Mikhail Sergeivich Gorbachev died on the same day as our daughter Sasha’s 33rd birthday. Sasha herself noted that if it were not for him she probably would not exist. It was ultimately Gorbachev who decided that the USSR would obey the Helsinki Accords rules on letting people get married and so on April 4, 1987 let my wife Marina leave Moscow for the US, the top story on CNN that evening. For that we are personally grateful to him and respect him, despite other things he did that one may not support.
Some people do not support, him, only 8% of the Russian population according to a poll taken in 2017. President Putin has announced that he will not receive a state funeral, perhaps justifiable given that the USSR no longer exists, although Putin has regularly claimed to possess the powers for Russia that the USSR had as a part of continuity. But in fact Putin has all but said this decision follows his claim that the breakup of the Soviet Union was “the worst event of the 20th century,” and he has blamed Gorbachev for it happening, arguably not entirely unreasonably.
Of course, views of Gorbachev in the 14 nations that were formerly republics of the USSR before it broke apart are almost certainly much better than they are in Russia, although I have not seen specific polls on the matter. As it is, Gorbachev himself did nor seek to break up the USSR, even as he failed to prevent its breakup and many of his actions aided in its breakup, a complicated matter that was also brought about by things out of his control, such as low world oil prices after 1986 that tanked the Soviet economy.
While some of those nations remain as dictatorial or even more so than they were in the Soviet period, such as Turkmenistan and Belarus, most of the former USSR now has much greater freedom and democracy than it did in the Soviet period, this true even in Russia with Putin’s backsliding back towards the way things were, including overturning some of Gorbachev’s greatest achievements, such as the 1987 treaty on intermediate nuclear arms, although it must be noted the US has gone along with that as well.
There is much about Gorbachev that many do not realize. He was always a good Communist and Leninist, praising Lenin as late as 2006. He was initially brought to Moscow by Yuri Andropov, who was a tough guy hardliner, but sought to reform the Soviet economic system so as to improve the Soviet military and overcome the stagnation of the late Brezhnev period (Brezhnev curiously now rising in popularity). When Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko provided the swing vote for him in the 4-3 Politburo election in 1985 that put him in power over Moscow Mayor Victor Grishin after Brezhnev sidekick Chernenko died, who had succeeded Andropov, Gromyko declared he did so because of Gorbachev’ supposedly hard teeth. And until the disaster at Chernobyl, Gorbachev’s policies looked a lot like what Andropov probably would have done, his anti-alcohol campaign and his “accelerationism” to catch up to the US economically within the Soviet model, which looked not to bad until oil prices collapsed.
After Chernobyl, Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies, along with democratization, in effect involved pursuing for the USSR an ideal of a form of “liberal communism.” Many have argued that such an ideal was (and is) impossible. But we have seen Communist parties operate within democratic systems in a democratic way, as in the Eurocommunism of Italy and also in India, although it was never in charge of the national government in either of those nations. But the city of Bologna was long considered to be the best run city in Italy for decades in the post WW II era under Communist mayors, and the state of Kerala in India has also been held up as having some of the best socioeconomic outcomes of all states in India, again reflecting years of rule by the Communist Party. Of course, arguably, what one sees in such cases is really just social democracy like what one sees in the Scandinavian nations.
The fundamental problem for the USSR was that once democratization was allowed, this led to the demands for independence by many of the republics, and this ended up with the USSR falling apart. Arguably this was inevitable. WW I brought about the breakup and end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, with the Russian one surviving out of the fluke of having the Bolshevik revolution. But the long stagnation of the system that came out of that revolution inevitably set up that holdover of the Russian Empire to fall, even if Putin has been trying to undo that breakup.
A serious question is to what extent after Gorbachev lost power, and even to some extent before he did so, bad behavior by the US and other western powers undermined the chances of either the USSR or Russia having a successful economic and political transition to being prosperous and democratic nations. Of course some of the former republics have managed it, with the Baltic states the most prominent examples, even as others are far from it such as Tajikistan. One area where the US probably blundered was in arming anti-Soviet Mujaheddin in Afghanistan with stingers and other more advanced weaponry once it became clear in 1986 that Gorbachev was planning to leave. This may have proven to be less important for Russia than for the US and the rest of the world with the subsequent strength of the Taliban, clearly evident in their return to power a year ago.
Besides some bad advice on economic policy in the early 1990s, probably the item Gorbachev himself has complained about the most, and in this has supported Putin at times, including as recently as late 2021, despite Putin mostly denouncing him, has been on the troubled matter of the expansion of NATO eastward. Gorbachev apparently believed that George H.W. Bush promised no such eastward expansion at the time of the 1990 reunification of Germany, although defenders of Bush note that the promise then made was specifically about no NATO troops in the former East Germany, which has apparently been kept. The Warsaw Pact still existed at that time, as did the USSR, and the idea that Poland or Estonia might be joining NATO seemed an absurdity. While indeed US neocons have pushed for NATO to expand eastward, the fundamental push for that came from the nations who wanted to join after indeed the Warsaw Pact and USSR did break up. The US resisted for some time the requests for it coming from Poland and the Baltic states. Perhaps George W. Bush should not have suggested that Ukraine and Georgia could join, which clearly aggravated Putin big time. But when Putin invaded Ukraine this year, it was not at all on the verge of joining NATO, and his invasion has led Sweden and Finland to join NATO.
Which brings us to the matter of a burial place for Gorbachev, with where somebody is buried a very big deal in Russia. We can see it with Stalin, who initially was put in the mausoleum on Red Square with Lenin. Then in 1956 after Khrushchev made his speech denouncing Stalin he got moved to some obscure location. Then later Brezhnev partially rehabilitated him by putting him in the row behind Lenin’s mausoleum with a bust, along with people like Brezhnev himself and Andropov. The nest layer of the hierarchy down from that was being in the Kremlin wall itself, where people like Yuri Gagarin and John Reed are.
Now nobody is buried there, and the most prestigious cemetery is behind the Novodevichy monastery, where in fact Khrushchev is buried along with many famous Russian and Soviet cultural and scientific figures are buried. Russian playwright Chekhov is there as is the Soviet aircraft designer Tupolev. Many of the graves are quite picturesque. Among those buried there is Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, who died in 1999, with some more recent Russian political figures getting themselves buried near there. There is a pretty impressive statue over her grave, which happens to be just in front of where my wife’s maternal grandparents are buried.
So, the obvious place for Gorbachev to be buried is next to Raisa in the Novodevichy cemetery. But there is not enough room there for another monument, and more seriously, if Putin really wants to diss him, well, that is the most prestigious cemetery, and if he will not give Gorbachev a state funeral, he may not want to bury him in such a prestigious place. We shall have to see just how down on Gorbachev Putin is, and where Gorbachev gets buried will be a substantial signal.