March 01, 2021

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev in 2010. VENI (CC)

The rises and falls of the esteem in which Russians have held Mikhail Gorbachev over the years have been dizzying. As for the falls, Alexander Kerensky, head of the 1917 Provisional Government after the February Revolution, may be the only other figure in Russian history to experience a more precipitous plummet from wild adoration to bitter contempt.

The first reaction to Gorbachev was probably surprise. No – that’s too weak a word. In the spring of 1985, the Soviet people were utterly baffled, dumbfounded, and stunned: some were pleasantly amazed; others were absolutely appalled. Before the Politburo elected him to head the Communist Party in March 1985, no one had ever heard of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, or at least no one who didn’t follow the party’s inner workings (a rare breed).

Seemingly out of the blue, there was this youthful (compared to the feeble old men who came before him) new head of the country who actually began to say things that made a modicum of sense. Today, there’s an urge to cry out: “Was he ever a windbag, interminably holding forth at the slightest provocation!” But in fact, in 1985, Gorbachev was doing something extremely important: he was calling things as he saw them. Or at least he was trying. He himself, of course, did not fully appreciate what he was getting himself into and didn’t realize that he was initiating the downfall of a system. He apparently thought that he could just make a few adjustments, fix a few things around the edges, and everything would be fine. But the fact that someone (and not just someone at home in their own kitchen, but standing at an official podium!) could admit that all was not well in the land and even that things were going badly – that was astounding.

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