Mikhail Gorbachev was a man who hoped for the best, and got the worst.
The legacy of the last Soviet leader, who died Tuesday at 91, was largely undone by two decades of Vladimir Putin. Now a grinding war in Ukraine is its grim and bloody requiem.
Gorbachev had an aversion to violence, a desire to work within the system, a curiosity about the West born of state-sponsored trips abroad, and lofty ideals. All of these, together with ill-conceived economic reforms, eventually led to his downfall. When Gorbachev left office in 1991, he called on Russians to preserve the democratic freedoms he had introduced. But the chaos he left in his wake allowed a kleptocracy to take root instead — one that will now weaponize his death.
A complex and flawed man, Gorbachev has long been something of a political Rorschach test. For many, especially outside Russia, he is the reformist the West found it could "do business with," in British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's phrase, the statesman who ended the Cold War. Few had expected this turn of events when he came to power in 1985, at a youthful 54 — he was a party man who turned out to be more like a Western politician than any of the grey figures that preceded him.
For many in former Soviet-ruled states, he was the leader who allowed history on a dramatic scale to happen peacefully. He tore down The Wall.
And yet for hardliners and those tied to the security services, as President Vladimir Putin was and remains, Gorbachev was the man responsible for losing an empire. He brought national humiliation to a great nation and caused what the Kremlin's current occupant once described as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." The disintegration of "historical Russia" leaving millions of ethnic Russians in newly independent states. "What had been built up over 1,000 years was largely lost," Putin said in a documentary aired last year.
Few episodes are as significant in understanding Putin's political vision — and his current war of conquest in Ukraine — as that unraveling, and his experience of that collapse as a young KGB agent in Dresden. Others may have seen the prospect of freedom during the perestroika years — Putin saw powerlessness. "I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed," he later wrote. "That it had disappeared."
All of this leaves the Kremlin in something of a bind when it comes to Gorbachev's death. He's a reminder of that humiliation and the crumbling that led to the economically desperate, undignified 1990s. Even worse, his name has faint remnants of a moment when there were hopes for freedom, openness and reform. Though few were listening by the end, the former Soviet leader was inconveniently loud in his criticism of the Kremlin's tightening grip, which he argued came with growing costs. He pointed out in 2017 that Russia could not fix stagnation without a change of government. His reformist perestroika policies, he wrote last year in a reflective essay, was a humanist project that leaned on individual initiative and broke with autocracy. "This is what makes perestroika relevant today; any other choice can only lead our country down a dead-end road."
For Putin today, all of this can — and no doubt will — be easily swept aside in official remembrance and tributes, because Gorbachev, while hardly universally popular, was the last prominent link to the Soviet Union, a statesman of rare status. And in the complex way that Russian politics works, he arguably shared Putin's vision of Ukraine in Russia's orbit, though he did not advocate war. His criticisms will be overlooked, the specifics will be glossed over.
Like the Soviet leaders who came before him, Putin understands very well that political deaths and funerals are not about the dead at all. They're about the pageantry, and a unique opportunity to retell history and project strength. Gorbachev, after all, came to prominence for much of the outside world at the funeral of his predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko, giving a eulogy that said more about his priorities — shaking Russia from economic stagnation — not those of the deceased.
In Moscow — as, indeed, in Beijing, where the Communist Party has long sought to learn the lessons from perestroika errors — this will not be an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the Soviet system's secrecy and rigidity were, ultimately, its downfall. It won't be an opportunity to reflect on what might have been, had democracy taken root, or Gorbachev moved more slowly.
There will be a moment to use his failures in the Kremlin's eyes — say, his decision to largely avoid force in Soviet-run states, the weakness that allowed even Russia to break away — to justify empire-building actions today. These mistakes, Putin will say, cannot be repeated.
But many more Gorbachev-era facts with awkward contemporary echoes will be avoided — like opposition to the war in Afghanistan, the social cost of excessive military spending, or the economic shortages — in favor of a focus on sepia-tinted Soviet nostalgia. Putin, who promotes a vaguely Soviet-inspired national mythology, needs a distraction from the counter-offensive by Kyiv that his forces are now battling.
The West has less of an excuse to gloss over Gorbachev's shortcomings. He was a man of vision who changed the world, but there should be room among the political eulogies to reassess lessons all too relevant today to countries like Ukraine. Democracy requires state structures to support it and economic underpinnings. And it's rarely wise to place too much weight on the role of individuals who often cannot control what they unleash.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.