Gorbachev means more than his divisive legacy

In 2022, the world should remember the lessons of one the most important statesmen in modern times

A portrait of the last leader of the Soviet Union and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev. AFP
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On Tuesday, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, died at the age of 91. The news sparked reflection around the world, such was his importance. Old debates are resurgent, too.

In the Middle East, he will be remembered specifically for his moderating influence in the regional crises of the day. An important one was the joint Soviet-US statement in strong condemnation of Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

For the West, and much of Eastern Europe, he is a geopolitical hero. He will be remembered as a figure who helped move global politics on from the traumatic, polarised aftermath of the Second World War.

He also became an important voice in explaining to the world the new Russia and its people. Towards the end of his life, this focused much on the danger of mounting tensions between his country and the West.

In the western narrative of the fall of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's work is beyond laudable. His burden, after all, was the biggest. Ronald Reagan's call to Gorbachev in 1987 to "tear down this wall", in reference to the Berlin Wall that for 28 years separated the western half of the city from the Soviet-aligned East Germany, is a triumphant soundbite that still adds gravitas to the American president's legacy. The proclamation by then UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher that "I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together" is among her most famous lines.

He might receive abounding praise in the West, but, unlike his American and British counterparts, his legacy at home is far more complicated. There are Russians who were happy to see the end of the Soviet Union. There are others who were not. And wherever people fit into that political debate, there is also the strategic one about whether dissolution was carried out in a way that benefited the strategic goals of the West more than Russia's. In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the end of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century".

Gorbachev also faced criticism for the domestic state of Russia after 1991. For some, the period saw promising moves towards a more open state. For many others, however, the significant economic turmoil and the expansion of Nato in those years are considered disasters.

The Kremlin's response to his passing reflects this. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Gorbachev's co-operation with the West was wrong: "The honeymoon did not work out ... It's good that we realised this in time and understood it."

His commitment to dialogue and diplomacy cannot be faulted, however. In an interview with American broadcaster PBS on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, he was asked why he released his joint statement with the US so quickly. The response reflects his maturity: "The world had become different and the two superpowers were in the situation where we had to show whether we were able to co-operate in this new situation, especially on such a critical issue like aggression." The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty he signed with Reagan in 1987 was perhaps his greatest achievement of all.

Towards the end of his life, Gorbachev's muted existence in Russia became a much-cited trope in the western media to describe the ambivalence of his reputation in the country. Whatever people think of his policies, it cannot be denied that he was one of the 20th century’s most consequential statesmen.

Published: September 01, 2022, 3:00 AM