Thursday, 3 March 2011
Yesterday Mikhail Gorbachev celebrated his eightieth birthday. The architect of reform in the former Soviet Union is the epitome of a ‘prophet not without honour, except in his own country‘. Feted in the rest of the world for dismantling the apparatus of a totalitarian state, he is a marginal figure in Russia.
There are signs, though, that his contribution is beginning to be recognised. In the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow, within spitting distance of the Kremlin’s walls, an exhibition of photographs, ‘Mikhail Gorbachev: Perestroika’, charts his career and political evolution.
More significantly Gorbachev was awarded Russia’s highest national honour to mark his birthday. President Medvedev decorated the former Soviet leader with the Order of St Andrew. Medvedev spoke about the ’immense labour’ Gorbachev contributed to Russia and the USSR at a ’difficult and dramatic time’.
Elsewhere commentators are using the occasion to reflect upon Mikhail Sergeyevich’s legacy. In Novaya Gazeta, which Gorby part owns, Lilia Shevtsova argues that in recent times “only one leader - Gorbachev - determined the long-term history of the global order”. At oD Russia, Archie Brown hails a politician whose “open mind” took him on a journey from communism to social democracy.
“Let God, history and Gorbachev himself judge his failings”, implores Konstantin von Eggert in a Ria Novosti column, “his achievements are monumental”. Even those who disagree with him, von Eggert observes, acknowledge that Russia’s greatest living statesman is honest.
In another lengthy feature on the Ria Novosri site Nikolai Troitsky is more ambivalent about Gorbachev’s achievements. “His reforms actually caused the collapse of the country”, Troitsky says - echoing the misgivings of many of his countrymen, but he continues, “thanks to his efforts, freedom was given room to flourish”.
Meanwhile, the Moscow Times notes that there “are several aspects [of Gorbachev’s career] worthy of emulation by Russia’s current leadership”. The liberal paper, aimed at the Russian capital‘s expat community, recommends modern “perestroika” for the economy and a new spirit of glasnost among the country’s politicians.
The man himself also continues to advocate reform. He urges greater freedom and fairness in State Duma elections due to take place next December. And although he claims to like both Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin personally, he hopes Putin will not consider a third term as President, once Medvedev’s current spell elapses in 2012.
Of all the charges levelled at Gorbachev, the most unjust is that he is merely a relic of communism, who set out to tweak the Soviet system and ended up unleashing forces which he could not resist or understand. The former President of the USSR was no powerless bureaucrat, he was a genuine reformer whose vision evolved as events unfolded.
It was fitting that he received recognition from Medvedev, a man who some argue represents the better instincts of the current Kremlin regime. The President frequently emphasises the importance of encouraging business and entrepreneurship in an orderly environment governed by the rule of law, while Gorbachev started the tentative process of granting enterprises’ independence and permitting private ownership, back in the late 1980s. Medvedev pays lip-service to the merits of an open press, while Gorby owns an opposition newspaper. They both talk about freer and fairer elections as a mark of progress.
There is understandable reticence, some differences and neither man wants to get too cosy, but there is a continuum there. It’s fitting that Dmitry Medvedev showed his respect for a worthy forbear and wished Mikhail Sergeyevich happy birthday in style.