- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2011

MOSCOW | Approaching his 80th birthday, Mikhail Gorbachev joked about his age but frowned when he spoke of Russia sliding back into Soviet authoritarian ways he thought he had defeated.

For much of the nearly 20 years since the Soviet Union collapsed under his leadership, Mr. Gorbachev has been something of a dim figure in his homeland, mostly staying out of public view despite being lauded in the West.

These days, Mr. Gorbachev, who turned 80 on Wednesday, is becoming more visible and outspoken, even recently doling out harsh criticism of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — as painful memories over the anxiety and suffering that followed the USSR’s disintegration grow fainter.

Although his legacy remains controversial, Mr. Gorbachev is at last getting some recognition as an elder statesman, including a large photo exhibition on his years in power, displayed in a prestigious hall just outside the walls of the Kremlin that he once ruled.

And despite his years, he still shows the vigor and humor that captivated the world after a long series of sickly and tongue-tied Soviet leaders.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet at the Gorki presidential residence on Wednesday. Mr. Gorbachev has been awarded with Russia's highest honor on his 80th birthday. Mr. Gorbachev recently has become increasingly critical of Russia's current rulers, saying they have taken the country back to the Soviet ways. The painting in the background depicts Russian Emperor Peter the Great. (Associated Press)
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet ... more >

“I don’t believe I’m 80 and didn’t hope I’d make it [this far] — but I’m not going into physiological details here,” he joked at a recent news conference.

But his remarks on Russia’s current politics were pointed. He described Russia as an “imitation” of democracy where parliament and courts lack independence from the government and the main pro-Kremlin party is a “bad copy” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Gorbachev, whose attempts to reform the Soviet system led instead to its death, says many of his democratic achievements have been reversed — and could not hide his contempt for the current leadership.

“Incredible conceit!” he snapped when asked about Mr. Putin and his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, saying they will decide between them who should run for president in Russia’s March 2012 presidential vote.

Mr. Gorbachev accuses Mr. Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008, of taking the country back to the times of a one-party state, manipulating elections, media censorship and a crackdown on dissent. Mr. Gorbachev said his own attempt to found a political party failed when a Kremlin aide bluntly told him that authorities wouldn’t register it.

Recalling his push for liberalization of the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev said he understood that it would erode his own authority but launched the reforms because the country desperately needed change.

“I could have enjoyed being in power like other politicians had done before me and are doing now,” he said in a recent interview with the liberal Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which he co-owns. “But … I felt an enormous and impatient public demand for changes.”

Mr. Gorbachev was 54 when he took the helm as the general-secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, his relatively young age and open manner contrasting sharply with his predecessors.

A month after his appointment, he announced sweeping political and economic reforms that were enthusiastically greeted by people striving for a change after decades of repressive Soviet rule.

He allowed dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov to return home from internal exile, quickly launched disarmament talks with the West, signing a 1987 deal to cut an entire class of nuclear missiles with President Reagan, and ended the war in Afghanistan.

Story Continues →