Crimea-happy Russians want Gorbachev to pay for loss of Soviet empire


Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, 82, gives an interview to the Associated Press at the International Government Communication Forum, in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. (Al Moutasim Al Maskery/AP)
April 10

— Still radiant over their annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, some members of Russia’s parliament are more nostalgic than ever for the Soviet Union — and on the prowl for someone to blame for its loss. Why not 83-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev?

Five deputies of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, have asked the nation’s prosecutor general to investigate Gorbachev, who was the president of the Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991, and bring him to account, Russian news media reported Thursday.

Many Russians — especially the older and the poorer — have long harbored wistful feelings about their Soviet past. The acquisition of Crimea, however, has begun to change the national narrative, whetting the appetite for restoration of empire among the well-
educated and informed, and even making the idea respectable.

Yevgeny Fyodorov, a Duma deputy who belongs to the dominant United Russia party, told the Izvestia newspaper that the end of the Soviet Union had been a troublesome but unexamined issue for 23 years. The situation in Ukraine, he said, meant that the effects of the Soviet demise could no longer be ignored — a reference to Moscow’s assertions that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine are under threat. An investigation, Fyodorov said, would shed light on “fifth columns” at work today.

“And, finally, this will give an impetus to national liberation movements on the territory of the former Soviet Union,” he said.

Gorbachev, a hero in the West for allowing the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall, has not been so loved at home, with many people here holding him responsible for the loss of empire. But talk of prosecution was more than the former president, who has had periodic health problems, was prepared to tolerate.

He called Novaya Gazeta, a liberal newspaper he has helped support financially, and offered caustic comment Thursday on the investigation request.

“Since all problems in Russia have apparently been solved, only one little case remains,” he said. “That is to jail Gorbachev.”

There is little likelihood that Gorbachev will be prosecuted. President Vladimir Putin has shown scant interest in the idea of going after former presidents. One day, after all, he will become one himself.

And simply bruiting about Gorbachev’s prosecution looks like good politics in the Duma, where the 450 members vote with such unanimity that it’s hard to make an impression on constituents. Only one deputy voted against the annexation of Crimea.

“How do you explain to your voters what you did if your vote is no different than all the others?” Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, said Thursday. “The only way is to make the front page.”

Still, the deputies’ demand tapped into a not-insignificant national sentiment. In a survey published by the independent Levada polling center in January, 86 percent of respondents who were older than 55 expressed regret for the Soviet Union’s collapse; 37 percent of those ages 25 to 39 did so.

“There has always been a segment among the elites who thought some parts of the Soviet Union could be restored,” Makarenko said. “They nearly stopped believing it after 20 years, but here it is — part of it back.”

The return of a small — but treasured — part of the former realm has revived an old worldview, he said: “Now it’s politically correct to think imperially.”

Gorbachev had other thoughts. He suggested reminding the deputies of the not-so-halcyon past by putting them on a train to Magadan, a particularly desolate part of the Gulag in Soviet times.

“We can take them at dawn,” he said, in a reference to Soviet repression, “without trial or investigation.”

Russia’s parliament operates according to Putin’s desires and reliably responds to his cues. Judging by recent signals, it would be hard for a deputy to go wrong by lamenting the loss of the Soviet Union and denouncing those who were in power when it fell.

“Unfortunately, what seemed impossible became a reality,” Putin told the nation in a speech announcing the annexation of Crimea. “The U.S.S.R. fell apart. Things developed so swiftly that few people realized how truly dramatic those events and their consequences would be.”

He went on: “It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered.”

Last month, just after Russia took over Crimea, a Levada poll found that Putin’s approval rating had jumped to 80 percent, from 65 percent in January.

Writing in the Vedomosti newspaper, Levada sociologist Alexei Levinson said Putin’s popularity was up because people thought he had made Russia a greater world power. If enemies such as the West and NATO were afraid of Russia, they assumed, the country must be stronger than ever.

“In fact, the United States and Europe are so mad at Russia at this point,” Levinson wrote in his analysis of the poll, “that the status of Russia as a world power might be considered a given.”

Perhaps, Fyodorov suggested, an investigation would discover that Gorbachev had been acting as a U.S. spy when he was Soviet president — how else to account for his losing the empire?

Such talk is likely to go only so far, territorially speaking. Although Russians assert historical ties to Ukraine, they are not so expansive about some of the other former Soviet republics.

“Few lamented the loss of Central Asia,” Makarenko said. “Crimea gave them heartache.”

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