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.

NEXT: If Only Virginia Were More Like New York

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  1. Looks like nobody’s Russian to comment on this article.

  2. Well, I for one am always glad to hear someone slagging Gorby, who gets undeservedly good press.

  3. “Yes, Gorbachev let the genies of glasnost and perestroika out of the bottle, but he was also constantly trying to stuff them back in.”

    I have always thought of Gorbachev as the Inspector Clouseau of freedom. He solved the case, but not on purpose.

  4. In Russia comments slag you?

    Well, that happens here, too.

  5. Gorbachev is considered a clown in Russia to this day.

    He was the product of a system where the Kremlin leaders would promote lesser lights from the sticks because they feared anyone with ability. (I know this sounds like Rand – for independent confirmation, read The Russians by Hedrick Smith.)

  6. Last I checked, Putin has been quite legitimately elected…

    In any case, Kasparov and his “opposition” ilk are clowns. Check out for the kind of nonsense they believe. Between Putin and these, I think I’ll chose Putin. At least his rational.

    As for Gorby, while he was quite incompetent while in power, he’s actually correct here…

  7. Last I checked, Putin has been quite legitimately elected…

    Will he be legitimately re-elected, though? That’s the question.

  8. He was legitimately re-elected once already… If they change the constitution to allow him to run again, it will be legitimate by definition, wouldn’t it?

  9. The Russians love Putin. The Russians love totalitarianism.

    Russians define freedom a lot differently than we do. Our idea of freedom is of interest to very few of them.

  10. It was a work meeting at the L.A. […] but there was something personally chilling about staring into the eyes of a man whose military shot and bludgeoned to death 13 peaceful Lithuanian protesters a full 14 months after the Berlin Wall fell, at a time when I was living in a country (Czechoslovakia) still occupied by tens of thousands of Red Army troops.

    To be fair, there is some dispute as to how much personal responsible Gorby had in that debacle. I’m of the mind that it was largely an initiative of Kremlin hardliners and likeminded generals-basically the same people who led the 1991 coup. And considering what a half-assed job they did in handling both situations (the death toll for both incidents combined was under 20), it’s hard to be intimidated by any of those bums.

  11. “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.”

    This ignores a fairly obvious point. In Gorbachev’s time, “Russia’s Near Abroad” *was part of the Soviet Union.* Gorbachev acted as if he ruled them because he *did.* They were all part of one country. After 1991, they were internationaly recognized as independent states, and from that point on, bullying them the way his successors did had quite a different significance.

    Now one can say that these places became part of the Russian Empire/Soviet Union in the first place as a result of Russian imperialism, and that Gorbachev should have agreed at once to grant them total independence. Let’s just say that in the first place, very few countries voluntarily accept disunion (Czechoslovakia being a rare exception) and in the second place, if he had dared suggest such a thing in the late 1980’s he would have been overthrown by a coup long before the August 1991 one–and its results would *not* have been reversed. Even his allowing the Union Republics to hold more-or-less free elections and to assert greater autonomy drew a great deal of ire from Russian nationalists who (rightly) thought that it would ultimately lead to the breakup of the USSR.

    Russian nationalists are (given their assumptions) quite right to hate Gorbachev. What I cannot understand is the way some Western conservatives and libertarians share this hatred. (They should be applauding even his incompetence since it helped Reagan win the Cold War.) They seem to be measuring the amount of freedom in the USSR in, say, 1990 by an ideal standard rather than by what it was in 1985 when Gorbachev became General Secretary.

  12. Gorbachev, being an incompetent fool, had _lost_ the cold war. Reagan didn’t win it… If anything, it would’ve required him to be awake for it…

    By the way, Russian nationalists aren’t the only ones who “hate” Gorby, or at least think him a fool.. Quite a few people think that the Chinese model would’ve been much better, without necessarily being Russian nationalists (those generally tend to march with Limonov and Kasparov, prompting clueless Westerners to decry Putin’s iron hand…)

  13. Is it weird to anybody else that there’s a Putin apologist who reads Reason?

  14. “Is it weird to anybody else that there’s a Putin apologist who reads Reason?”

    Putin does have some US libertarian defenders like Justin Raimondo. Of course they probably reason that “anyone who is attacked by the neocons can’t be all bad”…

  15. Isn’t it strange that some people think that Reason’s ideals (which aren’t exactly 100% implemented even in the USA) can be grafted onto a totally different country, with no regard to realities on the ground?…

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