we explain why the former Soviet leader is as popular in the West as he is unpopular in Russia

There is no prophet in his own country. The saying perfectly sums up the life of Mikhail Gorbachev. The last president of the Soviet Union, who died on Tuesday August 30 at the age of 91, was admired by the Western world, which closely associated him with the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism in the early years. 1990. From Washington to Berlin, through Paris or London, a shower of tributes fell on the former leader, “extraordinary leader” and “a man of peace whose choices opened the way to freedom for Russians” with “change the course of history”.

>> Death of Mikhail Gorbachev: follow the reactions of world leaders in our lifetime

His popularity is particularly low in Russia, where leaders were less enthusiastic about Tuesday night. “Vladimir Putin expressed his deep condolences after the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, he will send a telegram of condolences to the family and loved ones in the morning”the Kremlin spokesman stated briefly, as quoted by the Tass news agency. “He was a statesman who had a great impact on the course of world history”, wrote Vladimir Putin, without qualifying this effect as positive. There was also no state funeral organized by the Kremlin, according to several sources cited by the official Interfax agency.

The minimum service in the Kremlin after the death of Mikhail Gorbachev is not surprising given the distrust that Vladimir Putin and the Russian population have shown him for several decades. In 2012, he was named the most unpopular Russian leader of the 20th century, according to a poll by the state institute VTsIOM. Five years later, only 7% of Russians surveyed by the Levada Institute (in English) felt respect for him, compared to 32% for Stalin and 26% for Lenin.

How to explain the apathy, even the anger of the Russians towards the last president of the USSR? In 1985, when he became the head of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev had no idea of ​​the controversial legacy he would leave Russia. Withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, fight against alcoholism, continuation of dialogue with countries west of the Berlin Wall… “Gorby” increased the projects of democratization and opening of the Soviet Union in the second half of the decade 1980, which earned him the title of “Man of the Decade”, given in 1989 by the magazine timeAmerican, therefore Western.

Most notably, the Soviet leader received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in warming relations between the Western and Soviet blocs; he was also careful not to support the communist regimes in the process of collapse in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland.

In Russia, the reforms carried out within the framework of perestroika (“reconstruction”) and glasnost (“transparency”) never attracted, in an empire less closed to Western influence in the 1980s. “The Russians have never forgiven the fact that he believed in the sincerity of the West before. All this led to terrible crises and this is the beginning of the current crisis”estimated Tuesday night by franceinfo Vladimir Fedorovski, his former diplomatic adviser.

“He will be a political giant of the 20th century, even if Russia hates him today.”

Vladimir Fedorovski, former diplomatic adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev

at franceinfo

Those nostalgic for this great Soviet power and its satellite states still blame it for the decline of the empire at the beginning of the 1990s. Vladimir Putin himself estimated, as late as 2005, that the fall of the USSR was “the biggest geopolitical disaster of the last century”. In his tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev, the current president insisted on the time in which the leader governed, more than his achievements: “He led our country through a period of complex and dramatic change, great foreign policy, economic and social challenges.”

Mikhail Gorbachev half-acknowledged the relevance of these criticisms ten years ago in his memoirs: “We did not transform the Soviet Union in time. We did not transform the Communist Party into a modern democratic party in time. These are two big mistakes”. For many Russians, “mistakes” of Mikhail Gorbachev caused an explosion of poverty in the 1990s, which was accompanied by a form of chaos embodied in the war in Chechnya. In 2018, saccording to the World Bank, more than one in two Russians is economically insecure, the situation is more difficult in rural areas.

Not all of Russia’s population, however, shared the authorities’ relative indifference to Mikhail Gorbachev. Many progressives and opponents of Vladimir Putin have paid tribute to him since Tuesday night. “He is a great politician. There has never been so much freedom in Russia as in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This is his merit”greeted Russian journalist Mikhail Fishman.

“We have all become orphans, but not everyone understands it yet”, assured Alexei Venediktov, a friend of the former leader, who was the director of a Moscow radio station before being expelled for his critical coverage of the war in Ukraine. The latter reported, at the end of July, that the former leader was “angry” in the conflict caused in February by the Kremlin.

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