Eight months ago, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the USSR, a geopolitical earthquake which, thanks to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, took place peacefully. For six months, blood has been flowing in Ukraine, attacked by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The historian Bernard Lecomte holds up to today’s power the mirror of that of yesterday.
Mikhail Gorbachev died at a venerable age, at 91, but does his death resonate in any particular way today?
This death resonates curiously in the ears of those who follow the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Gorbachev is the anti-Putin, in every way. Gorbachev believed in communism, Putin never did. Gorbachev tried to democratize, to liberalize a totalitarian country. He did not succeed. But Putin is back on the road to a totalitarian Russia. Gorbachev was the man behind the collapse of the USSR, which he obviously did not want. Putin never ceases to miss the USSR. The two men are in complete opposition. But the most important thing is that Gorbachev, the former communist, understood that the future of Soviet Russia lay with Europe and open societies. Putin is convinced that the future of Russia is to cut itself off from Europe and once again become a closed regime like the USSR of yesteryear.
What Putin is doing in Ukraine is exactly what Gorbachev managed to avoid thirty years ago, when the USSR fell, when no bloodshed.
What humanity owes to Gorbachev, and which moreover justifies his winning the Nobel Peace Prize, is that on the night of November 9 to 10, 1989, when he learned that the Berlin Wall had been opened, he said to his collaborator: “Phone our ambassador to tell him that we will not intervene.” It is exactly the opposite approach to that of Putin who, when nothing forced him to do so, sent his tanks to intervene in Ukraine.
Why did the Russians keep a bad memory of Gorbachev, despite the wind of freedom he blew over the country?
Let’s put ourselves in the place of the Russians who, in 1985, saw the arrival of a normal leader, and not one of those cacochymal dinosaurs that Andropov or Brezhnev were. A normal ruler with a normal First Lady. Who speaks to them a normal language. He says to them: “We are going to loosen the regime through glasnost, through perestroika. By opening up to the modern world.” Culturally, Gorbachev’s early years were a real treat for Russians. But let us put ourselves in the place of these same Russians, when the policy of liberalization, of democratization, results in weakening the Communist Party of the USSR. And when, in this totalitarian society, the single party is weakened, everything goes down the drain. On the one hand, the economy, which is totally unmanageable other than in its Stalinist frameworks. And above all, the Communist Party and the KGB no longer have any power over the Soviet republics: Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine are all distancing themselves. The ordinary Russian, who believed in Gorbachev, realizes that the future is going to be terrible. It is obviously on this that Putin will build his story. The collapse of the system leads to the collapse of the economy and therefore the collapse of daily life. And the Russians agree with Putin: it was a disaster.
Has Putin’s regime, especially in recent years of hardening, voluntarily participated in undermining Gorbachev’s legacy, sullying his memory, in speeches, in representations?
This same November 9, 1989 already mentioned, Putin is a KGB agent stationed in Dresden, in East Germany. He sees the wall collapsing. And it is his whole universe, his ideal, his homeland, his dreams, which is collapsing. And Poutine, since, will want to take his revenge on this evening, which was for him a terrible personal drama. When he pronounces his famous sentence, “the collapse of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of the XXᵉ century”, obviously it is Gorbachev he has in his sights, a man he despises, who has been seduced by the “rotten” and “degenerate” West.
Wasn’t Gorbachev overwhelmed by what he had provoked? He never wanted to accept that the Soviet system was irreconcilable with freedom and democracy…
Gorbachev, all those close to you will tell you, was really, deeply convinced that communism could be reformed. He said until the end that he would remain faithful to the communism of his father and his grandfather, these are his words. He was also convinced that freedom and communism could be reconciled. But this was the case for millions of people at the time, for whom it is a very unpleasant surprise that totalitarian communism is not reformable. But there is something that was even more surprising. No one, neither in the West nor in the East, had foreseen the triggering element of the end of communism. No one had imagined that Russia, too, would emancipate itself from the USSR. This is the key, which neither Gorbachev nor anyone else could have foreseen: Yeltsin is elected by direct universal suffrage at the head of a country of 150 million inhabitants with a past, a language, a culture, a territory, and the atomic weapon, in passing. Opposite, there is Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the USSR, appointed by a politburo of a completely obsolete party. The shock between resurgent Russia and the empty shell that the USSR had become was bound to prove Boris Yeltsin right in relation to Mikhail Gorbachev.
By invading Ukraine, didn’t Putin put a fatal blow to the idea of empire, this same empire that he aspires so much to rebuild? Isn’t he finally the real “gravedigger of the USSR”?
Completely, because Putin is trying to reconstitute a fake USSR. Putin’s Russia is reoriented on the return of the USSR. Except that Putin never believed in communism. He doesn’t care at all. But he wants to find this society directed by the KGB, become the FSB, that is to say by a few men and a tsar, in a totally authoritarian or even totalitarian way. In his mind, you have to go back in time, history. There is something appalling about what Putin is doing to his own people. And the death of Gorbachev, at the time of which one could create an opposition newspaper, put on a dissident play, organize a totally free trade, comes to remind us of this.