Respected in the West, Gorbachev was seen as a reckless chatterbox in Russia

Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday at age 91, liked to talk. And after he took power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he wanted his country to talk, and talk openly, about its problems. It only hastened its demise.

Former Soviet leader died on Tuesday

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, seen here addressing the Soviet nation on Central Television in May 1986, died on Tuesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

In 1992, I interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev, little more than a year after he had presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union and lost power.

His aide told me to submit questions beforehand. I submitted six. The aide laughed. You'll never get to ask all these, he said. He likes to talk too much.

Gorbachev answered three in 40 minutes.

The man, who died on Tuesday at age 91, indeed liked to talk, and after he took power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he wanted his country to talk, and talk openly, about its problems. 

To that end, in 1989 he created a new parliament, the Congress of Peoples' Deputies. The debates of the newly elected MPs were broadcast on national television. Gorbachev and his ministers wandered the corridors, taking questions from reporters.

In the process, a once-hermetically censored country burst open in a flood of speeches, revelations, debates. For reporters like myself — who had arrived in Moscow as a CBC correspondent in 1988, for a six-year stint — it was a bonanza of news.

The problem was that, as the country talked of its problems, they only became worse and worse. Food, and goods of all kinds, became scarce. Supermarket shelves were empty. The ruble bought almost nothing.

Yet Gorbachev kept on talking.

WATCH | Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dies:

Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader who ended Cold War, dead at age 91

5 months ago
Duration 4:03
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who’s credited with ending the Cold War without bloodshed, has died at age 91. As the last leader of the Soviet Union before it disbanded, he leaves behind a divisive legacy.

The Soviet leader, like Russian President Vladimir Putin today, had direct control of the main television channels. And so, night after night, Soviet viewers saw Gorbachev — often accompanied by his striking wife, Raisa — at the top of the news, for 10, 20, even 30 minutes, addressing his ministers, conversing with people in the streets. Talking. 

Fed-up Russians referred to him as a boltun — a chatterbox. The words flowed as the country sank into economic paralysis.

Dodging a coup

Gorbachev talked and he manoeuvred. He was a brilliant tactician, outflanking the reactionaries in his politburo and the KGB with the creation of the new parliament. 

His aides pleaded with him to go a step further and create a popularly elected presidency. He didn't. He became president in 1990 by a vote of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies. He ducked the chance to give himself strong political legitimacy.

All through the winter and spring of 1991, his aides and allies warned him that his opponents in the Communist Party and the KGB were planning a coup. He ignored them, convinced that, once again, he could outmanoeuvre them.

In August 1991, the coup took place. Gorbachev was made prisoner in his summer residence in the south of the country. It was left to his political opponent Boris Yeltsin to stand on a tank and face down the coup plotters.

WATCH | In Russia, mixed reaction to Gorbachev's legacy:

Mixed reactions to Gorbachev's legacy

5 months ago
Duration 1:11
Residents of St. Petersburg were split on how they viewed Mikhail Gorbachev, with some remembering him as an inspirational figure, while others reflected more upon the fall of the Soviet Union in the wake of Gorbachev's internal reforms.

One of the leaders of the coup was the head of the KGB, Viktor Kryuchkov, a man Gorbachev himself had chosen for the job.

The coup dissolved and, in its wake, Yeltsin demanded that the Communist Party be dissolved. It was done.

Four months later, Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus agreed to break up the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev was a president without a country. He resigned on Dec. 25, 1991.

Diplomatic strength

He had come to power knowing how weak the Soviet Union was. It was a country spending enormously on its military and a losing war in Afghanistan. Its harvests were failing and the price of its major export, oil, was falling. 

Gorbachev had travelled to Canada before becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party. There, he had long talks with the Soviet ambassador in Ottawa, Alexander Yakovlev, another reformer who was exiled to Canada for his views.

When he became the leader of his party and the country in 1985, Gorbachev promoted Yakovlev to the politburo. Their economic answer to the country's problems was further centralization of the almost catatonic agricultural and industrial ministries. The result was a morass. 

He was able to turn the Soviet Union's weakness into a sort of diplomatic strength, negotiating arms reduction treaties with the United States and making no effort to stop the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the march to freedom of the countries of Eastern Europe.

Two men in suits and glasses sit side by side at a table in front of microphones. They are looking at each other. Two large flags, American and Soviet, hang behind them.
This photo taken in July 1991 shows then-U.S. president George Bush, left, and Gorbachev during a press conference in Moscow concluding the U.S.-Soviet Summit dedicated to disarmament. (Mike Fisher/AFP/Getty Images)

For this he earned the respect and applause of much of the world. But at home, he was a leader scorned. When he finally ran for the presidency in 1996, he got 0.5 per cent of the vote.

While in power, he remained a Communist true believer, insisting that reform should come from the top, but that uncontrolled competition and private property were not for his country. 

Out of power, his became a voice unheard. He had created a strange, ungainly political hybrid that in my book on Gorbachev and his era I called a democracy of despots.

WATCH | Ex-PM Brian Mulroney talks about Gorbachev's legacy:

Gorbachev a 'great, transformational leader': Brian Mulroney

5 months ago
Duration 4:34
"He was a friend - a good friend," said former prime minister Brian Mulroney of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War. "I feel a sense of loss that he is now gone, but he's gone into the hall of the great leaders of this time."

The KGB and security ministries had failed once to stop Gorbachev's reforms. When a second opportunity presented itself in 1999, there would be no failure. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, became prime minister, and then president. 

Putin has described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. In the bloodiest possible way, he is now trying to reclaim parts of the lost empire. 

Democracy in Russia is no more. Despotism rules unfettered.

Gorbachev was a reformer, a man of vision. But the structure built from that vision was flawed and doomed, in the end, to fail.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.