Gorbachev to Kremlin: Tear down these walls!

Posted March 2nd, 2011 at 9:34 pm (UTC+0)

Mikhail Gorbachev turned 80 on Wednesday. In advance, Russia’s political bear gave himself a birthday present: he came out of political hibernation.

After two decades of lying low and not tangling with the current occupants of the Kremlin, the last leader of the Soviet Union finally opened up.

“Incredible conceit!” Gorbachev, still barrel chested and feisty, snapped when an interviewer asked him about the plan of Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev to decide between themselves who will be the official candidate in Russia’s presidential election next March. Russia’s ruling tandem act “act as if society, constitution, elections did not exist.”

“They’ve come to believe they’re the saviors of the fatherland,” he said of Putin and Medvedev during a radio interview. “The policy they are offering now is to throw everything behind personal power to keep it in their hands.”

Russia today, he said at a press conference, is an “imitation” democracy. The ruling United Russia party is a “bad copy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

Addressing Putin in an interview published Wednesday in the weekly, Argumenty I Fakty, he said: “ Vladimir Vladimirovitch has already served two terms as president and another as prime minister. If I were him, I would not run for president.”

Russia must “definitely” draw lessons from the revolutions sweeping the Arab world, he said. Referring to Russia’s leaders, he asked: “How many times have they promised people that they will be loosening the screws?”

And Gorbachev didn’t stop there. The country’s “ruling class” is “rich and dissolute,” he said in an interview published in Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper he partly owns.

In keeping with Russia’s ‘imitation’ democracy, few of his critical comments saw the light of day on Russian national television specials about his birthday.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan smiles as he talks to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev outside the villa Fleur D'Eau at Versoix near Geneva, Switzerland, November 19, 1985

Every time, I’ve met Gorbachev over the years, here or in the U.S., he was a big talker, reminiscent of America’s ham fisted union leaders of the 1950s. But, he generally talked about his role in history, his relations with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – not about current Russian politics.

Now, some are saying that Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief ideologue, flipped Gorby’s switch. Surkov, who is barely half Gorbachev’s age, told the former ruler of the Soviet Union that the Kremlin would not allow the registration of his social democratic party.

But perhaps in an effort to charm an untouchable critic, Putin and Medvedev unexpectedly reached out to Gorbachev on his birthday. Putin, known for lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union, sent him a telegram, praising him as “one of the great statesmen of modern times, who have made a significant impact on world history.”

Medvedev received Gorbachev for a fireside chat at his suburban residence, welcoming him with candies and champagne. He bestowed on his surprised visitor Russia’s top state honor, the Order of St. Andrew, saying the decoration was “proper recognition of your enormous work as head of state.”

A hero in the West, Gorbachev evokes mixed feelings at home.

In the West, he is revered for lifting from Europe and the United States the real threat of a nuclear weapons exchange with Russia. He is admired for presiding, in a dignified way, over Russia’s loss of empire – first the satellite nations of Eastern Europe, then the 14 non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union.

But from the Russian side of the fence, the collapse of the Soviet Union was traumatic. Jobs vanished. Inflation consumed savings. Crime and ethnic violence erupted. Heath care services fell apart. Mortality rates soared.

And, one day, each and every Russian eventually woke up to the realization that Moscow was no longer the capital of a superpower.

Though the collapse of the Soviet empire was probably inevitable, Gorbachev has been made the scapegoat.

Even so, many Russian now take for granted the freedoms that Gorbachev’s guidance eventually brought them – to travel overseas, to open a business, to buy Western quality goods inside Russia, and to freely cruise the Internet.

The split view on this man who changed history came into sharp focus on his birthday.

In Moscow, celebrations of Gorby’s 80th were largely confined to “Mikhail Gorbachev: Perestroika”, a historical photo exhibit near the Kremlin. When I went on his birthday at 4 pm, a large policeman gruffly told me the show closed at 3 pm.

In contrast, a gala concert is planned March 30 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The celebration is being organized to raise contributions for The Gorbachev Foundation, an entity that aids children’s cancer hospitals in Britain and Russia. Gorbachev’s beloved wife, Raisa, died of leukemia in 1999.

The guest list includes ex-presidents and prime ministers, Hollywood actresses, financial leaders, and publishing tycoons. According to ‘Gorby 80’ the organizing committee, the glittering evening will be split into seven phases, each marking milestones in the trajectory of a man whose first job was driving harvester combines on a collective farm in the late 1940s.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

6 responses to “Gorbachev to Kremlin: Tear down these walls!”

  1. J.P. De Grandmont says:

    Mr. Gorbachev represents a voice for progress. He might consider, among many things, seizing the billion dollar castle that Mr. Putin has acquired….and with whose money? Perhaps the UN should direct the world to seize his ill-gotten assets pending an inquiry.

  2. Mohamed Lafir says:

    Indeed, you are an honourable hero of the 20th century. Of course, you did a great contribution to the human kind.

  3. John Horton says:

    Mr Gorbachev was a GIANT amongst men…..

  4. Pyotr says:

    I respect him because he was able to understand that SU was rotted and could not stand by itself. Even SU being as weak as it was still Gorby had been able to rule some time with force but he had chosen to step aside and not to cling to power by all means. It means he is not egomaniac like Putin which is by itself worth respecting.

  5. Kalash says:

    The USSR had an immense potential and could have been vastly improved and this imbecile is one of the many culprits of its collapse.

  6. Craig says:

    Gorbachev knew that in 1985 that the Soviet Union was bankrupt, thats the reason for Political Reforms. Any one Googled the Perastoika Deception, while Gorbachev was trying to bring reform into the Soviet Union he wanted to import it west.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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