From Gorbachev to Putin


"One year ago this month," former Reasoner Matt Welch writes, "I found myself in the unusual position of hosting lunch for Mikhail Gorbachev." Here's what happened next:

Things at lunch were amicable until I asked the former Pizza Hut pitchman whether he thought there was anything factual behind the persistent reporting in the west that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been backsliding away from democracy. Gorbachev's smile disappeared, his eyes narrowed to lumps of burning coal, and for the next 10 minutes or so he barked out an angry lecture defending Putin and savaging the United States for working actively to humiliate Russia and make her experiments with democracy and capitalism fail. (For an illustrative list of Gorbachev's nationalist paranoia and Putin apologia, click here.)

That memory of the Bear uncaged came back to me this weekend, as I read stories about Putin siccing his riot cops on peaceful protestors, beating scores and arresting hundreds (including unlikely opposition leader Garry Kasparov). The KGB chief-turned president is now openly outlawing political parties (including Gorbachev's), shutting down media outlets and prohibiting free assembly. He is yet another in a long line of Red Square autocrats. But what few Americans seem willing to accept is that Gorbachev belongs on that list, too….

Yes, Gorbachev let the genies of glasnost and perestroika out of the bottle, but he was also constantly trying to stuff them back in. In some places (notably East Germany) he was far more liberal than the local Communist leaders, yet in others (basically everywhere in Russia's Near Abroad) he made Vladimir Putin look cuddly.

My only caveat about those comments is that they might leave the impression that the leader who came between Gorbachev and Putin was blameless. Not so: Between the '93 coup, the Chechen war, and an astonishing wave of corruption, Boris Yeltsin has plenty to answer for as well.

The heroes of Russian liberty were the people who took to the streets in 1991, not the dictator who unwittingly unleashed them or the politician who scrambled to get in front of the crowd. Here's hoping the Russians haven't forgotten how to resist illegitimate authority effectively.