It seems like only yesterday and, at the same time, like a hundred years. In fact, it is a quarter of a century since Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – and set in train the changes that brought the end of both the system and the country.
For many Russians, though, the accession of 54-year-old Gorbachev after a string of old and sick men is a muted, even bitter, anniversary. Celebrated throughout the Western world as a liberator, Gorbachev is widely reviled in his homeland for destroying Soviet power. Vladimir Putin only articulated what many of his compatriots also felt, when he described the Soviet Union's collapse as "one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century". It will take many years for that judgement to be revised across the great Eurasian land mass, if it ever is.
But it is not only the people of the once-feared Soviet Union who are labouring under an illusion about the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev. So is Gorbachev himself and, for quite different reasons, the outside world where the last Soviet leader is still lionised and – rightly – protected.
In an article to commemorate this anniversary, Gorbachev allowed himself one of his periodic critiques of today's Russia. With Putin, unnamed, but clearly in his sights, he regretted what he saw as Russia's failure to embark on serious modernisation and the way the democratic process had, in his words, "lost momentum" or, "in more ways than one, been rolled back". He also suggested that the reform plans of Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's successor in the Kremlin, had stalled because he was scared of civil society.
Now you can agree or disagree with Gorbachev here: much remains to be played out. But there is less room for divergence on Gorbachev's view of his years in power. He still believes that he could have brought democracy to the Soviet Union, if only he had set about reforming the Communist Party sooner; if only misguided and malevolent individuals had not set out to thwart him; if only the coup-plotters of August 1991 had stayed their hand. Even 25 years on, Gorbachev maintains that evolutionary change, through his twin projects of glasnost and perestroika, was feasible and the Soviet Union could have stayed intact.
This is not quite how I remember it, as a witness to the country's death throes as a correspondent in Moscow. Gorbachev came across always as just one move behind history. There is no shame in that: would any leader have kept pace, given that communism throughout Europe was already dead and food shops throughout Russia were empty? Was it not rather that even incremental reform was too much for the system to bear?
The most compelling reason for favouring this view – aside from the small fact of the Soviet collapse – is that the contest triggered by perestroika was in the end about Russia as much as communism. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a victory for Russia, and for Russians' frustrated sense of national identity. Boris Yeltsin's trump card was that he presented himself not just as communist apostate, but as champion and leader of Russia. Steeped in the internationalism of communist orthodoxy, Gorbachev had no national card to play.
How far the rise of Russia contributed to, even caused, the demise of the Soviet Union, tends to be forgotten. While Russians have settled more or less happily into being Russian again, the outside world has found it harder to adjust. Post-Soviet Russia is seen all too often not just as the legal successor-state to the Soviet Union, but as its reincarnation. No wonder there have been so many misunderstandings since 1992.
The anniversary of Gorbachev's accession may help to mark, belatedly, the passage of time. It means that no citizen of the former Soviet Union under 30 has any first-hand memory of life under communism; no one under 40 has had their career dictated by the regime. Those in their mid-40s – among them Medvedev, but not, it is worth noting, Putin – were students when perestroika began. Tossed around by the chaos of the 1990s, they benefited from the stability Putin imposed as they settled down to family life.
A generation unscarred by Soviet communism is the legacy Gorbachev bequeathed – through strength or weakness is still not clear. And it is a worthy one, even if it is not the peaceful evolution of the Soviet Union he still laments.Reuse content