How Putin’s Russia Has Deviated From Gorbachev’s

Gorbachev had brought in reforms called perestroika or 'restructuring', and glasnost meaning 'openness', which he later claimed resulted into a society which "had acquired freedom". Yet, today’s Russia is far from it. 

Mikhail Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin
FILE – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, right, talks with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the start of a news conference at the Castle of Gottorf in Schleswig, northern Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2004. (AP/PTI)

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last and only President of the Soviet Union, died at the age of 91 on August 30, over 30 years after the dissolution of USSR. Best known as the man who led to the end of the Cold War, Gorbachev also brought in reforms called perestroika or ‘restructuring’, and glasnost meaning ‘openness’. In his resignation speech, in 1991, he claimed that those reforms resulted into a society which “had acquired freedom”. The policy of ‘maximum openness’ included that of democratising the political system. Yet, today’s Russia is far from it. 

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, in fact, the country has seen the return of Soviet-era muzzling of dissent. Gorbachev, was asked in an interview by the BBC in 2016, if he thought freedom was under threat in Russia. He had replied, that the process had not been completed, going on to say, “There are some people for whom freedom is an annoyance. They don’t feel good with it.” 

When the interviewer asked if he meant President Vladimir Putin, Gorbachev responded: “You’ll have to guess who I mean…This is one question I’ll leave you to answer.” 

And the answers are plain to see. Russia’s most recent example of failing to uphold its people’s rights is the crackdown on protests against the government’s decision to invade Ukraine in February this year. That war goes on, and so does the imposition of a new law which imposes a fine of up to one-and-a-half million rubles, and the threat of 15 years of imprisonment for discrediting the Russian army, and spreading “fake” news.  

Its “federal democratic” structure, is also called into question when opposition leaders are targeted. Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny was this March sentenced to nine years in a “strict regime penal colony” in a fraud case, dubbed as fabricated.  

Before his arrest, Navalny had in 2020 been poisoned with Novichok nerve agent – alleged to have been used by the Russian government to poison its opposers including like in the 2018 poisoning of double agent for the British intelligence, Sergei Skripal. 

Gorbachev’s West Vision  

In 1989, Gorbachev during the Council of Europe meet, had announced his vision for a unified European community. In an article, the Guardian had written then that the Soviet leader insisted the West accept the states of Europe “belong to different systems” but at the same time saying that it was the “sovereign right of each people to choose their own social system at their own discretion”. 

The article ended with commentary on the situation saying Gorbachev knew that political reforms alone could not satisfy the soviet people. “He needs western capital and urged western businesses yesterday to take a more long-term view of investment in the Soviet Union.”   

His endorsement of Stanislav Shatalin’s “500 Days” program had envisaged an economy bereft of state control, and promoting privatisation. Gorbachev’s decision to endorse Shatalin’s program, the Washington Post wrote in 1990, marked “a historic rejection of Soviet orthodoxy and a move toward the models of Western economic life”. Until now, Gorbachev had admitted, “our brains just could not handle this idea of a market.” 

It went on further describing Gorbachev as having “gone from decades of working within the Stalinist system of centralized planning and collective farming to supporting a reform plan that calls for the privatization of nearly two-thirds of Soviet industry by 1992, the rise of commercial banking, a stock market and farms owned by farmers. There is to be a rapid sell-off of state properties, deep cuts in the budgets of the KGB security service, the Defense Ministry and foreign aid.” 

But Gorbachev, soon withdrew his support due to pressure from communist hard liners. Shatalin too was stripped of his position.  

When Gorbachev left, the economic reform instead saw the makings of another type of a power control as industries were privatised. The opportunities were amassed by a group of few men, who were given the advantage of owning the States industries, becoming now what we know as the Russian oligarchs.  

Divided Legacy

If there is one link talked about in the context of the cold war, it would be that forged between then US President Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev. The unlikely partnership saw a decision to reduce the deployment of nuclear arsenal, and also put clearer Gorbachev’s vision to trying being friendly with the West. Now of course, relations between Russia and the US are at an all time low, with the US and Western powers backing Ukraine and imposing sanctions on the oligarchs and on Russia’s largest financial institution, Sberbank, and Russia’s largest private bank, Alfa Bank. 

Gorbachev’s death, brings also to the fore the how Russians are divided over his legacy, and how the west views him. While Putin in his condolence message called him “a politician and statesman who had a huge impact on the course of world history,” reports say Gorbachev will not receive a state funeral.  

At the same time US President Joe Biden in his statement called Gorbachev “a man of remarkable vision”. Adding that “After decades of brutal political repression, he embraced democratic reforms. He believed in glasnost and perestroika – openness and restructuring – not as mere slogans, but as the path forward for the people of the Soviet Union after so many years of isolation and deprivation.” 

But Gorbachev’s reforms are also called out as having led to the collapse of the Soviet Union – he himself said in an interview two decades later: “I cannot but admit that big mistakes have been made, when it came to reforming the [Soviet] Union, the [Communist] Party that turned from the initiator of perestroika into its biggest opponent”.  

Bill Kristol, who served in the Reagan administration tweeted on Gorbachev’s death, writing: “We Reaganites bristled when some gave Gorbachev credit (more than Reagan!) for the end of the cold war and Soviet Union. But he mattered a lot. He may not have intended the outcomes, but was unwilling to use force to prevent them. And that was key.” 

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