Gorbachev let the Soviet Union dissolve. Putin wants it back

Gorbachev's death highlights just how much things have changed since his time in office.
Gorbachev let the Soviet Union dissolve. Putin wants it back
Photo: Christian Charisius (Reuters)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t make any pronouncements on the war in Ukraine, which, it turned out, overlapped with the last six months of his life: He died this week at the age of 91. But the goal of violent expansionism that Russia’s current leader, Vladimir Putin, seems to be pursuing is a particularly stark example of the difference between the two leaders.

Gorbachev, ultimately choosing connection with the rest of the world and non-violence, allowed the Soviet Union to break apart. Putin has spent his two-decades-and-more years in power reversing so many of his predecessor’s policies that it now seems possible he wants to rebuild the Soviet Union, or something like it.

What did Gorbachev think of Putin?

Outwardly, the relationship between the two men was respectful, if reserved. Putin didn’t publicly criticise Gorbachev in his lifetime, though he did call the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” The statement sent by Putin to Gorbachev’s family yesterday is an exercise in hedged praise:

Mikhail Gorbachev was a politician and statesman who had a huge impact on the course of world history. He led our country during a period of complex, dramatic changes, large-scale foreign policy, economic and social challenges. He deeply understood that reforms were necessary, he strove to offer his own solutions to urgent problems,” said the statement, while also lauding Gorbachev’s humanitarian and charity work. In other words: He made changes, but not necessarily good ones; the situation was difficult; he tried his best, but didn’t necessarily succeed.

The Kremlin has not yet said whether Gorbachev will be given a state funeral, like the one afforded to his immediate successor, Boris Yeltsin, who died in 2007.

Gorbachev’s attitude to Putin, meanwhile, changed back and forth over many years. He criticised Putin’s decision to seek a third term in power. “Politics is more and more turning into an imitation of democracy,” Gorbachev said at the time. “All power is in the hands of the authorities and the president.” But by the time Putin was seeking a fourth term, in 2018, Gorbachev sounded more supportive. He backed Russian support of the Syrian regime and insisted Crimea was part of Russia, but also insisted—before it happened—that the idea of a Russia-Ukraine war was absurd.

Gorbachev’s time in office was indeed a time of “dramatic” changes. While he certainly oversaw violent acts of oppression—in the Baltic states, for example—he chose non-violence as his country’s ultimate course. When his policy of glasnost, or “openness,” cascaded out into Russia’s former empire and inspired its people to radically change their lives, he didn’t clamp down using force. In 1991, as the Soviet Union quickly collapsed, Gorbachev stepped down.

Putin wants to return to a pre-Gorbachev era

Is Putin trying to rebuild a bloc similar to the one which, as a young KGB agent, he saw disintegrate?

The February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, preceded by the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and incursions into Ukrainian territory since then, have all been described as the actions of a man who wants a bigger country. Putin, for his part, has repeatedly stated that Russia’s attacks on Ukraine are to defend its own security and combat what he calls “Nazification.”

Another stark difference: In 2019, Gorbachev insisted during a BBC interview that all nuclear weapons should be destroyed. Putin’s geopolitical power is vastly enhanced by the fact that Russia has retained massive nuclear capability.

If Gorbachev was “the last prominent link to the Soviet Union,” his death might help erase Russian memory of that era, potentially giving Putin even greater latitude in his attempts write a new chapter.