The bookends of history: Putin reversed many of Gorbachev’s reforms

NEW YORK (AP) — One represented freedom, openness, peace and closer ties to the outside world. The other traps critics, muzzles journalists, pushes his country deeper into isolation and leads Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II.

These are the bookends of history between Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, and Vladimir Putin, the Russian President.

In many ways, Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday, unwittingly allowed Putin. The forces Gorbachev unleashed spun out of control, leading to his downfall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since coming to power in 1999, Putin has taken a tough line that has resulted in a near-complete reversal of Gorbachev’s reforms.

When Gorbachev came to power as Soviet leader in 1985, he was younger and more dynamic than his predecessors. He broke with the past by moving away from a police state, embracing freedom of the press, ending his country’s war in Afghanistan and abandoning Eastern European countries that had been locked in the communist orbit of Moscow. It ended the isolation that had gripped the USSR since its founding.

It was an exciting and hopeful time for Soviet citizens and the world. Gorbachev brought the promise of a better future.

He believed in integration with the West, multilateralism and globalism to solve the world’s problems, including ending armed conflict and reducing the danger of nuclear weapons.

In contrast, Putin’s worldview sees the West as an “empire of lies” and democracy as chaotic, uncontrolled and dangerous. While mostly refraining from direct criticism, Putin implies that Gorbachev has sold out to the West.

Reverting to a communist-style mindset, Putin thinks the West is imperialistic and arrogant, trying to impose its liberal values ​​and policies on Russia and using the country as a scapegoat for its own problems.

He accuses Western leaders of trying to revive the Cold War and stall Russia’s development. It seeks a world order with Russia on an equal footing with the United States and other major powers, and in some ways tries to rebuild an empire.

Gorbachev sometimes gives in to Western pressure. Two years after US President Ronald Reagan implored him to “tear down this wall” in a speech at the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev did so, indirectly, by not intervening in anti-communist populist revolutions in Eastern Europe. ‘East. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War followed.

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At home, Gorbachev introduced two radical and dramatic policies – “glasnost” or openness – and “perestroika”, a restructuring of Soviet society. Previously taboo subjects could now be discussed, in literature, the news media and society at large. He undertook economic reforms to allow private enterprise, moving away from a state-run economy.

He also relaxed on the feared police state, freed political prisoners like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, and ended the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power. Freer foreign travel, emigration and religious observances were also part of the mix.

Putin walked away from Gorbachev’s changes. He focused on restoring order and rebuilding the police state. An increasingly harsh crackdown on dissent has involved the jailing of critics, branding them traitors and extremists, including for simply calling the “special military operation” in Ukraine a war. He views some critics as foreign-funded collaborators of Russia’s enemies.

In his quest for control, he shut down independent news agencies and banned humanitarian and human rights organizations. It demands complete loyalty to the state and emphasizes traditional Russian familial, religious, and nationalist principles.

Gorbachev’s leadership was not without failures. His more liberal policies were spotty, such as a bloody 1991 Soviet crackdown on the independence movement in the Baltic Soviet republic of Lithuania and the attempted early cover-up of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986.

In 1988, he realized that trying to hide bad events didn’t work, so when a massive earthquake hit Armenia in December 1988, he opened the borders to emergency international aid. and allowed transparency on the destruction.

After nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, concluded several arms control and disarmament agreements with the United States and other countries, and helped end the the Cold War. For these efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

But at home, Gorbachev’s economic reforms did not go well. Freeing industries from state control and allowing private enterprise too quickly and haphazardly created widespread shortages of food and consumer goods, deepened corruption, and spawned a class of oligarchs.

Burgeoning independence movements in the Soviet republics and other issues so angered hardliners of the Communist Party that they attempted a coup against it in August 1991, further weakening its hold on power and leading to his resignation four months later.

In the end, many in Russia felt that Gorbachev had left them with broken promises, dashed hopes, and a weakened and humiliated country.

One of them felt this, it’s Putin. For him, much of what Gorbachev did was wrong. The biggest was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

The Soviet Union was despised, defeated and shattered into pieces – 15 countries. For Putin, it was also personal, because as a KGB officer stationed in East Germany, he watched in horror as massive crowds staged the popular uprising that led to the removal of the Berlin Wall and the the reunification of Germany, at one point besieging his KGB office in Dresden.

To this day, Putin’s perceptions of threats to his country and popular revolutions color his foreign policy and his deep mistrust of the West. They underpin his decision to invade Ukraine on February 24.

As justification for the war, he cites what he believes to be a broken US promise to Gorbachev – a supposed 1990 promise that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe. US officials have denied making such a promise, but Putin believes NATO expansion, and specifically the prospect of neighboring Ukraine joining the alliance, poses an existential threat to Russia.

Critics allege Putin is twisting facts and ignoring local sentiments to claim that Ukrainians want freedom from the government in Kyiv and align themselves with Moscow.

He also embarked on a massive effort to modernize and expand Russia’s military power, moving away from the arms control agreements that Gorbachev had agreed to.

Putin’s war in Ukraine, his human rights abuses and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 have resulted in massive international sanctions that are reversing the cultural and economic ties that Gorbachev maintained. But for some allies, Russia is isolated.

While one might expect Gorbachev to have been more critical of Putin, he condemned NATO’s eastward expansion and said the West had missed the chance. by the end of the Cold War. He even supported the annexation of Crimea by Russia.

But in many other respects, the historical ties between the two leaders are very distant.

Before Gorbachev came to power, Reagan in 1983 called Russia an “evil empire”. Five years later, he retracted the description during a summit with the Soviet leader.

Fast forward to today, when current US President Joe Biden called Putin a “killer”, a “butcher” and a “war criminal” who “cannot stay in power”.

The Cold War that Gorbachev helped end is back.


Andrew Katell was a Moscow-based Associated Press correspondent who covered Gorbachev from 1988 to 1991. Now semi-retired, he has maintained an abiding interest in Russian affairs and contributes to AP coverage of Russia and Ukraine.