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Holy fools and flawed titans: The legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev

  • 08 September 2022
  Greatness for the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, was not to be found at home. Commentary on his passing is as much a statement of positions, endorsed by admiring beneficiaries, and loathed by those who fell off the train of history.  The millions who delighted seeing the collapse of the Soviet Union and, as a result, a power vacuum and weaker Russia, toast him, eyes filled with emotion. 

Those who saw him responsible for its destruction had a rather different take, best exemplified by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s observation that its end was the single most calamitous geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.

Rarely is the figure who changes history appreciated.  There are good reasons for this. Such individuals tend to fill graves, make widows and produce orphans. Gorbachev was somehow different.  He was, as Neal Ascherson pondered, a ‘Samson already blinded by his enemies’ who proceeded to ‘bring down the gigantic temple of the Soviet Union on his own head, and his power perished with it.’

Such a figure can also be seen, as historian Michael Kimmage described him, as a ‘holy fool’, a tradition rich in Russian folklore and Orthodox Christianity. Such a fool speaks truth to what others deem nonsensical, being out of step with the times. Such figures can be prophetic in their observations. ‘Although everyone else is preoccupied with the world as it is, the holy fool can intuit the world as it might be, and perhaps the world as it will be.’

The responses in the Russian press to his passing were muted, respect barbed with sting and dilutions of scorn. Putin did not attend the service. There were no official honours. The war preoccupied leader did author a brief condolence letter referring to Gorbachev as a ‘statesman who made an enormous impact on the trajectory of world history.’ He steered ‘the country at a time of difficult, dramatic changes’ and realised that ‘reforms were necessary and looked to offer his own solutions.’

'To the bafflement of both friend and foe, he did not oppose German reunification. He offered another surprise in not demanding that the reunified country remain neutral and not commit to the anti-Soviet alliance North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.' 

Such solutions, remarked State Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky, were regrettable. Paradoxically, even perversely, Slutsky mourned the passing of the USSR as a Christian, ‘[j]ust as I mourn the great country that was broken apart by processes of