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Not a tsar, but a man. Nikolai Svanidze on how Russia failed to embrace Gorbachev’s gift of freedom

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last of the twentieth century’s prominent politicians to pass. And he took that century with him. Now that page has finally been turned. One can argue about the scale of Gorbachev's personality, but what should we use to measure it? There is no such device. The only objective criterion is the things he had done.

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What he had done is enormous. He ended the cold war, to which everyone had been accustomed, although it had not made it less dangerous. At any moment, by accident or by someone's criminal and insane will (and we see now that this is not an impossible thing), it threatened to turn into a real war, monstrous and unpredictable in its fatal consequences.

He tore down the Berlin Wall and with it the Iron Curtain, connecting not just two halves of Germany but two halves of the world. And they merged again, those halves, as they should have. The nightmare dispersed; the sleeping princess awoke from her dangerous slumber. The world, for all its diversity, became one. The countries of the so-called “socialist camp” were freed from Moscow's diktat and were able to control their own destiny.

None of this would have been possible if the Soviet empire hadn't collapsed. And collapse it did, instantly by historical standards. Under the weight of internal problems that had been built into the Soviet system, had been its flesh and blood, and had therefore been impossible to solve in principle. But they could be concealed for the time being, using the enormous power of totalitarian propaganda. Fatal problems, economic and social, were growing like a cancerous tumor inside the body, but were not discussed publicly and did not create political threats for the time being.

Gorbachev, then a staunch communist, had a trust in the basic potential of the system, hoping it was amenable to reformist restructuring. He began with glasnost, i.e., with permission for the media to tell the truth. The injection of truth proved fatal for the rotten organism. The problems were publicly identified, their scale was obvious, and the system shook and soon collapsed. And with it, the empire collapsed as well.

An injection of truth was fatal for the rotten organism

Few people had regrets about the system’s collapse, but later, when the direct threat of famine had disappeared, many were nostalgic about the empire. But those who came to power in the late 90s made the following conclusion: the main harm came from the freedom of speech, and, in general, from all kinds of freedoms. Freedoms and their proponents are a blight on our nation and the root of all evil. If there are freedoms, there are problems; if there are no freedoms, there are no problems.

Gorbachev did not play the role of a demiurge in all those world-historical events, knowing in advance what his actions would lead to. Rather, he was the hand of fate, but it was fate that chose him as its hand.

Most importantly, he gave peace to humanity and freedom to half of humanity, including his homeland. Humanity gratefully accepted the gifts of Gorbachev. His homeland only toyed with them, and then cast them aside indifferently. His homeland needed neither freedom nor peace. Especially not freedom.

Gorbachev's homeland needed neither freedom nor peace

In 1918, Maksimilian Voloshin brilliantly grasped the mentality underpinning the Bolshevik revolt: “Yesterday's slave, weary of freedom, will revolt, yearning for his chains.” Nothing has changed in a hundred years.

Russia revolted, yearning for its chains, and its yearning was satisfied. We have many definite phobias. We hate things we have but glimpsed or have never seen before: justice, humanism, dignity, and especially the idea that man is above the state, that he is not a means but an end.

At the root of all these phobias is the slavish, centuries-old and very comforting habit of irresponsibility. Gorbachev, by giving us freedom, handed us responsibility.

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