Death of Mikhail Gorbachev: Russians torn between nostalgia and rejection of a “traitor”

Death of Mikhail Gorbachev: Russians torn between nostalgia and rejection of a “traitor”

DECRYPTION – In the press and on social networks, Russians oscillate between admiration for a leader embodying hope and bitterness against a politician who, according to them, has betrayed the interests of his country.

From the Cold War to economic liberalization, Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on August 31, 2022, was probably one of the most divisive leaders of the Soviet Union. JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU / AFP

“1931-2022, Mikhail Gorbachev. Life of a man who changed the world and gave us hope,” headlines the independent Russian media Meduza on August 31. “The man who gave the people hope”, embraces the Russian television channel RTVI. This word, “hope”, is probably the most used this morning in the Russian-language press to describe what Mikhail Gorbachev represented for an entire people, for an entire generation.

But this vision is far from unanimous. Because if in France, his name is especially associated with Perestroika and Glasnost, in Russia, pronouncing the name of “Gorbachev” during a dinner is the assurance of triggering heated debates between guests. Unsurprisingly, his death therefore rekindled passions on social networks.

Cold War and Pizza Hut

“Gorbachev was a man out of proportion to his time,” said a surfer on the Russian Facebook, Vkontakte. “The heart of Russian politics stopped beating on August 30,” ventures another. Answers and comments are not long in coming: “today, Judas, the great American pizza lover, left us”, objects a user. Because yes, if Mikhail Gorbachev is famous for having marked the end of the Cold War, he is also famous for having installed – to the great dismay of the Khrushchev generation – fast food restaurants in Soviet soil. And when the American company Pizza Hut launches an advertisement aimed at the USSR, Gorbachev does not hesitate to play his own role in a staging that perfectly illustrates the ambivalence of the Russians for this leader.

In this short film, after crossing Red Square, Gorbachev humbly enters one of the chain’s establishments. Inside, a Soviet family is seated. “It’s because of him that our economy is upside down,” says the father when he sees him. “It’s thanks to him that we have new opportunities,” replies his thirty-something son. “It’s because of him if we have political instability”, continues to scrap the patriarch. “It is thanks to him that we have freedom,” replies the young man. “Complete Chaos”. “Prospects!”. But while father and son inveigh in turn, an elegant middle-aged lady intervenes, brandishing her slice of pizza like a glass of vodka: “Thanks to him, we have Pizza Hut”. The two men, suddenly calmed down, smile broadly. Gorbachev, who has witnessed the scene, raises his pizza towards the assembly, satisfied. Comedian Zelensky better watch out…

However, if some see in this advertisement a trendy USSR and a rock’n’roll president close to his compatriots, this culinary “revolution” is perceived by others as a betrayal: by opening the doors of Moscow to Pizza Hut, Gorbachev implanted American culture in Russia. For his adversaries, it is as much to say that he introduced the wolf into the sheepfold. This is why today, on social networks, his detractors are having a field day. “During the funeral, a pizza could be served instead of kutya [rice with raisins cooked without salt or sugar traditionally served after a funeral, Ed.]”, laughs, without much success, a surfer.

Providential man or “traitor”?

It will have been understood: between the image of a traitor and that of a Gorbachev savior of a country adrift, the hearts of the Russians swing. It is perhaps this ambivalence that characterizes so well the relationship that the former citizens of the Soviet Empire maintain with the man of Perestroika. Because how not to see in him the providential man, the one who opened Russia to the world? “The economic potential of the country was running to ruin, tensions between the Union Republics were increasing, goods from the state stores were strangely transferred to the cooperatives, the people were in a gloomy mood… All this demanded rapid and adequate economic, humanitarian and intellectual responses”, lists a web user, before drawing up a bitter assessment of Gorbachev’s reaction: “we don’t know why, instead of taking firm decisions, Mikhail Sergeyevich sometimes remained silent, sometimes he would profusely apologize.

Not all Russians are so adamant, however. “No matter what one thinks of Gorbachev, he made a name for himself in history. Perestroika, freedom of expression, Glasnost: all of this is thanks to him!”, tempers Sergei P., a journalist since 1981.

“At that time, the printing press was prohibited from turning on the machine without the agreement of a representative of Glavlit [General Directorate for Literature and Publishing, the main body of censorship in the Soviet Union, editor’s note] who barred ruthlessly the lines about the reduction in the quantity of cattle, about the bad harvests, the invasions of locusts… In 1985, I remember well the day when our editor-in-chief summoned us and said: “That’s it is! Censorship is cancelled!”. It was like a breath of fresh air. We began to write about everything with avidity, particularly boldly criticizing the district committee and the regional committee. After our publications, the heads of the general secretaries and party presidents flew in all directions. What a time!” he recalls wistfully.

“And then…the food disappeared from the shelves. There were the food stamps. Huge queues for wine and vodka. Demonstrations. The endless congresses of people’s deputies. The GKChP [State Committee for the State of Emergency Ed]. The collapse of the USSR, the consequences of which will come back to haunt our descendants. It’s also that, Gorbachev! ”, nuance in spite of everything the former Soviet journalist, as a worthy heir of Russian fatalism. Before concluding: “May the Lord rest his very, very sinful soul. Although it is unlikely: he did not believe in God”.

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