Overview:

The West and Russia are divided in the response to Gorbachev's death. The west has heaped praised on the last USSR leader. Russia has not.

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Mikhail Gorbachev has died at the age of 91. As the last leader of the former Soviet Union, Gorbachev brought historic political and economic changes to the USSR, and played a key role in ending the Cold War. During his time in power, Gorbachev attempted to democratize institutions and improve government transparency. He was a bigger champion of civil liberties than his predecessors and attempted to bring the USSR closer to Europe and the United States. 

Western leaders have largely lauded Gorbachev’s legacy. US President Joe Biden called him “a man of remarkable vision,” adding that Gorbachev’s reforms created “a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.” 

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, said that Gorbachev “opened the way for a free Europe. This legacy is one we will not forget.” Other European leaders, including Boris Johnson, had kind words to say about Gorbachev. “In a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all,” Johnson wrote on Twitter.

However, Gorbachev’s legacy is perceived differently in Russia. Although President Putin offered condolences to Gorbachev’s family, he has dramatically moved away from Gorbachev’s politics, pushing Russia away from the West and from democratic reforms to government and liberalism. In his later years, Gorbachev was deeply critical of Putin

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin, has said that Gorbachev’s ideal of peace between Russia and the West was ‘romanticism,’ and a ‘pipe dream.’ “This romanticism did not materialize. There was no romantic period or honeymoon,” Peskov said. “The bloodthirstiness of our opponents has shown itself.”

President Putin has called the fall of the USSR the “worst catastrophe of the 20th century” and many Russian political and military elites blame Gorbachev for the country’s collapse. Igor Girkin, a former colonel in Russian intelligence, called Gorbachev a “traitor” who deserved “eternal shame.”

The divided views on Gorbachev’s legacy are emblematic of the political division between the West and Moscow. This split extends to the war in Ukraine, democratic governance, and the role of international political institutions. 

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.