Lilia Shevtsova: Gorbachev: History Will Be a Fairer Judge

[One of the most respected Russian political analysts. A former director of the Center of Political Studies in Moscow, and currently senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment's Russian Program, she has authored six books, including "Yeltsin's Russia."]

Mikhail Gorbachev will turn eighty next week. It is an occasion to look back and ask ourselves questions not only about his own contribution, but also about what happened to us after he left the Kremlin.

The answers to both questions actually come from the Russian leaders that succeeded him. Not long ago another eightieth anniversary — this one Yeltsin’s — was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance, as a national event with the participation of the ruling tandem. The official celebrations were meant to demonstrate the continuity of the Putin-Medvedev regime with that of Yeltsin's, and to present the latter as the leader who had liberated Russia. It was a brazen attempt to borrow democratic legitimacy from Russia's first president. For a few hours, the narrative that Putin had saved Russia by rejecting Yeltsin's “evil 1990s” was dropped; projecting a more civilised image was instead the order of the day. However, the very fact that Yeltsin's anniversary was turned into a Kremlin-choreographed ballet — with Putin in solo role preaching on “the ideals of freedom and democracy” — only reinforces doubts one may have about the democratic legacy of Russia's first president.

By dint of transforming Yeltsin into the official, Kremlin-endorsed reformer his antipode, Gorbachev, automatically gets kicked out of the system realm. And it's just as well: though they do not know it, the powers-that-be are doing Gorbachev an invaluable service. It is in any case unlikely that Gorbachev would be interested in providing legitimacy to a regime with repressive tendencies. Having changed the course of world history, this man can watch the rat-race in Russia's backyard without any neuroses. And the further away from Kremlin he gets, the more significantly his figure looms in the space of history.

There are many celebrated names to have shaped the course of recent history: Churchill, de Gaulle, Thatcher, Kohl, Reagan, Havel and Wałęsa. All leaders who in decisive moments determined the course of their countries' history. But only one leader – Mikhail Gorbachev – determined the long-term history of the global order. What did he actually do? He concluded that force is dangerous as a means of doing politics, both domestic and international, particularly when nuclear weapons are at play. “What an idealist!” - sceptics will exclaim. And, indeed, if Gorbachev were to try today, he would probably fail, and fail badly. The political world has become utilitarian, pragmatic, fixated on the status quo and on traditional ways of thinking. Back then, in the late 1980s, the world was consumed by the hope of renewal and it was ready to experience something incredible. Gorbachev came to embody the incredible....

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/1/2011

"currently senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment's Russian Program?
I don't think so, otherwise she would not play puzzle games with the readers by announcing that
<The political world has become utilitarian, pragmatic, fixated on the status quo and on traditional ways of thinking.>, instead of telling them explicitly who is the head and enabler of this wrong "political world"...
Perhaps, her new country of citizenship?

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