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The Victor Who Lost the USSR

Whereas Mikhail Gorbachev granted his people freedom and suffered a crushing personal defeat, Vladimir Putin is doing exactly the opposite. But, in the end, it is Putin's legacy that will suffer, and Gorbachev who will be redeemed.

MOSCOW – Thirty-five years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev was named General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. “They expect a lot of Gorbachev,” Anatoly Chernyaev – a Communist Party bureaucrat and intellectual who would later become a leading adviser to Gorbachev – wrote in his journal at the time. The USSR needed “nothing less” than a “revolution from the top,” he noted. “Does Mikhail Sergeyevich understand this?”

To be sure, Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (political and economic restructuring) and glasnost (transparency and openness) brought a revolution of expectations. After 20 years of stagnation overseen by an ailing gerontocracy – three leaders died in less than three years (a “hearse race,” Russians bleakly joked) – people sought change. Gorbachev, they believed, could deliver it.

Gorbachev’s first overtures to the West fueled what was called at the time “Gorbymania” – and not only in Western Europe and the United States, but also at home. This charismatic new leader would provide a better quality of life – comparable to East Germany, Hungary, or, better yet, Western Europe.

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