3 September 2022
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
Mikhail Gorbachev’s death can be looked on as a chemically pure experiment for determining the current state of mind among Russian liberals. After all, you’re not making a fatal choice, risking anything, counting or relying on anything. Reaction to a death is improvident, it comes from the heart and so is valuable as an honest index of the correlation between freedom and servility in Russian society.
The test results are depressing. The overwhelming majority of Russian liberals, people of democratic convictions, sincerely mourn Gorbachev, considering him a great man who gave the USSR’s inhabitants their freedom. This grief exposes two monstrous Russian defects.
THEY DIDN’T DARE TAKE IT THEMSELVES
First. Even the most progressive journalists, opposition politicians, and cultural figures—that is, people for whom freedom is not an empty word—are grateful to Gorbachev for giving them this freedom. They didn’t dare take it themselves because to do so was too dangerous. They could have been thrown in prison or, if they were lucky, just lose their job.
They expressed their discontent however they could: they listened to Western radio, whispered in kitchens, and reeled off jokes in their institute’s smoking rooms. For a long time they were in an agony of fear, which made them feel pretty dirty. Flipping off someone behind their back does not bring self-respect. And then came Gorbachev, who allowed them not to be afraid. Allowed them to open their mouth. Allowed them to be free. They had good reason to feel ecstatic at their liberation! Finally someone has come and given us what we have all been wanting and waiting for for so long! Glory to the liberator!
The problem, though, is that liberated slaves are still not free people. Freedom given like a toy is just as easily taken away. Now they remember through tears the generous Gorbachev and curse the stingy Putin, who took Gorbachev’s gift away from them. Now they’re back where they started. Some are again whispering in the kitchen; others are demonstrating miracles of courage in emigration. Now they’re shedding tears over the deceased Gorbachev and hoping for a new master-liberator.
The question is, can liberalism take root in Russia through people who treat freedom like a gift from a good lord?
LITTLE PEOPLE WITH THEIR PERSONAL PROBLEMS
The second defect is even worse. Even Gorbachev’s most ardent admirers are forced to admit that his political biography wasn’t entirely hunky-dory. There’s no need to repeat what we all know about the circumstances of the Chernobyl accident, to recall the death of political prisoners under his rule, the troops he sent to put down ethnic protests in Soviet republics, and the hundreds killed, wounded, and crippled.
This has all been written about many times. Gorbachev’s admirers blandly refer to the mass killings and abuses of power as their idol’s mistakes. Oh well, the comrade made a mistake. Who doesn’t? On the other hand, he did so much good for us that he can well be forgiven those mistakes.
This facile attitude of Russian society toward his crimes might be explained as Stockholm syndrome, an attempt to whitewash their violator by focusing attention on his fleeting good deeds and minimizing his blatant sins. I’m afraid that’s not the only problem, though. Gorbachev’s fanatics are whitewashing themselves, their conformism, their readiness to yield to violence at the decisive moment and make peace with a lie.
They’re so enraptured by someone whose legitimate place was on the defendant’s bench that the echo of their raptures drowns out any questions put to them. If the accused can be acquitted for mass murders, then what can we take from them, these perpetually trembling little people with their personal problems? Everyone makes mistakes, after all. Their motto could be the same as the age-old zek one: “We’re not like that, life is.”
The only difference is that zeks usually say it with humour, whereas the frightened liberal intelligentsia says it sincerely, finding in it their legitimate historical vindication.
Translated by Marian Schwartz