Letter From the Editors
Mikhail Gorbachev – the first and last Soviet president – died in Moscow in the wee hours of Aug. 30. August has always been a fateful month for Mikhail Sergeyevich. The August 1991 putsch by the State Committee on the State of Emergency failed to bring back hardline Communist rule in the USSR. But it did facilitate the country’s collapse – and Gorby widely got the blame for that. However, according to expert Gleb Pavlovsky, Gorbachev sought not to destroy the Soviet Union, but to upgrade it. He could see that like a slow, glitchy computer, it needed a reboot if it was going to continue functioning.
“The fire in the Soviet Union, which was set to drive [Gorbachev] from power, led to an endless number of terrible consequences,” Pavlovsky concludes. Indeed, human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov recalls that a new federation agreement was supposed to be signed between the various Soviet republics on Aug. 20. The rest, as they say, is history.
Gorbachev’s paradoxical legacy was to be “a communist who buried the communist idea,” writes Izvestia. He was a leader more beloved abroad than at home. Still a staunch socialist, Gorbachev soon found himself a man without a country. So on Dec. 25, 1991, he announced his resignation on television. This event went almost unnoticed by ordinary citizens, who were by then mired in a whole new set of problems brought about by the collapse of yet another empire.
However, according to Pavlovsky, “he is the person who made Russia interesting in politics.” He is also the reason that glasnost and perestroika became “international words that no longer require translation,” A Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov said in his statement.
But are those terms about to be banished into obscurity? Glasnost, which indicated openness and freedom of expression, certainly took a hit this week when Russian journalist Ivan Safronov was sentenced to an unprecedented 22 years in prison on two counts of treason. The information he supposedly passed to Czech intelligence is available from open sources. “The entire country is being held hostage by the FSB,” lamented Ivan Pavlov, formerly Safronov’s lawyer, who was forced to flee the country.
In an open letter to their embattled colleague, the journalists of Kommersant did not hold back: “We haven’t heard any public proof of your guilt,” the letter reads. “We don’t choose the times we live in. We can only choose who we are in those times. And you made your choice.*** You didn’t give up and you won’t give up now.*** We love you; we believe in you.” Perhaps glasnost is not dead after all.
But how did ideas like glasnost and perestroika fare in other republics that emerged from the rubble of the USSR? President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev this week announced early elections in Kazakhstan. “We are building a fair Kazakhstan with open competition and equal opportunities for everyone,” his announcement read. Does this mean Tokayev is following in the footsteps of the last Soviet leader by launching a perestroika 2.0? Not necessarily – in playing the early election card, Tokayev’s actions are less a strategic political modernization, and more a tactical attempt to stay in power, an anonymous Kazakh source claims. Part of the reason is a quest for greater legitimacy, since many in the country still see him as Nazarbayev’s man. Perhaps that explains Tokayev’s recent campaign to drive all of the former president’s associates out of power. The events of January 2022 are hardly forgotten. And here, Tokayev has more in common with Putin than with Gorbachev.
But perhaps Gorbachev’s legacy is still a work in progress? A recent poll showed that young people in Russia are taking an increasingly positive view of the last Soviet leader. Reformers are rarely appreciated in their own time. But history tends to redeem them. Maybe perestroika will fare better the second time around.