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Henry Kissinger Survives Mikhail Gorbachev
He will outlive us all.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the subject of what might have been the stupidest mainstream political cartoons I've ever seen (see how one simple adjective can eliminate Ben Garrison's entire oeuvre from competition?): It showed Nancy Reagan in Washington and Raisa Gorbachev in Moscow, talking on the phone late at night (I don't recall the dialogue, but it was something like "Okay, let's try it"), then each whispers in her sleeping husband's ear, "Peace." Wasn't that sweet? The two first ladies were going to end the Cold War! Tonstant weader fwowed up.
It's at least as likely a scenario as the cherished Republican myth that Ronald Reagan singlehandedly brought down the Soviet Union by telling Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall and then spending endlessly on the Strategic Defense Initiative, forcing Gorbachev to try to keep up and bankrupting the Evil Empire instead.
In any case, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, died Tuesday at the age of 91, in a Russia that's no longer a communist superpower, but seems just as repressive and backwards as the old Soviet Union, only with flashier TV shows, more consumer goods, and a class of oligarchs who own mansions and yachts and launder money through Florida real estate. Also Vladimir Putin, who's been thinking about getting the old Soviet band together whether other former members want to or not.
After leaving office, Gorbachev famously starred in a 1997 Pizza Hut ad because he needed the money; the ad emphasized how much things had changed in old Russia. Earlier this year, Pizza Hut's parent company, Yum! Brands, sold off all its Pizza Hut and KFC restaurants to Russian companies following Putin's invasion of Ukraine, so you can't even raise a slice of Pizza Hut pizza in Gorbachev's memory in Moscow. That's history for you. Deadly invasions and "Yum! Brands."
(Story updated to include the exclamation point after "Yum" since Yum! Brands is apparently a stickler about that, per alert Wonkette Operative "Capt. Renault" in the comments.)
Gorbachev came to office in 1985 after the deaths of previous Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, and maybe six or seven others we're forgetting at the moment — oh yeah, there was Konstantin Chernenko, too! Gorbachev was notable at first for not dying right away. He became famous for his policies of "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika" (restructuring), which were meant to bring some reforms to the Soviet system but not to end it. Maybe the USSR would be more fun with blue jeans, rock music, and even some voting? How about allowing non-state media companies even?
Gorbachev also met with Reagan and the two did some nuclear arms treaties that actually reduced the two countries' nuclear arsenals, which was a nice change after Reagan spent his first term scaring the bejesus out of all of us and his funny little joke, caught on hot mic, that "I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." He was a character, that Reagan! Even so, at one summit, in Iceland, the two even kicked around the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether.
Also, somewhere in there the USSR withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, the Berlin Wall got torn down and East Berliners went shopping, the two Germanies unified, and in August 1991 there was an attempted coup by old-line communists. Russian TV played video of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" on an endless loop, giving Western pundits a handy metaphor for decades.
Gorbachev stayed in office until December of that year, and the day after he resigned, the USSR was done, too. Boris Yeltsin became the president of the Russian Federation and got busy selling off chunks of the economy to the rich and powerful, and although it looked for like five minutes as if Russia might sort of become a democracy, it quickly became an insane kleptocracy (but with lots of nice things for some people to buy) and along came Putin to bomb some apartment blocks and blame Chechen separatists, and here we are.
At least the occasion of Gorbachev's death gave Washington Post columnist George Will — like ICBMs and B-52 bombers, another Cold War relic still inexplicably with us — the opportunity to dismiss the old dead commie's reforms altogether, claiming that Gorbachev is "remembered as a visionary because he was not clear-sighted about socialism’s incurable systemic disease" and comparing him to Christopher Columbus, who "stumbled into greatness by misunderstanding where he was going." Will also enjoyed excoriating Gorbachev for having celebrated the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, a commemoration that still pisses off Will because only America had a good revolution and the French Revolution shows what happens when you let liberals run things.
President Joe Biden emphasized Gorbachev's role as a reformer , even if the reforms didn't hold:
After decades of brutal political repression, he embraced democratic reforms. He believed in glasnost and perestroika – openness and restructuring – not as mere slogans, but as the path forward for the people of the Soviet Union after so many years of isolation and deprivation. [...]
[These] were the acts of a rare leader – one with the imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it. The result was a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.
The fragility of those democratic reforms in Russia, and the fact that the country's rush into rapacious capitalism didn't do a bit of good in upholding them, seems like something we might want to keep in mind here in the Land of the Free, just maybe.
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