- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

MOSCOW — The world remembers Mikhail S. Gorbachev as the man who dismantled the Soviet empire and helped end the Cold War. But in the 12 years since he stepped down as the last Soviet premier, Russians have not been kind to the man known as “Gorby.”

He went from being one of the world’s most powerful leaders to collecting only 1 percent of the vote in Russia’s 1996 presidential election. A man who once presided over summits in the Kremlin’s chandelier-laden rooms ended up hawking pizza on U.S. television.

When Mr. Gorbachev left office, he was almost universally despised at home. Now, while he is still reviled by many, he is slowly gaining a reputation as one of Russia’s elder statesmen.

“There’s a very interesting cultural phenomenon happening. His stature and reputation is rising and rising,” said Yegor Yakovlev, former editor of the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Novostei.

Mr. Gorbachev is often seen in the Russian news media commenting on current events. He is invited around the world to make public appearances, and when world leaders visit Russia, they often call on him, as did former President George H.W. Bush in September.

His successor, President Vladimir Putin, often invites Mr. Gorbachev to state functions.

Part of the reason for the revival of Mr. Gorbachev’s image is that, compared to those who have taken his place in the Kremlin, he doesn’t look so bad.

Mr. Gorbachev’s immediate successor, Boris Yeltsin, embarrassed the country with his drunken antics. Mr. Putin has been criticized by human-rights groups and liberal politicians as not being a democratic leader.

Russians also disliked Mr. Gorbachev because his wife, Raisa, was seen as too glamorous and too powerful in a nation where first ladies often stayed out of the limelight.

But when she died in September 1999 from leukemia at a hospital in Germany, many Russians rallied around Mr. Gorbachev after seeing his grief-stricken face on television.

“People sympathized with his sorrow, pitied him as a person, pitied Raisa — though she had never been liked before,” said Mikhail Tarusin of Romir-Monitoring, a Moscow-based public opinion and marketing research agency.

Mr. Gorbachev has kept busy in the years since he’s been out of public office. He started a Moscow-based policy foundation in his name, became active in environmental causes, became a TV pitchman for Pizza Hut, traveled around the world and helped raise his two grandchildren.

Next year he will turn 73, but shows no signs of slowing down.

But there are still plenty of people who detest him as much as they did the day he left office.

The biggest complaint against Mr. Gorbachev is that he destroyed the Soviet Union. Many Russians still resent their country’s fall from its powerful status in the world and the loss of its former territory and influence.

“He gave away [East] Germany for nothing, while we lost millions of lives to liberate Europe from the Nazis and then put in all the resources to build up East Germany’s economy,” said Nikolai Shishkov, 72, a retired engineer here.

Critics also say he never had a vision of how he wanted to transform the Soviet state. Instead he tinkered with the system, trying to allow some free-market economy and democracy, while retaining Communist Party control of the system.

“Like a man lost in a dense forest, he blundered in one direction, then realizing it was a dead end, tried another one,” said Roy Medvedev, a prominent Russian historian.

In the end, the small reforms he put in place caused the Soviet Union to unravel — something he never wanted. After the failed coup attempt against him in August 1991, Mr. Yeltsin became the effective leader. Mr. Gorbachev stepped down in December that year.

Despite his re-emergence on the Russian public stage, the leader Time magazine hailed as its “Man of the Decade” in 1990 is but a fading memory for many Russians.

As one Muscovite, Nadezhda Oportova, said, “He may be a nice person, but he belongs to the past, to history.”

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