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Gorbachev’s Tragic Legacy

Admired in the West but loathed by his countrymen as a harbinger of Russia’s post-Cold War misfortune, Mikhail Gorbachev fully grasped the immense challenges of reforming the ailing Soviet Union. Today’s Russia largely reflects the anti-Western grievances stemming from his failure.

LONDON – Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, was buried last month at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow next to his wife Raisa and near fellow Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. To no one’s surprise, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not attend the funeral. Novodevichy, after all, is where “unsuccessful” Soviet leaders had been consigned to their final rest.

Putin’s snub reminded me of a conversation I had two decades ago during a midnight stroll through Red Square. On impulse, I asked the army officer stationed in front of Lenin’s Tomb who was buried in the Soviet Necropolis behind it, and he offered to show me. There, I saw a succession of graves and plinths for Soviet leaders: from Stalin to Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, and Yuri Andropov. The last plinth was unoccupied. “For Gorbachev, I suppose?” I asked. “No, his place is in Washington,” the officer replied.

Ironically, Gorbachev has been lionized in the West for accomplishing something he never set out to do: bringing about the end of the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, yet Russians widely regarded him as a traitor. In his ill-fated attempt at a political comeback in the 1996 Russian presidential election, he received just 0.5% of the popular vote.

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