The great heroes in Mikhail Gorbachev’s pantheon were two 19th-century socialist thinkers, Alexander Herzen and Vissarion Belinsky, whose main concerns were the dignity of the individual, and whose books he knew almost by heart. When they appeared on the Russian stage, in Tom Stoppard’s trilogy “The Coast of Utopia”, he went to see them. At the end of the performance he was called on stage and given a standing ovation by an audience that, for the most part, had scarcely been born when, in 1985, he became the last general secretary of the Soviet Union.
The perestroika (“restructuring” or “reformation”) which he started then never reached the destination he wanted, a democratic, humane socialism—perhaps because that destination was Utopia, rather than a real place. To the elite of modern Russia, he seems an oddity if not a traitor: a fool who brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union and made no money out of it. He had power, a comfortable life and the fate of hundreds of millions of people in his hands—and he let it all go when, on December 25th 1991, he resigned as president of the Soviet Union.
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