Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing at the end of August has revealed conflicting ideas about how the Soviet Union’s last leader should be remembered. On the one hand, President Joe Biden lauded Gorbachev as “a man of remarkable vision” who “embraced democratic reforms,” and French President Emmanuel Macron praised his “choices [that] opened up a path of liberty for Russians.”1 In contrast, however, top Lithuanian diplomat Gabrielius Landsbergis tweeted that “Lithuanians will not glorify Gorbachev,” and editor in chief of UkraineWorld Volodymyr Yermolenko explained that “we do not share the enthusiasm we’ve been seeing in obituaries all around the world.”2 Even in Russia, just 15 percent of citizens hold a positive opinion about the former president.3

Why the stark contrast in beliefs? Whereas many in the West view Gorbachev as a great reformer and visionary who recognized the importance of liberty and liberal democracy, many in the former Soviet Union recognize him as another ruthless dictator who attempted—but failed—to salvage the empire’s totalitarian structure and command economy. To many who survived his rule, Gorbachev will be remembered as a devout communist who fatefully tried to rescue the Soviet Union, not as a genius and closet capitalist who planned its demise.

“Beginning with the day he assumed power,” writes Dr. Yuri Maltsev, an economist and former Communist Party official who worked on Gorbachev’s reforms, “he positioned himself as an opponent of freedom and the market.”4 Specifically, Gorbachev held that “the socialist system was in good working order” but that citizens “had taken to laziness, drunkenness, and were accumulating ‘dishonest income’ in violation of socialist ethics.”5 Gorbachev’s view that the problem was not the murderous and inherently dysfunctional communist system, but unruly Soviet citizens, motivated him to impose reforms that further stripped citizens of their freedoms. . . .

1. Joe Biden, “Statement of President Biden on the Passing of President Mikhail Gorbachev,” The White House, August 30, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/08/30/statement-of-president-biden-on-the-passing-of-president-mikhail-gorbachev/; Emmanuel Macron, Twitter, August 30, 2022, https://twitter.com/EmmanuelMacron/status/1564747458512666629.

2. Landsbergis Gabrielius, Twitter, August 31, 2022, https://twitter.com/GLandsbergis/status/1564903295864430593; Agence France-Presse, “To Ukrainians, Gorbachev Remained an 'Imperialist'.” Voice of America, August 31, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/to-ukrainians-gorbachev-remains-an-imperialist-/6724612.html.

3. “ПРАВИТЕЛИ.” Левада Центр, February 15, 2017, https://www.levada.ru/2017/02/15/15388/.

4. Yuri N. Maltsev, “The Decline and Fall of Gorbachev and the Soviet State,” Mises Institute, August 30, 2022, https://mises.org/library/decline-and-fall-gorbachev-and-soviet-state.

5. Maltsev, “The Decline and Fall of Gorbachev and the Soviet State.”

6. Mark Lawrence Schrad, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), 262.

7. Jasmine Hafso, “The First Major Reform: Mikhail Gorbachev’s Anti-Alcohol Policies in the 1980s,” https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/constellations/index.php/constellations/article/download/29407/21392/77876; Steven M. Efremov, “The Role of Inflation in Soviet History: Prices, Living Standards, and Political Change,” (master’s thesis, East Tennessee State University, 2012), https://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2667&context=etd.

8. Efremov, “The Role of Inflation in Soviet History.”

9. Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Newsletter, April 1963.

10. Maltsev, “The Decline and Fall of Gorbachev and the Soviet State.”

11. Maltsev, “The Decline and Fall of Gorbachev and the Soviet State.”

12. Richard D. North, “Living with Catastrophe,” Independent, December 10, 1995, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/living-with-catastrophe-1524915.html.

13. Olexiy Solohubenko, “How Chernobyl Shook the USSR,” BBC, April 26, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36139863.

14. “Special Report: Counting the Dead,” Nature, 440, 982–83, April 20, 2006, https://doi.org/10.1038/440982a; “Chernobyl Disaster”: Belarus Foreign Ministry, April 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20200112195437/http://chernobyl.undp.org/russian/docs/belarus_23_anniversary.pdf.

15. Tom Nichols, “Gorbachev’s Fatal Trap,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/08/mikhail-gorbachev-was-great-because-he-failed/671292/.

16. Maltsev, “The Decline and Fall of Gorbachev and the Soviet State.”

17. Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin (London, UK: Macdonald/Futura, 1990), 212.

18. Thomas Graham, “Gorbachev: Conflicted Catalyst of Cold War’s End,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 31, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/article/mikhail-gorbachev-death-conflicted-catalyst-cold-wars-end.

19. Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), 92.

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