The paired Time Magazine covers are of their time but reflect Mikhail Gorbachev’s place in history: revered abroad, reviled at home. The man who ended the Cold War died yesterday at the age of 91.
In the West, we celebrate Gorbachev’s Glasnost reforms that led to the destruction of the Soviet empire. In Russia, he’s jeered for the same reason.
In the West, we honor him as a good and intelligent man who changed the world. Russians detest change and honor strong men like the current occupant of the Kremlin. As far as many Russians are concerned, Gorbachev brought them the drunken clown Boris Yeltsin as a leader whose only redeeming quality was that he selected Putin as his successor.
When I grew up, it was a given that the Cold War was endless and that the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture on the world scene. That changed when Gorbachev came to power. It was proof positive that big things were possible. This is why I’m always cautiously optimistic in the face of grim news:
Gorbachev didn’t set out to put the Warsaw Pact out of business or see the Berlin Wall smashed to smithereens by a happy crowd BUT he unleashed the forces that made it possible. He *did* intend to end the Cold War: it was destroying his country, so it had to end.
Gorbachev was a reformer, not a revolutionary but once the proverbial genie was out of the bottle, revolutionary change came to Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union fell apart, which most Russians have never forgiven him for. Vladimir Putin’s entire reign is a massive repudiation of Gorbachev’s legacy. Again, proof positive of his importance in world history.
I remember when Soviet dead enders staged their coup in 1991. It was the *only* news story for the duration of the failed coup. Gorbachev was held captive, so Boris Yeltsin took center stage. Yeltsin did not yield it until he passed the chalice to Putin who then poisoned it.
Gorbachev was too ill to comment on Putin’s war in Ukraine. It is, however, hard to imagine that the man who ended the disaster in Afghanistan would support the slaughter in Ukraine.
Gorbachev became something of a pop culture icon during the 1980’s. We called him Gorby; one of my law school classmates even named her cat after him. Those were heady days, and the struggles of those times should not be forgotten. I decline to draw lessons for our own time except for this: nothing is eternal, things can always change. Remember that when you get depressed by the rise of Trumpism.
Gorbachev wasn’t a religious man, neither am I. But here’s a quotation from The Bible in tribute to a man who changed the world.
Hell has officially frozen over. An atheist just quoted The Bible in honor of a lapsed Communist.
The last word goes to Pink Floyd with a song about the fall of the Berlin Wall and its bittersweet aftermath: