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Mikhail Gorbachev, mourned in the West, gets a frosty goodbye in Russia

From Washington to Brussels, the last Soviet leader was widely acclaimed after the news of his death. But the reaction in Moscow has been markedly different.

LONDON — Mikhail Gorbachev’s death is being mourned by the U.S. and its allies Wednesday as the loss of a champion of freedom who helped end the Cold War. But his legacy is very different at home, where many view him as the man responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union — and the loss of global status and economic security that followed.

Gorbachev, 91, died Tuesday in Moscow at a time when his legacy of domestic reform and reconciliation with the West has been left in tatters in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine — or what the Kremlin insists on calling its "special military operation."

Putin’s rule is widely seen as aimed at reversing the trends Gorbachev initiated and restoring Moscow’s power and pride at the expense of peace in Europe. 

Image: A portrait of the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and flowers are placed at his foundation's headquarters, a day after his passing, in Moscow on Aug. 31, 2022.
Flowers and a portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev were placed at his foundation's headquarters in Moscow on Wednesday.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

From Washington to Brussels, Gorbachev was widely acclaimed after the news of his death. 

President Joe Biden called the last Soviet leader, who was often referred to as “Gorby” in the West, “a man of remarkable vision.” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “a tireless advocate for peace.” 

The head of NATO, whose expansion the Kremlin considers an existential threat to Russia, said Wednesday that Gorbachev’s historic reforms led to the “possibility of a partnership” between Moscow and the military alliance, among other things. “His vision of a better world remains an example,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

But the reaction in Moscow has been markedly different. 

Putin took until Wednesday morning to express his “deep condolences” in a telegram to Gorbachev’s family, acknowledging his status as “a politician and statesman who had a huge impact on the course of world history.” 

He “realized that reforms were necessary and tried to offer his solutions to the acute problems,” Putin said.

Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev celebrates the anniversary of the October Revolution on Nov. 7, 1984, in Moscow.
Gorbachev celebrates the anniversary of the October Revolution in Moscow on Nov. 7, 1984.Georges De Keerle / Getty Images file

Gorbachev was critical of some of Putin’s policies in his later years and lamented the “militarization of world politics.” Putin, meanwhile, has called the implosion of the Soviet Union, for which many in Russia hold Gorbachev responsible, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” 

While Putin was reserved in his assessment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov argued that Gorbachev’s “romantic” quest for peace between Moscow and the West was a pipe dream, according to the state news agency Tass.

“This romanticism did not materialize. There was no romantic period or honeymoon,” Peskov was quoted as saying. “The bloodthirstiness of our opponents has shown itself.”

Gorbachev pursued arms control treaties and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for helping to end the Cold War while championing economic restructuring and greater openness at home through his policies of “glasnost,” or openness, and “perestroika,” or restructuring.

But those reforms ultimately helped weaken the USSR to the point of collapse, and it was the way he handled those events that has left many in Russia and post-Soviet countries bitter.

U.S. President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev laugh together during the 1991 Moscow Summit.
President George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev laugh together during the 1991 Moscow Summit.Peter Turnley / Corbis/VCG via Getty Images file

Some blame him for overseeing the destruction of an empire and a way of life, others for failing to ensure a smooth transition to democracy and capitalism.

He defied the image of a typical Soviet leader — his purple birthmark made him instantly recognizable, while his appearance in a Pizza Hut television ad and an episode of “The Simpsons” in the late ’90s gave him near-celebrity status in the West.

In contrast, he was by then a pariah back home, as many people struggled with joblessness, corruption and a lack of stability in the chaotic aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union.

Studio technicians make last minute adjustments before former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev is interviewed on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost program on Oct. 27, 1996.
Gorbachev became a popular figure in the West after he left office, appearing on TV shows in the U.S. and the U.K.Adam Butler / PA Images via Getty Images file

The different reactions to his death are expected, said Vladislav Zubok, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics, who has written extensively about Gorbachev.

“He sits astride two very different histories — one history is called the end of the Cold War and victory of the West, and that makes him a hero. And another history is the Soviet demise, collapse, chaos and misery, which makes him a villain,” Zubok said. 

And while the end of the Cold War is perceived in the West as Gorbachev’s greatest achievement, it is seen as a “surrender and capitulation before the West” in Russia, said Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London. 

“The very things that he is valued for in the West are perceived by many in Russia as a manifestation of weakness,” Petrov said. 

Mikhaïl Gorbatchev at his dacha in Moscow on Nov. 11, 1989.
Gorbachev at his dacha in Moscow in November 1989.Shone Vlastimir Nesic / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images file

Amid a largely low-key response in Russian media, this mixed legacy was summed up in an editorial by the state news agency RIA: “Russia and the West say goodbye to different Gorbachevs,” it read.

There was still no decision Wednesday about whether Gorbachev would receive a state funeral, which would usually be a foregone conclusion for a figure of his stature. 

Many Russian politicians also voiced mixed feelings. 

Sergei Mironov, the leader of the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party, told Tass on Wednesday that Gorbachev gave the Soviet people “hope for change” but that in the end, it lost them their country. 

Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny said his perception of Gorbachev changed in reverse, from “savage irritation” to “sad respect.” 

Gorbachev’s legacy, Navalny said in a series of tweets from behind bars, will be “evaluated far more favorably by posterity than by contemporaries.”

Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, at the Berlin Wall in May 1998.
Gorbachev at the Berlin Wall in 1998, nearly a decade after its fall ushered in the unification of Germany.Micheline Pelletier / Sygma via Getty Images file

Those sentiments appeared to be echoed on the streets. 

“On one hand, he destroyed the Soviet Union, which was a great country, maybe not without problems, but those could be solved,” Vladislav Vesnin, 39, a vendor at a Moscow airport, said Wednesday. “On the other hand, he was a decent guy, not a thief, like many modern politicians now. So it’s sad that he passed away.” 

Ultimately, said Petrov of Chatham House, Gorbachev’s legacy has been slowly dismantled by his successor, Boris Yeltsin, and then by Putin. 

But it retains symbolic importance in showcasing that neither the Soviet Union then nor Russia now are “genetically predisposed to evil behavior.”

“It’s like a pendulum swing,” Petrov said. “The fact it swung so far and so positively under Gorbachev, even though there is little left of it now, means that today’s swing the opposite way is not fatal and we will, whenever that may be, come back to what Gorbachev tried to build and support.”