Gorbachev: hero or anti-hero?

After Mikhail Gorbachev's death on Tuesday a fierce debate has broken out about his historical legacy. Russian state media blame the former leader for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Other commentators lament that the opportunities opened up by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate were wasted.

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Népszava (HU) /

Russia will learn to be grateful to him

Népszava comments:

“Not only were we beneficiaries of [Gorbachev's] fair policy, but also the Russians, who were allowed to speak and feel freely for the first time in their history in the following two decades. For centuries they had been made to believe that they should be afraid of the outside world. At last they could see for themselves what Europe, where they had secretly always wanted to go, was really like. But when Gorbachev ran in a free presidential election in 1996 he only got half a percent of the vote. Posterity will be more grateful.”

Irish Examiner (IE) /

One less complication

At least the fact that there will be no state funeral for Gorbachev means Western politicians are spared the decision of whether or not to show up in Russia, notes the Irish Examiner:

“There was potential here for very strong symbolism - and not only in the question of seating arrangements. Western political leaders simply could not have attended a spectacle choreographed by Putin. If they had, they would have run the risk of being positioned as supporters of Putin's regime in the process. If they had to decline a formal invitation - which would be mandatory - they could be accused of insulting Gorbachev's memory and, by extension, Russia itself. So there is one less complication in a very difficult time.”

Libertatea (RO) /

Hardly anyone will go to the funeral

In Libertatea, writer Vasile Ernu laments the passing of a glorious era:

“Without doubt, the 'perestroika era' was the last global epoch of 'old political titans' - politics was of an historic calibre, sustained by hope and meaning, by humanism and human solidarity. But it was defeated - and now we are paying the price. We are in the era of 'political dwarfs', full of resentment, revanchist, stupid, incompetent, cynical, egoistic and petty. ... If there hadn't been a war, all the world leaders would have come to Gorbachev's funeral. Now we don't even know if the current Kremlin boss will come. Truly, this is the definitive end of an era.”

Ria Nowosti (RU) /

He only served the West's purposes

Russia's state agency Ria Novosti does not leave a good hair on Gorbachev's head:

“He did not want the disintegration of our country, but no one has caused as much suffering to our people as this clumsy and unwise reformer. We are still dealing with the consequences of his disastrous rule today, and we will be correcting them for a long time to come, at least those that are at all correctable. But the West benefited from Gorbachev's actions, if only for a short historical period. And now it is using Gorbachev's death as an opportunity to fight for Russia's future ... The West is betting on a new perestroika - that Russia wants to become part of the 'civilised world' once more and change itself and its foreign policy.”

France Inter (FR) /

Nothing came of the vision of a common home

Columnist Pierre Haski explains on France Inter why views of the last leader of the USSR are so different in today's Russia and in the West:

“Mikhail Gorbachev decided very early on to let the former Soviet bloc liberate itself. He had a plan: that of a 'common European home' which was supposed to overcome bloc thinking. The West wasn't interested in this because it was too happy about the end of the Cold War, and then of the USSR. Even today, Gorbachev is still reproached by his Russian critics for this misunderstanding or the poor trade of 1991. So Gorbachev's name is revered in the West and scorned in Russia. His death in the middle of the Ukraine War is the last symbol of this.”

Eesti Päevaleht (EE) /

History not determined by individuals

Political scientist Karmo Tüür questions in Eesti Päevaleht to what extent Gorbachev was actually in charge during his tenure:

“Mikhail Gorbachev became a symbol of freedom for some and of doom for others during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many historical processes mature long before a person takes the lead and then becomes an icon. The Soviet Union, in its glaring inefficiency, had long been caught in a spiral of stagnation and decline. Gorbachev's freedom valves were supposed to oil the machine, but instead they let out blood. Did the Soviet Union really collapse because of Gorbachev or merely during his tenure?”

The Irish Times (IE) /

The poisonous legacy of his predecessors

The roots of many of the ills in Russia today predate Gorbachev's time in power, notes The Irish Times:

“Gorbachev is blamed for all that came after him, foreseeable or not - the shortages and economic chaos, the rise of the kleptocracy now running Russia, remilitarisation and resurgence of a bullying Great Russian nationalism. Yet these, in truth, were the poisonous legacy of Gorbachev's predecessors, embedded so deep in Russian society that even his revolution was unable to shake them. ... The great projects of perestroika and glasnost, reconstruction and openness, were intended to offer the opportunities for change in a country that was rotten ripe for it. Opportunities ultimately unfulfilled.”

BBC (GB) /

He wanted the impossible

Gorbachev's fundamental reforms of the Soviet Union were bound to bring about its demise, even if that was not his goal, the BBC comments:

“Gorbachev's own views of his legacy? It was right to end the totalitarian system and the Cold War, and reduce nuclear weapons, he said. But there was still lament over the coup and the end of the Soviet Union. Many Russians still hold him responsible for its collapse. Although a pragmatic and rational politician, Mikhail Gorbachev failed to realise that it was impossible to bring in his reforms without destroying a centralised communist system that millions in the USSR and beyond no longer wanted.”

Denik N (CZ) /

What counts is what he didn't do

For Denik N, Mikhail Gorbachev's death marks the true end of the 20th century:

“Together with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, he fundamentally shaped its eighth decade. ... From Prague's point of view, his biggest influence was what he did not do although he could have. When he decided that the USSR would no longer support the Czechoslovak communists' monopoly on power, we were given another chance to go our own way.”

La Stampa (IT) /

Man of peace dies in time of war

Putin's war must have been a nightmare for Gorbachev, La Stampa says:

“There is something symbolic about the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev has died at the very moment when the Russia that emerged from the Soviet empire, which he had tried to save in a peaceful way, is sinking into blood and shame. ... For him, as for Vladimir Putin, the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. But unlike the current Russian leader, the first and last Soviet president had chosen to make peace the priority of his political and human mission. And there could probably be no worse punishment for him than to die knowing that his country was bombing Ukraine, the country from which his mother came.”

NRC Handelsblad (NL) /

A pragmatist who faced too big a task

Gorbachev should not be condemned for the current developments, Russia expert Laura Starink writes in NRC Handelsblad:

“He was more of a pragmatist who understood that communism had above all brought great misery to his country. ... But modernising this country after a century of oppression proved to be a herculean task. And transforming the state economy into a free market was too much even for him. What began as a systematic reform ended with the dissolution of a world power and the implosion of a colonial empire. The fact that Putin, anointed by Yeltsin as heir to the throne, could not come to terms with this and is now trying to turn back the clock with a brutal war cannot be blamed on Gorbachev.”