It was Wednesday evening when the state-run news agency RIA Novosti in Moscow announced the death of Mikhail Gorbachev on its German language micro-blog and on one of its Twitter accounts.
The news was unexpected. While Gorbachev is now 82 years old, he is not at death's door. And it didn't take long before it became clear that the story was wrong. Gorbachev himself said in a statement that he is "alive and well" and that his blood pressure and blood-sugar levels are normal. On the day his death was announced, Gorbachev even commuted into the city from his dacha to work, an employee of his foundation told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
For RIA Novosti, the incident is embarrassing. The agency said that the story was deleted after a mere five minutes and blamed hackers for the problem. Furthermore, RIA Novosti notified FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, and was also launching an in-house investigation of its own.
But it has become notable just how often Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has been pronounced dead in the Russian media in recent months. Similar rumors of his demise swirled through the country in June. And in May 2012, his death was posted on Gorbachev's English-language Wikipedia entry, from which it rapidly spread through social media and made it into the news.
Outwardly, Gorbachev took the news calmly on Wednesday. But the serenity is far from genuine. The 82-year-old is unhappy about being pronounced dead every few months -- and he also believes that "political circles" might be behind the incorrect reports of his demise.
Gorbachev's health, to be sure, is far from pristine. He has suffered through three serious operations in the last decade -- one on his carotid artery, another to remove his prostate and a third on his spine. He is now bloated, he has difficulties controlling his blood sugar and is a regular visitor to the hospital. But he suffers more from the bad reputation that he has in his own country. Gorbachev, after all, sees his own political accomplishments in a different light than do many in Russia.
"Why do so many Russians hate you?" Gorbachev was asked in a SPIEGEL interview exactly two years ago. He thought for almost an entire minute before finally answering: "People will probably stop hating me only after my death." But then he shook his head and corrected himself. "I don't have that impression. On the contrary: I've felt supported during all these difficult years."
That, though, is not entirely accurate as was made clear once again on Wednesday. Despite the erroneous story of his death being quickly deleted, it triggered a wave of comments across the country -- a wave of hate. It was a mixture of political contempt, hostile invective and incomprehensible insults.
Most of them centered on Gorbachev's central political accomplishment: Perestroika. As the general secretary of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev spent six years trying to open the country to the West and modernize its economy. But in 1991, the Soviet Union quietly collapsed -- an event that many in Russia still find painful. And Gorbachev, many believe, is to be blamed. Not a few think that he was acting on orders from the Americans.
A Soul Full of Hate
Almost every second entry on the site mail.ru included the word "traitor" in reference to Gorbachev. One woman wrote that he sold the Soviet Union for "30 pieces of silver" and that he is richer than oligarch billionaire Roman Abramovitch.
Another contributed a rhetorical question. "Is it easy to live as a traitor who is hated by the entire country?" A third, at least, wished him a longer life -- so that "the people can pass judgement on him in a court of law." And a fourth showed a sense of humor. Gorbachev will never die, he wrote, because the devil is afraid that "hell would then collapse as well."
Most of the rest of the comments were below the belt. "What a shame he didn't really die," for example. "He should be run over with a steamroller." Or: "Die, you dog, die as quickly as possible." Another read: "His days are numbered and his death will be a celebration." Still another: "We will come to his burial to spit on his coffin."
Not all of the entries were insulting. One message read: "I wish you many long years of life, Mikhail Sergeyevich. It is great that you brought the hollow USSR to collapse." But it was almost completely drowned out by the vile.
It wasn't long before the comments, just like the news story, were deleted. Comments on erroneous news stories are forbidden, read a message on the site. But for just a few hours, a window opened up through which one could see into the Russian soul. And it is a soul full of hate for Mikhail Gorbachev.