Mikhail Gorbachev’s circles of solitude

For the last leader of the USSR, the final stage of life was marked by the death of his wife and the political isolation he suffered in his country

Gorbachev pictured in March 1999.John Kringas (ZUMAPRESS.com / Cordon Press)
Pilar Bonet

For more than 30 years, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev lived in solitude – concentric circles of solitude that extended from his most private thoughts to the most public aspects of his life. A large part of his loneliness began when his wife died of leukemia in 1999. Gorbachev never recovered from the loss of Raisa, the woman with whom he shared his life since they were students at Moscow State University.

In the summer of 1999, Raisa was hospitalized in Münster (Germany) and in a coma. Mikhail sat by her side in dignified sadness, sometimes calling his friends simply to chat. Later, Gorbachev also had to say goodbye to their only child Irina when she moved abroad with her daughters.

Gorbachev remained in Russia and focused on his very active foundation. The first and only person to occupy the office of president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), he traveled to conferences around the world defending his perestroika reforms to restructure the Soviet political and economic system, which many blamed for the collapse of the USSR. Gorbachev was convinced that the perestroika movement would eventually prevail.

Gorbachev’s political isolation began when the economic and political reforms he initiated ran into stiff headwinds. Conservative communists accused Gorbachev of moving too fast with his reforms, and said he was pushing the country toward destruction and threatening the supremacy of the Communist Party. Meanwhile, impatient reformists like Boris Yeltsin – the so-called liberals – accused him moving too slow, and said his indecision was the cause of all the conflict and tension in the Soviet republics. The rest of the world hailed Gorbachev as a liberator because he refused to send in tanks to enforce the Warsaw Pact, the collective defense treaty between the Soviet Union and seven other socialist republics of Central and Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact was later abandoned during the heady days when the Berlin Wall was torn down and the world declared a premature end to the Cold War.

The leaders of the 15 republics in the Soviet Union saw an opportunity in perestroika to assert their own national identities, making the transformation of the USSR into a democratic union of states impossible, assuming that this extremely fraught path was ever possible in a system that was crumbling politically, economically and ideologically.

Mikhail Gorbachev
A portrait of the late Mikhail Gorbachev adorned with a somber black ribbon hangs on the wall of his foundation in Moscow.Alexander Zemlianichenko (AP)

When populist Boris Yeltsin and his political allies declared Russia’s sovereignty in 1990, the old USSR power structure crumbled, along with Gorbachev’s main power base. He was alone in the Kremlin on December 8, 1991, when Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus decided to annul the 1922 Union Treaty that created the USSR. Although they proclaimed unity, the three sister republics soon adopted divergent and sometimes conflicting paths.

Gorbachev’s attempts to recover power ended with his stunning defeat in the 1991 Russian presidential election, finishing in seventh place with only 0.5% of the vote. Forever associated with the collapse of the USSR, Gorbachev slowly faded into obscurity in post-Soviet Russia. When Vladimir Putin passed repressive laws against “foreign agents” operating in Russia, the Gorbachev Foundation was forced to decline funding from international donors, thereby increasing the former leader’s isolation.

Mijaíl Gorbachev Ronald Reagan y George Bush
When President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush met with Mikhail Gorbachev in New York during a 1985 visit by Soviet leader, Reagan quipped, “I bet the hawks in both our countries will squirm when they see us shaking hands.”GETTY IMAGES

Gorbachev never wanted to destroy the Soviet Union, and in the spring of 1991 he tried everything to persuade several of the federated republics to sign a new Union Treaty. But his attempts were rebuffed, and the failed coup d’état attempt engineered by USSR hardliners sealed the demise of the Soviet Union.

Unpopular in Ukraine

Gorbachev’s support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 made him very unpopular in Ukraine, even though his maternal family were of ethnic Ukrainian heritage. Young Misha grew up listening to his grandmother’s Ukrainian peasant songs, and would sometimes sing them for friends. On one of my visits with Gorbachev, he even recited a poem from his childhood. Understanding Gorbachev’s upbringing is an important part of knowing the man.

While Gorbachev could sometimes appear distracted during discussions, his sharp mind was always working, and he often surprised everyone by suddenly interjecting a devastatingly pointed comment. I was privileged to be seated next to Gorbachev at his last birthday celebration in 2020. I learned later that they placed me there to protect him from the bad influence of Alexei Venedyctov, the editor-in-chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station, and Dmitry Muratov, editor of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Gorbachev’s daughter Irina was worried her father would have too much to drink if he was seated between his two old friends. When Gorbachev noticed me looking at the Social Democratic Party pin on his lapel, he asked me if I remembered the political party he founded in 2007. Of course, I replied. What became of it? “Putin called me one day to ask how the party was going and the next day they shut it down,” he replied sarcastically.

Vladimir Putin sent the obligatory condolence telegram, an impersonal note that offered little recognition of Gorbachev’s accomplishments except for a brief reference to his “recent humanitarian, charitable and outreach work.” His terse message stands in stark contrast with his recognition of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s death in April 2007. A state funeral was held for Yeltsin and Putin decreed a national day of mourning. Putin attended the funeral in person and gave a speech at the solemn banquet in the Kremlin following the funeral. Yeltsin was buried with all the pomp and circumstance of Imperial Russia, and no less than three Russian Orthodox Church officiants presided over the ceremony in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Yeltsin was the first Russian leader to be memorialized in a religious ceremony in more than a century. Putin praised the deceased as a true Russian, a man of unbreakable will and determination. Gorbachev was also Russian – a Russian from the country’s southern reaches where the influence of ancient Mediterranean civilizations can still be felt. He was a European and a Russian who loved life and believed that any dispute between his country and the rest of the world could be resolved.

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