By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
On September 4, former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev was laid to rest in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, where many important figures from Russian history are buried. Not far from Gorbachev’s grave is the headstone for his on-again, off-again ally Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, who saved Gorbachev from the 1991 coup d’état that tried to stop the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
It is symbolic that as Mikhail Gorbachev died, authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin is attempting to undo some of the Gorbachev legacy.
Readers born before the 1990s will remember Mikhail Gorbachev. As the leader of the Soviet Union, he was highly famous and one of the most powerful people in the world, leading a nation armed with nuclear weapons and an army that wanted to be seen as a rival to the U.S. armed forces.
Gorbachev’s career started in the Communist Party, and he climbed slowly through the ranks. In 1985, he was named General Secretary of the Communist Party. Gorbachev was seen as a middle-of-the-road politician and was deliberately chosen to continue leading the USSR along the same paths as the country’s former leaders.
At the time, the Politburo – the policymaking committee of the Communist Party – was dominated by old-school communists. Gorbachev understood that if he wanted to institute reforms, he would need firm support. Consequently, Gorbachev waited until the old-guard members of the Politburo retired, and a new generation took their place.
Gorbachev instituted both economic and political reforms (perestroika), using a policy of openness and transparency (glasnost). Soon, he was seen in the West as a partner who could potentially reduce the risk of nuclear war and lower the Iron Curtain.
Most historians agree that Mikhail Gorbachev did not intend to dismantle the Soviet Union. Instead, he wanted reforms to provide more freedom to ordinary citizens and improve their lives.
However, events moved quickly. Once Gorbachev provided some leeway, political forces called for freedom and nations began to break away from the USSR. Allies in the Warsaw Pact also broke away from Russian control and were taken over by democratic forces. This trend soon made its way to the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev was surprised at these events. He did not expect that after 70 years of communism, there would still be strong national sentiments. Like a good Marxist-Leninist leader, he believed that nationalism had disappeared, and his citizens did not care about their Estonian, Ukrainian, or Chechen heritage.
He was very, very wrong. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, despite the coup d’état attempt by the Communist Party.
The Funeral of Mikhail Gorbachev
In light of the war with Ukraine, no international figures attended the funeral. Instead, ordinary Russians came to pay their respects to the former leader. According to Politico, mourner Yulia Prividennaya said, “I’d like us to have more people like him in our history…we need such politicians to settle the situation in the world when it’s on the verge of World War III.” The New York Times noted that Gorbachev’s death seemed like the “death of democracy,” according to another mourner.
Current Russian President Vladimir Putin did not participate in the funeral due to scheduling conflicts. Putin’s absence from the funeral was a clear message that he resents the Gorbachev legacy and blames Gorbachev for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the downgrading of Russia to a second-rate world power.
Putin clearly misses Russian dominance, or as he sees it, the pan-Slavic legacy. In an interview I conducted with a world-renowned scholar of Russia, Professor Brian Horowitz, Dr. Horowitz pointed out that: “The pan-Slavic arguments will be part of the anti-West verbiage. It will appeal to people of Slavic background who resent the United States, but those arguments will fall mainly on deaf ears as its goals won’t solve real-world problems.”
Putin Faces Multiple Problems
The symbolism is striking. Mikhail Gorbachev has died in the middle of the first Eastern European war since WWII, while Putin promotes pan-Slavism and the retaking of Russia’s rightful place in history. There is also the constant threat of a nuclear disaster.
But overall, Putin has little to be happy about. Russia is suffering due to economic sanctions imposed on Russia and the limited capabilities of the Russian economy.
Also, the war with Ukraine is proving to be a failure for Putin. The mighty Russian army that so many people thought would storm through Ukraine in a blitzkrieg-style war has suffered problems.
Western weapons coupled with Ukrainian resistance have showed that the mighty Russian army is equipped with outdated weapons and is no match for Western technology. Putin has a long way to go to regain the lost Soviet power of his dreams.
But the hope that a Western-style democracy would develop in Russia has not come true. It seems that Russia did not have the tradition needed to develop a sustainable democracy, and the authoritarian culture that ruled Russia for well over a millennium cannot be changed so fast.
While Putin’s self-aggrandizing and dreams of making Russia great again are consistent, the Ukraine debacle shows he overstepped. But at the same time, it is also clear that the liberalism expected by so many after Gorbachev was short-lived. It is yet another example that political systems are not transplanted easily from one society to another, and we would be smart to remember this important lesson.