Alternately revered and vilified, Mikhail Gorbachev shaped history as the last Soviet leader. Our correspondents recall his impact and legacy.

Gorbachev Reflections on a statesman who shaped history

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev waves during a military parade marking the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, Red Square, Moscow, 7 November 1988. (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko)

We asked News Decoder correspondents, many of whom were working as foreign correspondents when the Iron Curtain fell, to recount their experiences observing Mikhail Gorbachev while he was in power and to reflect on his legacy as the last leader of the Soviet Union. Here is what they said.

“An open and friendly Gorbachev”

Julian Nundy

My Soviet experience dated from well before Gorbachev’s arrival on the scene. I first turned up as a student at Kyiv University in 1968 on a British Council studentship and then worked for Reuters in Moscow between 1971 and 1974. That time, when Leonid Brezhnev was the party general secretary and then president, was part of a grey period in Soviet history that was later to be dubbed — rather fittingly — “The Great Stagnation.” The Stagnation was a time of repression of dissidents, with some being interned in psychiatric hospitals, and a general sentiment of fear among the population.

correspondents 23I did return on occasion after 1974, but it was not until June 1989 that I was to set foot in Moscow with Gorbachev at the reins. The atmosphere was unusually tense because Tiananmien was unfolding in Beijing and many Soviets feared that something similar would happen to them one day.

I was so fascinated by the workings of the Congress of People’s Deputies that had been set up by Gorbachev to help the transition to a freer society that, rather than walking around town, I spent much of my down time watching the Congress on live TV. And it was to be an epic few days. Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident and nuclear scientist who had been elected to the Congress, was taken to task for having criticised the behaviour of the Soviet army in Afghanistan.

I was astonished as, with Gorbachev looking on, a young Soviet military officer, also a deputy, stood up to remonstrate with Sakharov, who had been regularly vilified in the Soviet press in my time, beginning with the words, “Andrei Dmitrievich, we know you are the conscience of the nation.” Gorbachev joined in the applause as a number of deputies followed up with more criticism, then called Sakharov in for a tense private meeting where Sakharov encouraged him to put his presidential mandate to the electorate.

On the sidelines, I went to a rally in Gorky Park where the main speaker was Oleg Kalugin, a de-frocked KGB general who, it later turned out, had once been Vladimir Putin’s direct superior, and he mouthed off about egregious KGB practices and, astonishingly, was not only allowed to walk free but later to emigrate. He moved to Virginia.

In 1990, I was to cover the last Soviet Communist Party congress — although no one there knew then that it would be the last — and I was struck by how willing Gorbachev was to talk to the press on the sidelines of the often chaotic proceedings. He was rivalled only by Boris Yeltsin, who enlivened the event by tearing up his party card before the cameras and walking out.

Later, in Paris, I befriended Andrei Grachev, a former employee of the party’s Central Committee who had been Gorbachev’s French language spokesman, making regular appearances on French TV. Andrei then got me an invitation to take part in a meeting of the Gorbachev Foundation in Turin in the early 2000s where I had occasion to talk freely with an open and friendly Gorbachev, even sharing a cocktail with him in a cellar in the Martini headquarters.

* * *

“Imperial overreach”

Daniel Warner

The end of the Soviet Union is one of if not the most important geopolitical event of the second half of the 20th century. Many questions have been raised about why it happened, especially since it was not predicted by almost all the experts.

DWarner 2One of the most popular explanations is the pressure applied to the Soviets to increase military spending by the United States and its allies and the personality and decisions of Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s personality, a distinct difference from previous Communist apparatchiks, and his charming wife played very nicely into a Western perception that personalities matter in international relations. Individual decisions by important statesmen are the backbone of historical biographies. This is why the death of Gorbachev is so mourned in the West.

But there are other levels of analysis that should be considered. Whereas the Soviet Union was a military power, it was extremely weak economically and depended solely on the sale of gas and oil. Western experts missed the weaknesses of domestic Soviet policy.

So, while people talk of Gorbachev’s courage in ending strict Soviet policies and freeing Eastern Europe, part of which is true, there is an important element that experts missed such as the internal weaknesses in the Soviet Union which led to its demise. By focusing on Gorbachev as the architect of the end of the Soviet Union, experts can cover their weakness in not predicting the end of the empire.

There is no doubt that Gorbachev played a role in the implosion of the Soviet Union just as Reagan, the Americans and their allies also played a role. It was a combination of factors. Gorbachev deserves credit for letting the final demise take place, but experts will continue to argue about whether the demise was inevitable. They will use comparisons to the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon because of imperial overreach. In that analysis, the role of Gorbachev will be secondary.

* * *

“A giant of a man who gave them freedom”

Helen Womack

correspondents 17My strongest memory of Mikhail Sergeyevich was seeing him bowed in grief at the funeral of his beloved wife, Raisa, in September 1999. She’d suffered from leukemia and died at the relatively young age of 67. He was heartbroken. Together, Gorbachev and his elegant, visible wife had changed the way things were done in the hidebound Soviet Union.

The crowds came out for Raisa then. Many had disliked her before, but at the funeral they wept and regretted they had not appreciated her and all she had done, particularly for Soviet women.

Gorbachev himself is now being mourned in the West while still being largely reviled in his own country for “bringing down the Soviet Union.” Perhaps in time, Russians will come to realise what they have lost — a giant of a man who gave them freedom.

* * *

“Gorbymania”

Tom Heneghan

I only saw Mikhail Gorbachev a few times from afar, but was surrounded almost daily by incessant “Gorbymania” while I was chief correspondent in Germany during the last years of his presidency. The once-divided country was bound to be thankful to Gorbachev for allowing it to reunite in 1990. But he did it with such style that he became a secular saint to the Germans. “Glasnost” and “perestroika” became everyday words. Top officials in Bonn praised his “New Thinking.” Even today, long after his downfall and much criticism in Moscow, Gorbachev remains a hero in Germany.

correspondents 2 02That this enthusiasm was shared on both sides of the inner-German border became apparent when Gorbachev visited in October 1989 for East Germany’s 40th anniversary. It started with a veiled attack on East German communist leader Erich Honecker, whose only answer to the rising number of people fleeing the country was to tighten the screws even further. Gorbachev’s comment “Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben” (Life punishes those who arrive too late) quickly became one of the most quoted quips in both East and West.

That evening, Gorbachev joined all other leaders of the then-Soviet bloc along Unter den Linden boulevard to review a torchlight parade by the communist Free German Youth (FDJ) movement. In the confusion, I worked my way into the middle of the march and heard blue-shirted FDJ teenagers excitedly shouting “Gorby! Gorby! Save us” as we passed the reviewing stand. “Look, there’s that old crook Ceaucescu! And Jaruzelski!” one youth exclaimed when he spotted the hard-line Romanian and Polish leaders. It was not what the bosses wanted to hear.

The next day, October 7, saw the traditional anniversary day parade. As evening fell, thousands of East Berliners demonstrated outside a high-level reception, shouting “Gorby come out!” and “Freedom! Freedom!” One of the guests who saw them through a window later said, “It was like being on the Titanic.” The protesters then snaked through the dark streets calling for reforms at home like Gorbachev had introduced in the Soviet Union. Police and Stasi security agents chased countless protesters around East Berlin that night, arresting hundreds in a futile effort to snuff out what the Soviet leader had inspired.

* * *

“The most significant leader of the times”

Alister Doyle

I was working for Reuters in Oslo when Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War.

correspondents 01He had been the clear favourite for the prize (some Americans favouring a joint award with former U.S. President Ronald Reagan were disappointed), and we´d luckily prepared the story in advance.

The secretive, five-member committee that awards the prize, perhaps the world´s top accolade, put out a bizarre statement that didn’t mention the Cold War but said he was winning for “his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community.”

It was an extraordinary day. It seemed everyone in the world reacted to the story, from presidents and prime ministers to people in the street in Moscow struggling with an economic downturn. The award topped news broadcasts around the world and we were frazzled by the end of the day.

As with much in Gorbachev’s life, people abroad applauded more than people at home. Even the Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, hinted at discontent at home, with a statement that made us smile: “We must remember that this certainly was not the Nobel prize for economics.”

Gorbachev later came to Oslo to give an acceptance speech. I saw him from the distance outside city hall where crowds were cheering — my only glimpse of the most significant leader of the times.

* * *

“No one to blame if things go wrong”

Jeremy Solomons

jsolomonsI was in Krakow in Poland on the very day in August 1980 when it was announced that, thanks in part to Gorbachev, the social protest movement Solidarnosc would lead the next coalition government.

To my surprise, there were no visible celebrations in the streets, and when I asked a rather glum-looking local resident why not, he said: “Now we have to do everything for ourselves and we have no one to blame if things go wrong.”

* * *

“The euphoria of a revolution can often fade into turmoil, strife and repression.”

Randal Mikkelsen

I remember the excitement over simply being credentialed for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Washington in 1987. I was working for a Knight-Ridder newspaper, and the whole Washington bureau was credentialed if needed. I’ve seen contemporary reports that up to 5,000 journalists received credentials for the event. It was my first year as a “Washington reporter.” I still have the T-shirt. I got a peek into the Marriott hotel ballroom during Gorbachev’s press conference and was dazzled by the light, energy and importance of the whole thing.

correspondents 2 09In November of 1989 I covered for Reuters a U.S. trade delegation to Warsaw and Moscow. It was my first visit to Russia. It was gray and sooty, and the city streets were mostly empty except for rattling cars made in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But change was in the air. I stayed in an old hotel, the Savoy, that had recently been taken over and refurbished by a Finnish company under looser economic rules. They served caviar and champagne, but old women in chairs still minded the halls on each guestroom floor.

Arbat Street in Moscow was a center of expression slowly being freed, with artists and others lining the sidewalks to sell their wares. I bought a T-shirt recreating the Pravda newspaper the day after Gorbachev announced “perestroika,” his economic liberalization program. At another open air market, a vendor furtively displayed a postcard of Stalin.

One night, I explored Moscow via subway with a U.S. State Department Russian grain specialist. We were assisted more than once with directions by Muscovites in the mosaic-lined subway stations. “Sometimes your KGB tails can be very helpful,” the State Department official explained.

In 1991, after the August coup attempt, I was detailed to Latvia to help cover the Baltic republics’ quest for independence. In a bizarre sequence in a German-themed bar, I met a bunch of wealthy Texans who had diverted their yacht, the Michela Rose, to Riga when they heard there was excitement in the air. They invited me back to the yacht for a party and brought along a couple of Soviet border guards from the port. They traded trinkets for hats and bits of the border guards’ uniforms. I thought, just a few weeks ago these border guards could have easily arrested, or shot, any foreigners who arrived with such commotion.

I still consider Gorbachev a great international visionary who transformed his era, and Yeltsin a flawed idealist. It was a moment of hope. I have since learned from this and other experiences in my career that the euphoria of a revolution can often fade into turmoil, strife and repression.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why was Mikhail Gorbachev famous?
  2. Why do you think many people in the West and many Russians have radically different views of Gorbachev?
  3. Can you think of a statesperson today who is viewed differently in their home country than outside that country?
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