A theatrical account of the life of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev became a smash hit in Moscow in late 2020, as crowds flocked to watch a play that spoke of a need for freedom and democracy in Russia and the end of authoritarianism.
Gorbachev, then in his late eighties, watched from the audience two of the country’s best-known actors play him and his beloved wife Raisa.
Now, after his death this week at the age of 91, the production seems to be part of a bygone era. Not just on the heady days of perestroika in the 1980s, when Gorbachev rolled back decades of Soviet repression, but even in recent times before President Vladimir Putin stopped tolerating even the mildest forms of criticism.
The invasion of Ukraine underscored how far Putin has gone in dismantling Gorbachev’s legacy by reversing the freedoms he introduced – such as freedom of speech and the right to an independent press – and feeding historical grievances about the Soviet collapse.
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of Moscow political consultancy R. Politik, said that in Putin’s mind he was simply correcting Gorbachev’s mistakes.
“Putin thinks Gorbachev was too naive with the West and let the Soviet Union crumble. He thinks a smarter, stronger, tougher geopolitical line could have stopped him,” he said. she adds.
He viewed Gorbachev as a “weak politician who could not prevent ‘catastrophe,'” as Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union, she explained. “For Putin, this is yet another event that shows he is on the right side of history.”
Putin paid his respects on Thursday while Gorbachev was in state at Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital, but he will not attend the former leader’s funeral on Saturday due to a scheduling conflict, the Kremlin said.
The funeral will also not be an affair of state in its own right, while Russia’s status as an international pariah due to its war of aggression in Ukraine and the difficulty of getting to Moscow means that no dignity foreigner has committed to make the trip.
Gorbachev, deeply ill in recent months, made no public comment on the war in Ukraine but lamented it privately, his longtime interpreter and a radio editor close to him said.
Under Putin, however, Russians have lost the freedom to criticize. People who post anti-war messages risk years in prison for “discrediting the armed forces”, while celebrities have been kicked out of the state-funded cultural industry or forced to withdraw their anti-war comments.
The fate of the couple who played the roles of Gorbachev and his wife in the 2020 production underscores this.
Evgeny Mironov, who played Gorbachev, signed a letter opposing the invasion shortly after it began. But a few months later, he visited Mariupol, the Ukrainian city devastated by war, in the company of Andrey Turchak, leader of the United Russia party in power of Putin.
Such trips and the publicity around them reinforce the Kremlin’s message that it was a “liberator” rather than destroying and occupying cities while leaving tens of thousands injured and dead.
The actress who played Raisa, Chulpan Khamatova, has had to leave Russia since the invasion.
Speaking this week from exile in Latvia, she hailed Gorbachev as a “pacifist” who ended the war in Afghanistan and brought freedoms to the Soviet Union.
For many others in Russia, however, these values do not make Gorbachev a hero. Instead, he is decried for destroying Russia’s great power status on the world stage, allowing the Soviet Union to crumble and letting its vast empire tear apart by allowing peoples like Ukraine to separate from the block.
This desire to restore lost greatness underlies much of the popular support for the invasion of Ukraine among the Russian public. Putin described the war as, in effect, an attempt to reverse Gorbachev’s legacy by returning lands lost following the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.
Indeed, the freedoms brought by Gorbachev have turned many Russians against him, according to Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Leaders who give people freedom are unpopular” in Russia, he said. “People don’t like freedom. They don’t like to use it because it’s hard[and has]too many risks. Whereas in an authoritarian system, “you are told what to do, you are told what to think and who to vote for. . . It’s very useful.
In state media, where messages from the Kremlin are broadcast to viewers throughout the day, grudging respect for Gorbachev’s office has barely concealed resentment for his legacy.
“In six years he destroyed our homeland and betrayed the whole socialist camp,” said Vladimir Solovyov, one of the main presenters of Russian state television. “Did he realize what he was doing? No, he didn’t.
But Khamatova insisted that the freedoms introduced by Gorbachev during the Soviet Union’s dying days could never be truly taken away.
“The greatest treasure he gave us was all the freedoms,” she told TV Rain, an independent Russian news channel also exiled in Latvia. “Freedom of movement, of expression, of sexual orientation, of religious belief – you can’t take those away. People have developed a certain immunity to unfreedom and lies.