Analysis | Mikhail Gorbachev, a paradoxical hero

Analysis | Mikhaïl Gorbachev, a paradoxical hero

The failures of the last president of the Soviet Union appear today as successes.

The West has widely welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev's steps towards peace and rapprochement between the West and the USSR.

Reluctantly, and for having done – or allowed to happen – things that were not at all in his initial program, Mikhail Gorbachev goes down in history today as one of the greatest political figures of the 20th century.

A man who, in less than seven years in power, changed the face of the world, receiving in 1990 perhaps the most deserved Nobel Peace Prize ever assigned.

A man whose failures appear in retrospect as successes and who, for example, by letting go of the march of history in Eastern Europe in the extraordinary year of 1989 – rather than intervening bloodily, as the would no doubt have done his predecessors – was in spite of himself a great liberator.

The peaceful fall of the Soviet system was not Mikhail Gorbachev's goal, but it is perhaps his greatest legacy.

When Gorbachev, a true Marxist believer, a faithful regional communist apparatchik (Stavropol, not far from Ukraine and the Black Sea), arrived in Moscow, already in his mid-forties at the end of the 1970s, he saw that many things are wrong with the regime inherited from Lenin and Stalin.

Political oppression, of course, but also an inept economy (outside the military sector), plagued by corruption, inefficiency and the total disinterest of the workers.

However, he sincerely believes that a reform of the system is possible from within, under the aegis of a revived single party, to revive socialist ideals.

Arrived in Moscow in 1977, he was welcomed and protected by old Soviet barons – Yuri Andropov, chairman of the KGB (the secret service) and Mikhail Suslov, chief ideologue of the secretary general Leonid Brezhnev. As reformist inspirations, one can imagine better!

To all appearances, nothing predisposed him then – apart from youth (he is 20 years younger than most Politburos) and a bright smile – to distance himself radically from these representatives of the established order and the Soviet imperialism.

Mikhail Gorbachev chats with Russian citizens in Moscow in 1985.

Suslov will be in 1980-1981 one of the fiercest enemies of Poland of the Solidarity movement, in search of its emancipation, while Andropov was the head of the Soviet police state (KGB, Lubianka, torture and tutti quanti ) – although he has also been credited with reformist inclinations in matters of the economy.

The paths of reformism are sometimes astonishing. Gorbachev presided over the dismantling of what was a suffocating empire, a strongly ideological system, with tyrannical and violent underpinnings, which claimed to have universal solutions to the problems of humanity. With a utopian zeal that led to human suffering – the collectivization of 1929-1932, the famine in Ukraine and elsewhere, the Great Terror, the bloody purges of 1937-1938 – among the most appalling of the 20th century.

According to the American diplomat and historian, George F. Kennan, a peaceful exit from such a regime, from such a heavy history – an exit that we saw between 1988 and 1991 – is a miracle.

The Gorbachev miracle is perhaps his great idealism, even the fundamental naivety of his project (reforming Sovietism) which, combined with tactical restraint, an obsession with violence and the obsessive maintenance of a centrist line, will have done very great things, truly historic.

And in particular: the end of Soviet totalitarianism with little or no bloodshed. Compare with the apocalyptic end of Nazism.

Or almost… When we celebrate the man of peace today, we can certainly, by examining with a magnifying glass these tumultuous years between 1985 (March 1985, coming to power) and 1991 (December 25 1991, resignation and official end of the Soviet Union), to find something other than a long, quiet and peaceful river. Rather: thrilling years, fertile in many twists and not always pleasant.

Lithuanians and Georgians, for example, remember what were, during this period, some painful exceptions to the peaceful dismantling of the Empire.

This dismantling, in reality, was in certain cases more complex inside the dying Soviet Union (the 15 former republics of the USSR) than for the countries already formally independent from Eastern Europe, despite their de facto domination by the USSR between 1945 and 1989.

In November 1990 Helmut Kohl (left) with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (right) and Foreign Minister Hans- Dietrich Genscher.

The gradually regained freedom of the years 1985-1990 also revived nationalist aspirations, religious or ethnic rivalries that were simmering in the peripheral Soviet republics. In many cases, thanks to Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika, it has concretely relaunched their fight for independence. But there were bloody clashes.

In Tbiissi, capital of Georgia, on April 9, 1989, 19 people were killed when Soviet Interior Ministry troops attacked Georgian nationalist militants with weapons. tanks and poison gas.

In Vilnius in January 1991, after Lithuania's declaration of independence, Soviet stormtroopers attacked nationalist demonstrators with tanks and armor charging straight into the unarmed crowd. Result: 14 dead and over 140 injured.

In Gorbachev's defense, it is quite possible that this violence of the Soviet state at the end of its life was unwittingly triggered by local supporters of the old order, desperate for the turn of events and in reality enemies of Gorbachev.

The same people, basically, who made their pitiful coup attempt in August 1991, which aborted after three days and which consecrated Boris Yeltsin as a new symbol (misleading?) of the democratic struggle in Russia.

Internationally, Gorbachev will almost instantly become a superstar in the West whose pleasant, accommodating and peaceful side will be hailed, which contrasts with the closed faces, in the form of NIET!, of his predecessors.

Signed in 1987, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was the first treaty to be outlawed entirely a weapon category.

The nuclear disarmament agreements he would sign with Ronald Reagan in 1988 are substantial and historic – even if, almost 35 years later, they seem to have lapsed. It was nothing less than the end of the Soviet-American Cold War. There is no doubt that the most ardent craftsman of these agreements was Mikhail Gorbachev. Others than him could have, in front of a Ronald Reagan, chosen climbing instead.

He also put an end to the plan for Afghanistan (ten years of Soviet occupation), where he only saw a ruinous and useless imperialist adventure which we can say today that it will have accelerated the fall of the Soviet Union. Faced with the inevitable reunification of Germany, Gorbachev also showed himself to be realistic and very accommodating, finally accepting that the reunified Germany should remain in NATO.

No wonder that today today, his memory is hailed throughout the West.

Of course, today there is another look at Mikhail Gorbachev and his significance in history. The Russian nationalist point of view, now in power in Moscow and shared by a good part of public opinion there, bludgeoned by war and anti-Western propaganda, does not see it with the same eye. (Even if, in all hypocrisy, polite and official tears have been shed in the Kremlin over the past few hours over the death of the last Soviet leader.)

For this point of view, which moreover was expressed in a cruel way during Gorbachev's attempt at the 1996 presidential election (0.5% of the vote for the humiliated ex-president), the Nobel Prize was in reality a weak, naive, even sold to Westerners, who presided over the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century (according to Vladimir Putin in 2002, speaking of the fall of the USSR).

< p class="sc-v64krj-0 knjbxw">Former USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev (archives).

Certainly, despite his late-life zigzags in his assessment of Putin (Gorbachev supported the 2011 protests in Moscow against the rigged elections, but he applauded the annexation of Crimea in 2014), the great departed is at the poles apart from what Vladimir Putin represents today in the face of history.

Gorbachev believed in the common European home, Russia included. Putin sees Europe as an enemy and a threat. Gorbachev believed in a humanistic and fraternal socialism, even though he failed to do so. Putin installed a rapacious and corrupt capitalism in Russia, a kleptocracy allied with the Kremlin.

Gorbachev signed disarmament agreements, ended the occupation of a neighboring country. Putin invaded Ukraine.

Gorbachev established the beginnings of pluralism, let the press express itself, allowed the first multi-party elections. He encouraged an open discussion about the dark passages of Soviet history. Under Putin, all of this is locked down.

Pragmatic humanist more than visionary – he was often overtaken by events, but with a remarkable and very flexible capacity for adjustment – Mikhail Gorbachev, at the time of his death, is a paradoxical hero. But a true hero of the 20th century.

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