Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin would seem to be polar opposites.
Gorbachev attempted to democratize the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War, then presided — unintentionally — over his country’s demise. Putin has rebuilt the Russian state, in part by resurrecting authoritarianism and fomenting a new cold war.
In fact, rejecting Gorbachev’s legacy has provided Putin with the main planks of his political platform. While Gorbachev has gotten immense credit internationally for ending the Cold War, he is still blamed in Russia for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic crash that accompanied it.
Given this history, one might expect Gorbachev to denounce Putin. Instead, Gorbachev’s verdict on Putin has been mixed, reflecting his realization that democratizing Russia will take much longer than he hoped. While he once expected his country rapidly to welcome Western-style democracy, Gorbachev now believes the transition might take as much as “the whole twenty-first century.” And that is bad news both for Russia and the world.
The Gorbachev era seems distant indeed from Russia today. Gorbachev’s principal domestic achievements were to bring freedom of speech, assembly and conscience to people who had hardly ever known them, and to lay the groundwork for democracy by introducing free elections and parliamentary institutions. He also tried to transform the super-centralized Soviet state into a genuine federation.
Gorbachev’s style of leadership broke with the Russian/Soviet tradition of a “strong hand” at the top. Unlike their past leaders, Gorbachev hoped to persuade Soviet citizens rather than command them. When both Communist hard-liners and radical democrats opposed his reforms, for different reasons, he tried to reconcile them. When clashing deputies created near-chaos in the new parliament, Gorbachev tried to steer the raucous debates rather than close them down. For the most part, he shunned the use of force, even when rebellious Soviet republics clashed with each other, as Armenia and Azerbaijan did over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, or when they moved toward independence.
For several years, these and other innovations brought Gorbachev great popularity among people who seemed to have had their fill of authoritarian and totalitarian rule. But by late 1990, with the economy in free fall, the Soviet empire coming undone in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself threatening to break apart, Gorbachev’s popularity plummeted. Sixteen years later, Russians told pollsters that their most outstanding 20th-century leaders had been (in this order): Josef Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Yuri Andropov (like Putin, a former secret police chief), Leonid Brezhnev and Czar Nicholas II — all authoritarians.
The shape of this roster was not accidental. Even though Russians had, at first, welcomed democratic reforms, their authoritarian and totalitarian history retained its hold over them. They have had minimal experience with civic activity, including compromise and consensus, and no tradition of democratic self-organization or real rule of law.
The lack of these traditions and habits helps explain why Gorbachev’s virtues became vices in the eyes of most Soviet citizens, why his willingness to listen to others and change his mind struck them as indecisiveness, why his attempts to explain himself and ignore personal insults in televised parliamentary debates looked like weakness. After Gorbachev sought political solutions to the bloody ethnic conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, even one of his liberal advisers grumbled: “They should have hanged twenty or thirty murderers from lamp posts” so that separatist nationalists elsewhere in the Soviet Union would “take Gorbachev seriously instead of regarding him as weak.”
While Gorbachev defended his milder, more democratic approach to the end, he came to understand what so many Russians wanted. “A czar must conduct himself like a czar. And that I don’t know how to do.”
Putin does. He has limited free speech, tamed the Russian parliament, silenced his severest critics, crushed the rebellion in Chechnya and (with help from better economic times and a more aggressive foreign policy) ended up with a popularity rating over 80 percent. What Russians perceive as Gorbachev’s failures enhances Putin’s appeal. Hard as it is for Westerners to admit, Putin’s revival of authoritarianism partly drives his popularity.
After the Soviet collapse in 1991, the decade that followed under Gorbachev’s hated rival Boris Yeltsin was marked by economic and political chaos. No wonder that Gorbachev welcomed Putin’s election as president in 2000, saying Russia needed “strong, firm leadership,” even “a certain dose of authoritarianism.” He hadn’t lost faith in democracy’s long-term benefits, but he misjudged Putin. Gorbachev told friends that Putin was “devoted to democracy,” but had to use “tough measures to rebuild the state and stabilize the economy.”
Likewise, in foreign policy, Gorbachev has sometimes found common cause with Putin. While in power, Gorbachev sought not only to end the Cold War, but to transcend the East-West division of Europe and create what he called “a common European home.” He hoped Eastern European reformers like himself would create communism with “a human face” in their countries and eventually join with Western Europeans in abolishing both NATO and the Warsaw Pact and replacing them with a new structure of peace.
But most Eastern Europeans, it turned out, wanted no part of reformed communism, and the West, led by the United States, insisted on expanding NATO — initially into what had been East Germany, later all the way to the Baltic borders of Russia, and potentially into Ukraine and Georgia.
Putin has responded to NATO expansion, especially to the prospect of Ukrainian membership, by annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine. By doing so, he has mobilized Russian patriotism and nationalism to bolster his own popularity. Gorbachev has joined him in disputing NATO expansion and welcoming the Crimean annexation.
Indeed, before he acquiesced in reunited Germany’s membership in NATO in 1990, Gorbachev thought he had obtained a promise from Secretary of State James Baker III that NATO would not expand “one inch” to the East. He therefore felt betrayed by the continued expansion of NATO under presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Gorbachev also cites the overwhelming Crimean vote to join Russia (even though carried out in the presence of Russian forces) as justification for the Crimean annexation.
Nor did U.S. aid after his presidency balance the scales for Gorbachev. The United States gave Yeltsin’s administration plenty of advice about how to build democratic and capitalist institutions, and considerable economic aid as well. But like so many other Russians, including Putin, Gorbachev has come to suspect that Washington’s real aim was to weaken Russia rather than strengthen it.
While in office, Gorbachev had an extraordinarily warm relationship with presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Bush seemed to accept the need to foster a more just and humane world order. Instead, Gorbachev was left lamenting in 2014 that Americans have sought to create “a new empire headed by themselves.” They “patted us on the shoulder, they kept saying, ‘Well done, well done.’ But all the while they were tearing us down, looting us, tearing us apart.”
Gorbachev hasn’t always seen eye to eye with Putin, their mutual distaste for American behavior aside. After Putin cracked down on the media, manipulated elections, arrested protesters and forced nongovernmental organizations to declare themselves “foreign agents,” Gorbachev opposed his re-election in 2012, charged him with aiming to “completely subordinate society” and condemned Putin’s party, United Russia, with its “monopoly on power,” for “embodying the worst bureaucratic features of the Soviet Communist Party.” But when asked in April 2017 whether he still trusted Putin, Gorbachev replied, “Yes, I do.”
Even at 86, Gorbachev is still devoted to strengthening Russia. His assessment is undoubtedly shaded by a desire to preserve some influence with the Russian president. But his willingness to praise Putin also reflects Gorbachev’s partial disillusionment with Russia herself. The man who tried to democratize the Soviet Union in a few short years has come to fear that the task may take “decades.” And that, in the meantime, Russia may have to follow the advice of “the wise Moses,” who was “right to make the Jews roam the desert for forty years ... to get rid of the legacy of Egyptian slavery.”
Nearly 26 years after the Soviet Union collapsed and Gorbachev was forced to resign, the Russians are still roaming. As long as they continue to crave “strong-hand” leaders like Putin, they will never reach the promised land.
William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell professor of political science emeritus at Amherst College and Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose latest book, “Gorbachev: His Life and Times,” debuted this fall. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.