Gorbachev - hero or holy fool?

Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Ireland this week was a reminder of the heroic status the former Soviet leader enjoys in the West…

Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Ireland this week was a reminder of the heroic status the former Soviet leader enjoys in the West. In his homeland, however, most Russians regard him as a villain. Séamus Martin attempts to find out why.

Mikhail Gorbachev was lionised in Dublin in the course of his visit. An honorary degree of Doctor in Laws was granted by Trinity College. The Lord Mayor, Michael Mulcahy, having ushered Gorbachev on a walkabout through the streets of the constituency he hopes will elect him to the Dáil later this year, conferred the freedom of the city after a gushing speech that stopped minimally short of the former Soviet leader's canonisation.

On Gorbachev's part, there was the pleasure, he said, of being in a country where people spoke well rather than ill of him. In Russia, things are different. He is regarded there by westernisers as a devious Communist, by Communists as a traitor and by the general public as the man who began a process that lowered their standard of living almost to third-world levels.

Only two people that I know of were publicly critical of Gorbachev during his Dublin visit. One was a Russian woman who carried a placard outside City Hall telling him to go home. The other was Gorbachev himself. At Trinity College on Tuesday and again at the Institute of European Affairs on Wednesday, he admitted to making mistakes.


Later that day, at lunch in Áras an Uachtaráin, he spoke not only of errors of policy but mistakes in the timing of his introduction of reforms in the Soviet Union. All in all, however, as he himself said, it was a pleasant change to be in Ireland where people were friendly and praising compared to back home in Russia, where he is held in extremely low esteem by a large majority of the people. It should be remembered that when he stood for election as President of the Russian Federation in 1996 he managed to achieve just 0.5 per cent of the vote.

The question most frequently asked of me during Gorbachev's time in Ireland was the following: "Why do his own Russian people hate him so much after all he has done?" It was a difficult one to answer. But this is an attempt to do so.

Russian views of Gorbachev are based to a large extent on emotion. Image prevails over substance just as it does in Western politics. But there are those with substantial reasons to resent western views of Gorbachev as the saviour of civilisation as we know it, the Soviet leader who freed his country from communism, ended the threat of nuclear war and began the process which liberated the countries of central and eastern Europe.

One of these people is a friend of mine called Andrei Mironov. I rang him in Moscow in the midst of the Dublin celebrations in order to detach myself from the paeans of praise being heaped on the former Soviet leader in Ireland. The voice over the long- distance phone line was not slow in putting forward a point of view I had heard so frequently during the years I lived in Moscow.

"Gorbachev once told the world there were no more political prisoners in the Soviet Union, only some 20 or so criminals serving out their sentences in the labour camps," Mironov recalls. "I was astonished when I saw him say this on television. I was astonished because I saw him make this statement on the only television set we had in the labour camp in which I was imprisoned."

In one respect, Gorbachev was right. Andrei Mironov was, under the terms of Soviet law, a criminal. He had been given the official title "Especially Dangerous State Criminal Mironov A". It is difficult to imagine Mironov, a slightly-built, softly-spoken middle-aged man, as "especially dangerous" in the physical sense. But the Soviet Union had, since its inception, been the most avid adherent of the belief that the pen is mightier than the sword. Mironov was a human rights activist and a journalist, a lethal combination in the Moscow of the 1980s.

He was found to be in breach of the notorious Article 70 of the Soviet Code, which referred to "anti-Soviet propaganda with the special purpose of undermining Soviet power and the Soviet state". His crime, he believes - for there was no trial to speak of - was to express in public his belief that elections in which there was only one candidate were not democratic.

Years of repression in Russia had created an underground information system of superlative quality. Mironov knew in advance he was going to be arrested. Not only that, he knew precisely to which camp he would be taken. The message was received that his destination would be "385/zh/3/5" and it was to this cryptic destination in the inhospitable climate of the Volga region of Mordovia that he was transported.

After the Soviet Union was dissolved the leading dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, of Memorial, an organisation devoted to the plight of political prisoners, found Mironov's file in the archives. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, Mironov was told, had personally signed the papers condemning him to prison.

"Ask him the following when you meet him in Dublin," Mironov requested. "You put me in prison and you lied about it. I was your personal prisoner, you signed my prison sentence. Why do you avoid the truth, why don't you confess?"

But what, I replied, of Gorbachev's release of the writer, Irina Ratushinskaya, before the summit with Ronald Reagan in Iceland in 1986? What of the release of Andrei Sakharov later that year? What of his own release after serving just a year-and-a-half of his four-year sentence? Surely Gorbachev was a good man?

Mironov would not succumb to such Western heresies. "The only reason we were released," he said, "was because the price of oil was falling and they couldn't afford to keep us any longer."

Gorbachev's achievements make him look like a hero to us. But Irish people did not have to live in Gorbachev's Russia nor in the Russia that followed his term of office. In neither case was it a particularly pleasant place to be. For myself, I spent only the last seven months of his presidency there as this newspaper's Moscow correspondent. Most of my time in Russia was spent under the less predictable and considerably more spectacular rule of Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin.

It should not be forgotten, therefore, that Gorbachev was the head of a regime that did send people to the camps. He came up through the communist system from the relative obscurity of party boss in Stavropol in the south to take over the reins of power in the Kremlin. You don't do that without being extremely tough.

Is it paradoxical that the same man who imprisoned dissidents became a major force in their release and in sponsoring the policy of glasnost that caused an explosion of free speech throughout the Communist-ruled part of Europe? There are those who see no paradox. Gorbachev did bring about the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union as a superpower, the end of the communist system in Europe. But was that what he wanted to do?

He clearly didn't want to end communism, for he was, after all, secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Even in 1991, his final year in office, he spoke of maintaining the communist system. Neither, it is obvious, did he want to bring about the dismantling of the USSR. He may put the case differently now, but at the time it is clear that his goal was a reform of the Soviet system that would, all the same, maintain the Communist Party in power. People would have greater freedom of expression and they might eventually even have a more affluent lifestyle. They might also have elections in which there was more than one candidate, but the communists would remain at the helm.

SOME people have compared him to Mirabeau, the moderate who, at the time of the French Revolution, wanted reforms that retained the monarchy. Historian Robert Service, more damningly and unfairly, compared him to the "holy fools" of old Russia, who traipsed around the countryside in God's name but didn't know precisely what they were doing.

Orlando Figes, author of the brilliant history, A People's Tragedy - the Russian Revolution 1891-1924, was probably closer to the mark in comparing Gorbachev to Christopher Columbus, who achieved something great but didn't discover what it was until later.

In short, the hypothesis runs, Gorbachev did all that we have thanked him for - but that is not want he wanted to do at all.

All these arguments may be well above the heads of the robust Russian grandmothers, the babushki, who have been forced to beg or sell their belongings in the underpasses of Moscow. But ask them, too, about Gorbachev and the response will be one of unbridled animosity. Had they, or more especially their husbands, seen this week's Irish Times picture of Gorbachev quaffing his pint of Guinness they would have been very surprised. He did, after all, in his early days, bring in a system akin to the failed US experiment in prohibition.

Alcohol became almost impossible to find in the early years of his rule. Fine vineyards in Crimea and Moldova were ripped from the ground. "Bathtub Vodka", known as samogon, became all the rage, and sugar, one of its vital ingredients, vanished from the shops. No sugar eventually meant no sweets and the great Red October Chocolate Factory on the banks of the Moscow River almost ground to a halt. The sweet-toothed babushki, who at first were grateful that their menfolk had begun to return home sober, gradually became disillusioned.

Then there was Raisa, Gorbachev's glamorous wife. In the West, it was a major and welcome change to see the wife of a Soviet leader who dressed with such elegance. The image of Russian womanhood in the past had been based on the peasant dowdiness of Mrs Khrushchev.

Once again the view in Russia was different. Raisa Gorbacheva's elegant wardrobe was seen as a symbol of the privileges enjoyed by senior party members and their families. Her appearance conjured up images of the special shops with luxury food items, the polyclinics which gave party members better health services than those available to the general public, the special shops with western clothes. To us, the Gorbachevs may have been responsible for bringing the system to an end; to Russians, they were its most prominent representatives.

More importantly, nowadays many Russians are convinced that the penury that bedevils their existence stems directly from the reform process initiated by Gorbachev. But Russians have a long tradition of holding their leaders responsible for all their ills.

In 1847, the writer Alexander Herzen posed "the eternal Russian question" by naming his novel Kto Vinovat? (Who is to Blame?). Many political leaders have been the focus of this question. Mikhail Gorbachev is just one of its many victims.