The Mystery of Mikhail Gorbachev's Ambiguous Legacy


By and in Moscow

Part 4: A Spurned Messiah

Gorbachev now hated his successor to such a degree that he publicly likened him to Stalin. But that was really just a reflection of what was playing out deep in his psyche at the time. Fundamentally, he was rebelling against the qualities which he didn't possess, but which Yeltsin did -- and in abundance to boot. The new man in the Kremlin liked to take risks, and made decisions quickly and uncompromisingly. In the eyes of most Russians, Yeltsin was a muzhik, a "real man."

But Gorbachev thought he was the better politician. In the spring of 1996, Gorbachev stood in the yard of his childhood home, a humble brick building in Privolnoye in the foothills of the Caucasus. He met with people from his own region. He wanted to get back to his roots. The break-up of the Soviet Union "is the pain and cross I shall have to bear until the end of my days," he told them. But even here he was met with boos. "You were like sheep that patiently ate grass in the meadows," he shouted at the villagers. He added that he would "fight on to the bitter end, even if you crucify me". And then he compared his journey to Jesus's journey to Calvary, when once before, "people had spat on their redeemer."

He concealed his pain with a dash of megalomania. A painting by Russian artist Andrei Myagkov hung in Gorbachev's dacha outside Moscow where only a few friends were welcome. It showed Gorbachev as a shadow of the savior: Jesus has Gorby's birthmark on his right hand, which is bleeding.

Russia was too small for him now. He set to work on a "new civilization," founded his environmental organization Green Cross International and advocated saving the planet. But there was one thing the "idealist" couldn't see, namely that the ongoing worldwide interest in him was more about him than his political concerns. And because the general public was often unaware of those concerns, his countless appearances as part of publicity campaigns tended to seem a little off-putting.

In the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, for example, Gorbachev opened a heating plant. He spoke about a "united Europe" at the Volksbank bank in the small western German city of Paderborn. He made commercials for computer manufacturer Apple and for the Pizza Hut chain. He appeared on talk shows discussing trivial issues. And in 2004, he won a Grammy music industry award for an audio book version of "Peter and the Wolf" which he had recorded with Bill Clinton and Sophia Loren.

Gorbachev Looks Back on His Life

SPIEGEL meets Gorbachev in his Moscow office on a late July day. It is 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) outside and he is not feeling his best. He has just had a major operation.

Behind him there is a large portrait of his wife Raisa; there are photographs of her on his desk and a particularly nice one of her in the hallway taken by an American. Raisa Maximovna was the love of his life. Two years ago, he sang seven "Songs for Raisa" for an album he recorded together with Andrei Makarevich, the lead singer of the veteran Russian rock band Mashina Vremeni.

"She couldn't cope with the stresses and strains of those years," Gorbachev says, looking up at the sky outside his window. "She already passed on in 1999." But then he quickly returns to his old self: cheerful, punchy, ironic. But is he really still his old self?

He now speaks of mistakes he made as Soviet leader for the first time, of misgivings, of fatigue. His duties took him "to the limit," he says. And he can now even joke about the dreaded monologues that used to annoy those around him back then.

Gorbachev, the man who wanted perestroika to set the ball rolling, not release an avalanche, can see things more clearly now. He has come into his own. He knows that he brought his people freedom but also that he couldn't keep his main promise from back then, namely that his people would finally have a better life.

Gorbachev was too weak for the battles of those years. It is true that were it not for his actions, the Soviet Union wouldn't just have disintegrated as it did. Not at the same speed. From another perspective, maybe the country really could have been reformed if a firmer hand had been on the rudder.

How does he deal with the hatred that so many Russians still feel for him to this day? "I'll have to die first before they'll say anything good about me," Gorbachev says dismissively. He has accepted that much by now.

What is his legacy? Moscow-based political scientist Lilia Shevtsova says that he has bequeathed a new country to the Russians, "even a new world." It's not his fault, she adds, "that we haven't yet learned how to live in it."

Gorbachev is the only Russian in the world with any moral authority, she says. "The fact that we Russians ignore him casts a bad light on us," she concludes. "Not on him."


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johnwerneken 08/22/2013
1. The Mystery of Mikhail
More like Moses than Christ, he led to the spot where a future might be glimpsed on the horizon, and no further. Good article!
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