The wishes cannot be big enough when it is a historical statesman’s birthday. Mikhail Sergejewitsch Gorbachev will be 90 years old this Tuesday, and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has now hardly covered up his request that his legacy should somehow continue to have an effect. He called on his successor Vladimir Putin and the new US President Joe Biden to “openly approach one another”, and the European Union and Russia should also “negotiate with one another without fear”. Everything that had once been so easy to himself.
The former head of the Kremlin, first and last President of the Soviet Union, is going through difficult times, also, of course, because the pandemic has kept him in the isolation of a hospital for a year. But he also feels painfully how the Russian-Western relationship has turned so radically since the emotional heights of his era. The “common European home” that Gorbachev once dreamed of did not come into being; Disarmament treaties such as the INF agreement, which he described in 1987 as a “milestone in the history of human striving for a world without war”, were terminated by the United States and then by Russia.
Ten years ago, when he turned 80, Gorbachev was still particularly concerned about his country, calling corruption and arbitrariness in Russia “the greatest evils”. Now he sees himself in an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda Forced to the general roll call “not to allow any war”. At least he is relieved that the New Start Treaty was extended a few weeks ago and that the two nuclear powers have at least saved some of Gorbachev’s extensive disarmament work. Nobody can shake that he changed the world in just six years. In the West, especially in Germany, they are deeply grateful to him for this, in Russia his life balance is much more ambiguous.
In Russia, most see him as the destroyer of the Soviet Union
Only twelve to 15 percent of the Russian population there see him as positive, says the head of the independent opinion research institute Levada, Lev Gudkow, of the SZ. “I adore him, despite his mistakes. He has begun reforms, smashed the communist monopoly, détente with the West and the end of the war in Afghanistan – all of these are thanks to him,” says Gudkow. “But most people in Russia think of him as destroying the Soviet Union.”
Mikhail Gorbachev was extremely young by Soviet standards, only 54 when he became general secretary of the central committee of the dominant Communist Party in 1985 and the frozen Soviet empire broke up. He did not want to abolish socialism, he wanted to strengthen it, more openness and participation, more freedom, more competition, everything that has long been cataloged historically under the terms “glasnost and perestroika”. “There he was very different from the people who were walled in in their ideas, who had little idea of what was going on in the outside world,” says the Eastern European historian Karl Schlögel of the SZ.
Gorbachev recognized this far-sightedly that this would only work with expensive reforms, for which he had to save on foreign policy. That meant withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, ending the tutelage of Eastern European states, and above all: stopping the costly arms race with the USA.
The split was obsolete, its size is “that it did not oppose it”
Gorbachev tried to dismantle enemy images, denounce grievances at home, and look at one’s own country and the world with an unobstructed view. That had consequences that even he did not explicitly want or even strive for, especially not the end of the Soviet Union. “I consider the idea of a superior strategic reform from above to be naive,” says Schlögel. “But he didn’t refuse the process, he gave it a form.”
This applies all the more to the détente in foreign policy that Gorbachev engineered and which ultimately led to German unity. He even allowed a united Germany to join NATO because he considered it pragmatic. In the end, he could not and did not want to counter the force of what he had initiated. “He had a sense of the historical moment,” says Schlögel, “he understood that this split was obsolete, and that is his greatness that he did not oppose it.” Gorbachev once said of Germany that “the forcible division of a great nation is not normal”.
“With great admiration,” Russian President Vladimir Putin now congratulates the man who has changed his country. Gorbachev repeatedly supported Putin, but reprimanded him for dealing rigidly with critics. This, too, is unlikely to please him: the fact that the Gorbachev Foundation has meanwhile given up foreign donations. Otherwise you would have to register as a “foreign agent”. No matter how deserving its namesake is.