Russian Chronicles
Russian Life|March/April 2021
Russian Chronicles
TAMARA EIDELMAN

Mikhail Gorbachev

Born March 2, 1931

The rises and falls of the esteem in which Russians have held Mikhail Gorbachev over the years have been dizzying. As for the falls, Alexander Kerensky, head of the 1917 Provisional Government after the February Revolution, may be the only other figure in Russian history to experience a more precipitous plummet from wild adoration to bitter contempt.

The first reaction to Gorbachev was probably surprise. No – that’s too weak a word. In the spring of 1985, the Soviet people were utterly baffled, dumbfounded, and stunned: some were pleasantly amazed; others were absolutely appalled. Before the Politburo elected him to head the Communist Party in March 1985, no one had ever heard of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, or at least no one who didn’t follow the party’s inner workings (a rare breed).

Seemingly out of the blue, there was this youthful (compared to the feeble old men who came before him) new head of the country who actually began to say things that made a modicum of sense. Today, there’s an urge to cry out: “Was he ever a windbag, interminably holding forth at the slightest provocation!” But in fact, in 1985, Gorbachev was doing something extremely important: he was calling things as he saw them. Or at least he was trying. He himself, of course, did not fully appreciate what he was getting himself into and didn’t realize that he was initiating the downfall of a system. He apparently thought that he could just make a few adjustments, fix a few things around the edges, and everything would be fine. But the fact that someone (and not just someone at home in their own kitchen, but standing at an official podium!) could admit that all was not well in the land and even that things were going badly – that was astounding.

My son was born in March of 1985, so in the succeeding months, my husband and I were pretty busy. Still, after the children were put to bed and we finally had a moment to ourselves, we didn’t go to sleep, we didn’t settle down with a book, and we didn’t relax over a cup of tea: we immediately turned on the television and listened to Gorbachev’s latest (and always very long) speech, tearing our eyes away from the screen only long enough to turn to one another and say something like: “Now, that’s what I’m talking about!” Today I can see the naivety of Mikhail Sergeyevich’s promises back then that all the Soviet Union had to do to flourish was “accelerate” and begin using computers. But what an astonishing impression these pronouncements made! On top of that, he suddenly started meeting with our most despised enemies – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The world was going topsy-turvy!

It took just two years before attitudes toward the general secretary began to change. His speeches began to provoke yawns and his ceaseless foreign trips became a source of irritation. And as soon as the country realized that Gorbachev and Yeltsin were at loggerheads, the situation became even more fraught. For some, they were both traitors to the communist cause, squabbling between themselves. For others, Gorbachev was betraying his own perestroika by attacking Yeltsin, who was seen as fighting for the truth.

Gorbachev was trapped in a contradiction. He wanted to bring the country to renewal but was unable to give up on his beliefs, unable to admit that the old system had to be completely destroyed and replaced. So with every year, more of the ground on which he stood disappeared from beneath his feet: for conservatives, he was too liberal, and for proponents of change, he was too conservative. Communists couldn’t forgive him the changes taking place, which is why, in 1990, Gorbachev had to come up with the position of President of the Soviet Union, since he clearly understood that he could no longer count on support from the party through whose ranks he had risen to the top, and it was traditionally the head of the party who was considered the head of the country. But for supporters of perestroika, he suddenly looked as if he was putting the brakes on reform. He was no longer seen as the man who had released the esteemed physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov from exile, but as the man who had publicly insulted him.

As often happens in Russia, the situation became overheated, the extremes became more extreme, and Gorbachev’s attempts to hold on to some imaginary middle ground – one in which the empire would be preserved, but its various republics would be given greater autonomy; where market forces would be empowered, but socialist principles would be preserved; where democracy would reign, but with the Communist Party in charge – all these attempts were doomed and, alas, destroyed Gorbachev as a politician.

By 1991, Gorbachev had lost most of his popularity. The country – hungry and angry, ravaged by ethnic conflict and plagued by shortages resulting in hours-long lines for food – no longer wanted to listen to him. When the August 1991 coup attempt failed and Gorbachev returned from his three-day house arrest in the Crimean resort town of Foros (where he had been vacationing), his return was rejoiced, but nobody really felt a need for him anymore. By then, the primary emotion he provoked was contempt, both from his enemies and his former admirers. The humiliation he suffered in December 1991, when he found himself leading a collapsing country, aroused little sympathy. People had their own problems to worry about.

Gorbachev’s subsequent attempts to adapt to his new life are telling. In 1997, when the entire country was frantically trying to find a way to support themselves, the former general secretary and president appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial, clearly oblivious to the damage this would do to his reputation. Then again, did he still have a reputation to protect? His pathetic 1996 presidential campaign (after he had been out of office for five years) ended in humiliating defeat. Gorbachev was no longer relevant.

As the funny and wise Igor Irtenyev wrote:

And so our Gorby left the stage,
The pedestal departed.
Not seeing him on our front page
Left no one broken-hearted.
Still, giving him a plain thank you,
Some kindness to be courteous,
Might have been the least to do.
But that’s not how they raised us.

Так и сошел со сцены Горби,
Так и покинул пьедестал.
Предметом всенародной скорби
Его уход отнюдь не стал.
И все ж сказать ему спасибо,
Хотя б подать ему пальто
Вполне мы, думаю, могли бы.
Да воспитание не то.

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