It was only 1987 that the true facts behind the celebrated Stalin’s rule were made public, and The Moscow News published Lenin’s testament, where the founder of Soviet Russia had called for putting Stalin on the sidelines because he was too brutal. Those days, Gorbachev was segretary general of the CPSU’s[1] central committee, function he had been invested with two years earlier. There are moments in the life of entire nations when all of a sudden what was presented as true becomes untrue, and what was hidden comes to the surface. What sounds impossible for many nations who have no saints in heaven, and whose historical memory has fallen into oblivion, or has been sistematically delegitimised (I am thinking of the fate of the Armenians who suffered a contested genocide, or that of today’s Syrians, living under the rule of Al-Asad dinasty), it did happen to citizens of the Soviet Union. They lived for an instant a moment of recovery of historical truth during the Gorbachev’s perestroika, « the reconstruction », which did not save the Soviet Union from extinction, but brought freedoms to its citizens.

Not that all of a sudden the regime changed into a liberal order, while Gorbachev was struggling to make centralism in economy and in the political life working better. After all, it was a state which had never stopped manufacturing and assembling missiles and warheads, but where there were not enough shoes for everybody[2]. And where even during the perestroika, the deep apparatus was still arresting opponents and sending them to psychiatric asylums or to penal colonies inherited from the gulag regime.[3] But they were days of profound change, unforgettable days.

Magazines worldwide are today remembering those times, which transformed completely the world power balance, and that challenge of saving an unreformable Soviet Union while transparency and market economy were making their first appearance in a community of almost 300 million people. Many blame Gorbachev for the collapse of the USSR[4], others blame him for having unintentionally paved the way to secessionism and the return of nation-states – which have shaped the decays to come. His battle was to hold the « Soviet nation » together without using force while keeping his liberal reform programme on track after a period of stagnation. And he lost the battle. The West –  which was hoping to get rid of the Communist Bloc as quick as possible – shares however part of the responsibility : it did not probably do enough to offer Gorbachev the financial support needed to complete his reforms.

When Gorbachev asked in 1991 the G7 countries for a financial injection to save his country’s economy, George Bush (father) seems having commented : « It would be like pouring water on sand ». The loans never arrived, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Gorbachev’s advisor Andrei Grachev wrote : « Gorbachev should have received from the West a better deal for his policies… » [5].

And yet, in today’s troubled world, even someone like him, the last secretary general of the Soviet communist party, and the first and last president of the USSR (the role of « president »  was created through his political reforms[6]), appears to many democrats as a hero, an unfortunate hero, someone to be missed, despite he was desperately trying to cope with the new times and save what was still good from the falling ideology of « Real Socialism ».

What disturbs most is the haste which an important segment of the contemporary political class shows in evoking Gorbachev’s legacy. Or in quickly arranging his funerals. He is not a man of our times, he is someone who tried to keep together nations which later disintegrated ; after him, the myth of the ethnical nation as the founding principle of state’s power replaced those of equity and justice. How can he be respected and admired by nationalists or those who built their fortune on rampant capitalism and corruption ? That’s simply not possible.

Today’s authoritarian regime in modern Russia, for instance, sees Gorbachev’s glasnost (« transparency ») a tragic mistake, and it works in order to meticolously de-construct the freedoms and civil rights achieved through Gorbachev’s path of reforms. In his last book, Gorbachev raises his voice against the regression that is consuming Great Mother Russia, and he addresses his thoughts to the Kremlin, when he says : « Stop seeing enemies in those demonstrating, criticising or signing petitions »[7]. His words are still lost in the air. The day of his funerals, Saturday September 3, five ordinary Russians, who were queuing to pay tribute to Gorbachev’s corpse, were arrested for carrying anti-war badges on their jacket.

Russian journalist Anna Zafesova, who lives in Italy, has commented that Gorbachev made the miracle of transforming the defeat of the Cold War in a kind of victory, for having led an entire nation to believe in being themselves the victims of communism, and not co-responsible actors of the system, to the point that the West started having feelings of sympathy for the Russians[8]

That does not interest powerful and ambitious leaders, unfortunately, the obsession with the return of the empires make them blind, and all that capital of sympathy that had been built up has now been lost with the new Russian imperialism. If Tim Marshall is right, in his Prisoners of Geography (2016), then we have not so much to be optimistic for. In one passage of his book, he imagines the current Russian president asking God every night : « Why did not you put some mountains in Ukraine ? ». If God had built mountains in Ukraine, then the great expanse of flatland that is the North European Plain would not be such encouraging territory from which to attack Russia repeteadly – as Napoleon or Hitler did in the last two centuries – and the Russian regime would not be compelled to take control of those lands. And attack his neighbours if they take the road toward self-determination.

Who is certainly right is Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, who declared at this year’s Venice Film Festival that the invasion of Ukraine is linked to the lack of repentance for historical Soviet crimes, and who called for a trial against all crimes committed by the state of the Soviet Union starting from 1917 and ending with the collapse of the USSR. Without repentance, without recognition of the evil committed in the past, history will repeat itself.

Gorbachev had understood it, but he is not there any longer.

September 5, 2022.

[1] Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

[2] Isabelle Mandraud, Marie Jégo, « Mikhaïl Gorbatchev, le dernier dirigeant de l’URSS, est mort », Le Monde, August 30, 2022.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

[5] Andrei Grachev, Gorbatchev, le pari perdu ? De la perestroïka à la fin de la guerre froide, 2011.

[6] « The party’s monopoly on power would be replaced with a multiparty system. Mr. Gorbachev enlarged, and weakened, the Politburo, and eliminated the office of general secretary, the very perch from which Soviet leaders had controlled the country since the days of Stalin, replacing it with an elected president — himself — supported by a presidential council of advisers. » (New York Times, « Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Reformist Soviet Leader, Is Dead at 91 », August 30, 2022).

[7] Mikhail Gorbachev, Le futur d’un monde global, 2019.

[8] « La Russia e quel miracolo sprecato » (Russia and that wasted miracle), in La Stampa, September 4, 2022.


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