruling.”