The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Soviet leader Gorbachev says a new union could rise again

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev looks through a book about his wife, Raisa Gorbachev, in Moscow. (Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press)

This winter marks the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, isn't over it yet.

In interviews with the BBC and the Associated Press both released Tuesday, the 85-year-old Gorbachev suggested that the Dec. 21, 1991, decision to dissolve the union was the result of a “treachery” and that it was time for the United States and Russia to “cooperate.” He also said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “worthy president.”

In an interview with TASS, Gorbachev went further. “The Soviet Union cannot be restored,” he told the Russian news agency. “But a new Union can be established.”

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Gorbachev was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991. His policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) helped end the Cold War, but they also took with it the Soviet Union, which proved unable to cope with the surge of anti-communism and nationalism that was unleashed.

The Soviet Union's death spiral reached its crescendo in December 1991, when Ukraine held a referendum in which 90 percent of voters favored independence. Within just a few weeks, all Soviet republics had agreed that the Soviet Union would be dissolved. The official announcement came on Russian TV on Dec. 21. Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day, and the Soviet flag was taken down at the Kremlin.

The man who oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union has had the past quarter-century to think about those events. Even now, he sounds bitter. “Behind our backs there was treachery, behind my back,” he said in his interview with the BBC. “They were burning down the whole house just to light a cigarette, just to get power. They couldn't get it through democratic means. So they committed a crime. It was a coup.”

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While there was support for simply reforming the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his allies wanted to get rid of Gorbachev, he told the AP. “They were striving for power,” Gorbachev said. “It's bad when people are ill with that desire to grab power, to grab turf. It's impossible to build a democratic society with such people.”

As Soviet leader he could have used force to prevent the breakup, he said, but he believes it would have led to a bloody civil war, as the country was “loaded to the brim with weapons.” The West offered him no help, he said. “They were rubbing their hands in joy: The [Soviet] Union that had been a concern for decades ate up itself,” he said.

Gorbachev may well have a rose-tinted view of the Soviet Union, but many in Russia feel the same. Putin himself has cited the collapse of the union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and under his leadership Russia has embraced some formerly shunned aspects of Soviet history. One recent poll from the independent Levada Center found that 56 percent of Russians regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union, while 28 percent did not.

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Much like Putin, who has pushed for a new Eurasian Economic Union, Gorbachev said that he hopes some kind of union could return, though he emphasized Moscow's partners must come willingly. “In the former borders, with the same members, on the basis of free will, I think a new union is possible,” he told TASS.

Gorbachev has been critical of Putin in the past, but in the interviews released this week he sounded conflicted about the Russian leader. “He is a strong person,” he told the AP. “I almost fully supported him first, and then I began to voice criticism. I can't renounce my views, and he wants something else.”

To the BBC, he acknowledged that there were some people “for whom freedom is an annoyance.” Asked whether he meant Putin, he replied, “You'll have to guess who I mean.” Pushed on whether Putin seeks his advice, Gorbachev said the Russian president “knows everything already,” before adding, “C'est la vie, as the French say.”

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But whoever is Russia's leader, Gorbachev said the West and Russia need to come together. “If we don't cooperate, if we don't pull our efforts together and talk to each other, everyone will build up arms,” he told the AP. “If there is a rifle on the wall in the first act of a play, it will go off in the end.”

“I'm sure that the Western press — and that includes you — has been given special instructions to discredit Putin and get rid of him,” he said in the interview with the BBC, adding that Putin's popularity at home surged as he was criticized. “His popularity rating here has reached 86 percent. Soon, it will be 120 percent!”

He demurred from commenting on U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, noting only that he'd seen Trump's buildings but not met the man himself.

“He has little political experience, but, maybe, it's good,” Gorbachev told the AP.

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