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Gorbachev as anti-Putin: The man who destroyed fear

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Understanding the outcomes of Gorbachev's presidency takes looking at the events of Putin's rule and reversing their sign. Even for many grown-up Russians, the 1980s come down to a page from an old issue of Ogonyok, vague memories of music bands like Kino or Laskovy May, and noisy broadcasts from the State Kremlin Palace. For many still, it's a period in their mom and dad's life, something last-century.

Meanwhile, Putin's “zeroed-out” twenty years has been a time of their own private lives, the war, the feeling of humiliation, a dead end instead of a future, police riot vans, wild shrieks of mindless Putinists, and fear, ubiquitous, permeating every crack like carbon monoxide.

If you were not there for the perestroika, imagine that tomorrow, on September 1, a man appears on the television screen in a prime-time broadcast and announces that the war must end, that censorship must be abolished, ad that everyone who was thrown in jail must be released. Today, such a scenario sounds like a naive, childish fantasy; any political scientist would confirm that anything could happen but this.

However, this was exactly what went down in 1985. In the winter of 1985, it still seemed that the Soviet Communist nonsense was eternal; everyone believed so, from cynical bureaucrats to hardcore anti-Soviet dissidents. If you had tried telling someone the regime was on its way out, you would have been ridiculed as a daydreamer and castle-builder. However, as early as on May 15, 1985, a crowd that gathered in a square in Leningrad – a miracle in its own right – welcomed a speaker who was lively and vigorous and believed in his own words. He told them there had to be another way.

Mikhail Gorbachev in Leningrad, May 15, 1985
Mikhail Gorbachev in Leningrad, May 15, 1985

Everything that followed was like a fantasy novel come true. By 1989, the Soviet republics had set out on a path toward sovereignty, meaningful nuclear talks had begun, and Gorbachev had come to be the world's most famous politician (besides, my younger colleagues were surprised to hear that the USSR may well have been the world’s most popular country at the time).

The then “Navalny”, Boris Yeltsin, was never exiled, poisoned, or prosecuted; on the contrary, he successfully headed the opposition forces and became the Russian president within the USSR without risking his life or freedom. Moreover, all prerequisites for his election and his no-holds-barred criticism of Gorbachev had been created during the tenure of Gorbachev and his associates, as incredibly hard it is to believe in today's Russia.

As a summary, I have put together a small table – I believe it is self-explanatory.

The most magical feeling that I will remember all my life is the joy of seeing fear vanish from conversations, from people’s demeanor, and their motivation in life and work. This was the fear from which the Soviet Union's first and only president delivered its 250 million citizens. And it was the most important thing he ever did.

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