The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is championed in the West for ending the Cold War, but in Lithuania his legacy is more controversial, not least for his role in the January 1991 crackdown.
Mikhail Gorbachev celebrated his 90th birthday on Tuesday.
In Lithuania, the architect of Glasnost and Perestroika is mostly remembered as the leader under whose rule the Soviet army sent tanks against peaceful civilians.
However, despite Gorbachev's inability to stop the bloodshed in 1991, his contribution to the restoration of Lithuania's independence was significant, says Lithuanian historian Algimantas Kasparavičius.
“Whether we like it or not, our March 11 Independence [declaration in 1990] grew out of Gorbachev's Perestroika, as much as our February 16 State Restoration [in 1918] grew out of the First World War,” says Kasparavičius, the head of the state-funded History Institute.
Personalities like Gorbachev should be judged “for their greatness and not for the mistakes they have made”, the historian believes.
“From the outside, the West has seen the situation very objectively,” says Kasparavičius in regards to the political turmoil leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. “We were fighting and always saw ourselves as victims. But even today, the West is well aware of what Gorbachev did in 1985–1990.”
Childhood under Stalin
Gorbachev was born in North Caucasus when Stalin had already taken over the rule of the USSR. Both of Gorbachev's grandparents were sent to forced labour camps during Stalin's Great Purge. His two uncles and an aunt ‘disappeared’.
To achieve ambitious political goals, Gorbachev had to find strong personal contacts within the Soviet apparatus and its leadership.
Gorbachev was noticed by Yuri Andropov, the long-time head of the KGB and later secretary of the Communist Party, according to historian William Taubman. They first met in 1968 and Andropov took a liking to one of the youngest members of the party who was proving his talent in one of the Soviet regions.
Andropov was convinced that Gorbachev's loyalty, pragmatism, talent for innovation was what the country needed.
After Antropov’s death in 1984, the party decided that the most suitable candidate to lead the country was Konstantin Chernenko, who was suffering from various ailments but was seen as a loyal defender of the party's values. He soon passed away too.
Gorbachev, 54 at the time, was relatively young by Soviet leadership standards and much disliked by the politburo attached to the status quo.
According to Kasparavičius, Western countries quickly realised what changes Gorbachev wanted.
“When Mikhail Gorbachev prevailed in the Kremlin in the spring of 1985 and his Perestroika began a year later, he immediately attracted the West’s attention,” says the historian. “A meeting between Gorbachev and [US President Ronald] Reagan in Reykjavik laid the foundations for the end of the Cold War and the crazy nuclear race. That is why Europe and the West have begun to value Gorbatchev very much.”
Going against the current
The decisions and reforms of the last leader of the SSRS shows that Gorbachev did not go with the flow, says Kasparavičius.
“Gorbachev's Perestroika gave birth to peaceful, but fundamentally revolutionary popular fronts in Estonia and Latvia as well as Lithuania’s movement for independence, the Sąjūdis,” says the historian.
“Gorbachev needed help to get the old conservative communists out of the way. This ensured the lightning-fast rise of popularity and influence of the Sąjūdis, and finally its political weight in Lithuania,” he adds.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for the radical change in East-West relations.
However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the popularity of its last leader faded in Russia. In the 1996 presidential election, he received only half a percent of the vote.
Current President Vladimir Putin still considers Gorbachev the main culprit for the collapse of the USSR, in his words, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. “Yet instead of denouncing or punishing Gorbachev, Putin has treated him with thinly disguised condescension,” wrote Strobe Talbott, a foreign policy expert at Yale University.
Despite a solid age and poor health, Gorbachev is still active in politics. Last Saturday, he called on Putin and US President Joe Biden to sit down at the negotiating table to restrict the proliferation of nuclear weapons.