Peter Beaumont: Mikhail Gorbachev – the forgotten hero of history





[Peter Beaumont is foreign affairs editor at the Observer.]

At the Brandenburg Gate tomorrow evening in Berlin, one of the defining figures of the last century's history will sit down to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in which he played a key role. In the audience will be Lech Walesa and Hillary Clinton, invited to listen to Daniel Barenboim conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin.But the star guest will be Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet premier under whose leadership the Cold War in eastern and central Europe was brought to an end.

If a sense of his importance to the events of 1989 is required, it was supplied last week by Timothy Garton Ash, the British historian, who described Gorbachev's "breathtaking renunciation of the use of force" while Soviet leader as "a luminous example of the importance of the individual in history".

Garton Ash's reminder feels long overdue. For there is a conundrum concerning Gorbachev: it is why a living figure of such historic moment appears to have receded so far in our memory in comparison with contemporaries such as Nelson Mandela or Ronald Reagan.

Is it, perhaps, because his momentous experiment ended so inauspiciously with a failed coup, the implosion of the Soviet Union on a wave of nationalist sentiment in the republics and Russia itself, and a resignation that effectively finished his political career? Events that preceded the rise of a voraciously destructive klepto-politics in Russia, so venal that people would come to yearn for the certainties even of Stalin's rule.

Or is it because the world has judged that he has diminished himself with the album of traditional ballads, the adverts for Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton, the speaking tours and celebrity galas, the cameo film role in a Wim Wenders film playing – inevitably – himself? Stage antics of an old gunslinger trading on fading memory.

The truth is that Gorbachev meant, and means, more than that.

Not the Gorbachev of now, but the "Gorby" of then: architect of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring) – two Russian words that for a while seemed on every news bulletin. The builder of bridges with the west, renouncer of the Stalinist notions of the use of force, who, through his actions and inactions, changed the world. The man with whom Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could do business...



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