MIKHAIL GORBACHEV has lived through a lot, from days as a Communist Youth League official to the breathtaking gamble of glasnost and perestroika reforms as president of the Soviet Union and the final, humbling disintegration of the empire on his watch.
Now 82 years old, Mr. Gorbachev knows he is reviled for the hardships people have suffered. He’s still angry at the failed coup plotters who precipitated his downfall and disdainful of Boris Yeltsin and his “shock therapy” economics. But the other day, Mr. Gorbachev rose from his hospital bed and delivered a political lecture at the news agency RIA-Novosti that was crystal-clear, bold and uncompromising about the crisis of contemporary Russia.
He recalled that he had at first supported President Vladimir Putin, who “inherited chaos” from the Yeltsin years, but became disenchanted with Mr. Putin’s retreat from democracy. In Russia, “politics is increasingly turning into imitation democracy,” he said. “All power is in the hands of the executive branch, the president. Parliament only rubber-stamps his decisions. The judicial system is not independent.” The monopolized economy is addicted to oil and gas, he went on, and the scale of corruption has become “colossal.”
“Society awakened,” he said, in the protests that erupted after the rigged parliamentary elections of December 2011. But the Putin regime responded “by manipulation, the purpose of which was self-preservation at any price.” Mr. Putin managed to tamp down the protests, Mr. Gorbachev lamented, “but the problems of the country are not going away, and if all remains the same, they will escalate.”
Mr. Gorbachev observed that Russians are expressing themselves in lively ways through the Internet, in street protests and angry calls to talk-radio shows. All the while, the Kremlin pretends to manage democracy from above. Mr. Gorbachev insisted that Russia must move beyond this facade to real democratic competition between parties and ideas. “This we do not have,” he said, “although we have gone part of the way in that direction.” Saying he wanted to address the Kremlin frankly, Mr. Gorbachev added: “To go further on the path of ‘tightening the screws,’ having laws that limit the rights and freedoms of people, attacking the news media and organizations of civil society, is a destructive path with no future.”
Mr. Gorbachev praised the protest movement but delivered a caution to young people who have marched by the tens of thousands in the streets. He urged them to build a serious, organized force. “In general,” Mr. Gorbachev declared, “you need to learn to fight for democracy and live in a democracy.”
In the Cold War, Mr. Gorbachev recalled seeing with his own eyes how the people of Czechoslovakia hated their Moscow overseers. He is proud of his role in their liberation. “When people accuse me of having given away Eastern Europe, I answer, to whom? Poland — to the Poles. Czechoslovakia — to the Czechs and Slovaks. Hungary — to the Hungarians.” His message throughout the lecture was: Take history into your own hands. A good lesson for Russians today.