Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Thursday September 1, 2022
Disdained by Putin, Gorbachev walked a tightrope to defend his legacy
Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent his 22 years in power relentlessly hacking down the legacy of the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The two rarely met, and Gorbachev, who died Tuesday in Moscow at age 91, cautiously couched his remarks about the Russian leader, even when they weren’t critical. Unlike Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev never requested or received a guarantee of immunity from arrest or prosecution, he said.
Gorbachev’s criticism of Putin was often indirect, as in his 2015 book “The New Russia,” in which he wrote that Putin had taken “advantage” of a flawed constitution drafted on Yeltsin’s watch — for example, by using an imprecise provision on term limits to return to the presidency in 2012.
“The constitution’s major flaw … was its ‘super-presidential character,’ ” Gorbachev wrote. “In combination with our monarchist tradition and the deferential attitude to higher authority typical of the Russian national character, this presented a real risk of creating an autocratic regime.”
Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union a catastrophe and despised Gorbachev’s legacy, but nonetheless refrained from personally persecuting Gorbachev, and almost never mentioned him — an accommodation that perhaps reflected Putin’s own display of that national character.
Asked in 2011 what he would have done in Gorbachev’s place as the Soviet Union unraveled, Putin said Russia needed to “fight for the territorial integrity of our state consistently, persistently and fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand.”
In Putin’s condolence telegram to Gorbachev’s family and friends, his attitude was conveyed in what he did not say, according to analysts. He did not praise Gorbachev’s greatest reforms, merely noting that the Soviet leader understood the need for change and “strove to offer his own social reforms to our urgent problems.”
Putin’s disdain for Gorbachev and evident ambivalence about his death highlights a stark gap in global public opinion. While Gorbachev is revered in the West for helping tear down the Iron Curtain and giving democracy a chance, he is loathed by many in the former Soviet Union for the chaos and deprivation that followed in the 1990s — tumult that, in some ways, continues even now.
Gorbachev initially welcomed Putin’s presidency, but called his third term in 2012 “a mistake.” In 2013, he said Russian politics was turning into an “imitation of democracy,” with corruption rampant. In 2016, he called Putin’s policies “an obstacle to progress.”
Alexei Venediktov, a prominent liberal media figure who spoke to Gorbachev by phone in July, said then that the former Soviet leader opposed the war and knew that Putin had left his reforms of free speech and openness in ashes.
“I can tell you that Gorbachev is upset,” Venediktov told Russian Forbes magazine. “Freedom is Gorbachev’s life’s work.”
As leader, Putin has crushed the media and civil society, returned to totalitarianism, installed former KGB and other security officials in key positions, destroyed nongovernmental organizations, invaded Ukraine, and isolated Russia from the West. Gorbachev famously appeared in Pizza Hut commercials.
The first McDonald’s opened in Moscow’s Pushkin Square under Gorbachev. More than 30 years later, under Putin, McDonald’s and other Western companies have left or suspended operations.
Gorbachev’s reforms promoted freedom of speech, truth-telling and “glasnost,” or openness, allowing new media outlets to spring up — policies reversed by Putin and the hard-liners in his circle.
Under Putin, corruption grew more entrenched, but he capitalized on high oil prices to stabilize the economy, while curbing independent-minded oligarchs.
Dmitry Muratov, editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which Gorbachev helped found in 1993, wrote in a remembrance that Gorbachev was fundamentally a man of peace.
“He despised war. He despised realpolitik,” wrote Muratov, a winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. “He was sure that the time to resolve issues of the world order by force had passed. He believed in the choice of nations. He released political prisoners, stopped the war in Afghanistan and the nuclear arms race. He told me that he refused to press the nuclear attack button even in training!”
Muratov, whose newspaper closed this spring in response to Putin’s crackdown on the media after the invasion of Ukraine, added: “He did not consider killing a virtue.” (The Washington Post)
From sketch to finish, see the current way Graeme completes an editorial cartoon using an iPencil, the Procreate app, and a couple of cheats on an iPad Pro …