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The Shadow of Mikhail Gorbachev


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MIKHAIL GORBACHEV died on August 30 at the age of 91. With him disappears one of the main protagonists of the 20th century

He was instrumental in ending the Cold War and averting threats of nuclear conflicts. His policies of freedom of the press and modernization of the USSR’s institutions made it possible for one of the most evil empires in human history to collapse in relative peace and for modern Russia to be born from its ashes, along with dozens of nations that were able to breathe free again, from Prague to Tbilisi, from Kyiv to Tallinn

As a result, Mikhail became a truly global star. He appeared in The Simpsons, in video games, in pizza commercials and even in the lyrics of a Locomía song. He traveled the world giving lectures and (especially during the 1990s) was one of the most recognized figures on the planet. He was the living symbol of the end of history and the triumph of Western democracy, embodied in Moscow’s rapprochement with the Euro-American sphere.

However, history did not come to an end. Russia, which since the Middle Ages has flirted with Europe in a tense relationship between curiosity and contempt, did not awaken from the communist nightmare to the utopia of liberal democracies, but to the chaos of the State mafias which, converted into private mafias, maintained control of Russian society through blood and fire.

Thus, as the years went by, the figure of Gorbachev cooled in the minds of the whole world, while another leader became the global symbol of the Russian government: Vladimir Putin.

Putin, like Gorbachev, emerged from the ranks of the communist system and then understood that the structure of the USSR could not be sustained. The difference is that while Mikhail was betting on the integration of Russia into the West, Vladimir intends to isolate his empire and build again the walls that make the Russian sphere a space directly controlled by the Kremlin, replacing the Soviet paraphernalia with the Czarist paraphernalia, so that, changing everything, the essential remains the same.

Mikhail’s legacy was the opportunity, perhaps unrepeatable, to integrate Russia into the modern world. That is why the consolidation of Vladimir Putin as de facto tsar represents the failure of the Gorbachev model, and his death leaves behind the shadow of what Russia could have been, the testimony of what Russia did not want to be, and the lingering question of what Russia will eventually become.

By invading Ukraine, Putin’s government not only wrecked an independent nation, but (even literally) dynamited bridges with the Western world. Once again, as has happened so many times since the dawn of the Russian nation, they have chosen the cruel refuge of an empire isolated from the world, behind a curtain that is perhaps no longer of iron, but of bullets, missiles, tanks, language and even alphabet.

And Gorbachev? He lived long enough to change history, to enjoy the gratitude of the world, to celebrate his success and also to see how that stubborn history, after refusing to die, returned to its old ways, because everything tends to be as it was, although a little better, since at least the Russian empire no longer oppresses half of Europe today.

That is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Mikhail’s case: history is not transformed at the root and forever, the villains do not disappear at the end of the final credits; even so, with great efforts, even heroism, human beings are able to close a bitter chapter and open another slightly better one. That is enough, Mr. Gorbachev.

May you rest in peace.

Gerardo Garibay Camarena, is a doctor of law, writer and political analyst with experience in the public and private sectors. His new book is "How to Play Chess Without Craps: A Guide to Reading Politics and Understanding Politicians" // Gerardo Garibay Camarena es doctor en derecho, escritor y analista político con experiencia en el sector público y privado. Su nuevo libro es “Cómo jugar al ajedrez Sin dados: Una guía para leer la política y entender a los políticos”

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