The Long, Lame Afterlife of Mikhail Gorbachev: A Cautionary Tale about What Happens When You Fail to See the Revolution Coming

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IN THE MOST NOTABLE of the many photographs snapped at the gala held to mark his 80th birthday, Mikhail Gorbachev seems shorter and rounder than he did in his prime, back when he was one of the most important people in the world. He is inscrutable, only half-smiling; he also looks disheveled, and perhaps unsure of himself. Those impressions may of course be exaggerated by the fact that in this particular picture, the onetime general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has his arm around Sharon Stone. Stone is wearing a slinky, champagne-colored dress and bright red lipstick. She is grinning widely. In heels, she is a good 6 inches taller than Gorbachev, which certainly takes away from his aura of authority.

But then, it has been a very long time since Gorbachev actually had an aura of authority. In fact, everything about his garish birthday party screamed "B-list celebrity." Stone hasn't starred in a hit movie for a good while; neither has Kevin Spacey, who co-hosted the event alongside her. Also in attendance were Goldie Hawn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ted Turner, Shirley Bassey, and, I'm sorry to say, Lech Walesa. The gala was ostensibly a fundraiser for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation, which helps raise money for the care of children with cancer. But mostly the evening served to underline the strangeness of Gorbachev's fate. Here was the man who had launched glasnost and perestroika, who had presided over the dismantling of the Soviet empire and then the Soviet Union itself, one of the founding statesmen of modern Russia--and yet his birthday gala was held in the Royal Albert Hall, in London, among people who hardly knew him.

This was not an accident: Twenty years after the dissolution of the USSR, Russia is ambivalent, at best, about Gorbachev. Far from being hailed as a hero, he is mostly remembered as a disastrous leader, if he is remembered at all. Yes, he launched a new era of openness with previously unthinkable freedoms in the 1980s, but in Russia he is also held responsible for the economic collapse of the 1990s. Most Russians don't thank him for ending the Soviet empire either. On the contrary, the current Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has described the dismantling of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. An opinion poll released in March, at the time of his birthday, showed that some 20 percent of Russians feel actively hostile toward Gorvachev, 47 percent of Russians "don't care about him at all," and only 5 percent admire him. And this was an improvement: Another poll, in 2005, found active hostility toward him in 45 percent of Russians. The word "perestroika" in Russia today has almost purely negative connotations.

In London and Washington, Gorbachev's reputation is of course more positive. He is regarded with affection--he was invited to Ronald Reagan's funeral and to George H.W. Bush's own 80th birthday party--and frequently hailed as a "symbol" of peace and the Cold War's welcome end. But he tends to be paid rather bland and even inappropriate compliments. At his birthday party, Paul Anka sang a duet with a Soviet-era rock musician. The chorus: "One day we'll recall, he was changing the world for us all." Stone then lauded him with a rhetorical question: "Where would Russia be if it weren't reaping the benefits of a free democracy?" I wish I'd been there to see the embarrassment on the faces of the spectators at the Royal Albert Hall--for Russia has not actually reaped the benefits of free democracy, as every Russian in the room knew perfectly well. Even Gorbachev himself recently described Russian democracy as a sham: "We have institutions, but they don't work. We have laws, but they must be enforced."

Of course, Gorbachev is not to blame for the absence of political transparency in today's Kremlin, the weakness of political parties, the return of the former KGB as a source of influence and power, or the violence that Russian authorities intermittently use against dissenters of all kinds. …