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The Gorbachev Diagnosis

A month after Mikhail Gorbachev’s death, debates about his life and legacy continue. A 21-year-old interview with the former Soviet leader suggests that he understood Russia’s problems, needs, and proper place in the world far better than its current leader does.

WASHINGTON, DC – The death in August of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, sent me back to an extended interview I conducted with him in 2001. Reading the transcript anew, I was struck not only by the clarity of his thinking and the strategy that had motivated him to end the Cold War, but also by his conditional view – even then – of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin was the biggest beneficiary of the reform process that Gorbachev started, having gone from unemployed ex-KGB agent to president of Russia in just a decade. On Gorbachev’s passing, Putin acknowledged the last Soviet leader’s “historic” role, but was “too busy” to attend the funeral.

Back in 2001, I began by asking Gorbachev for his diagnosis of what had ailed the Soviet economy. “Our system was so cumbersome,” he replied, “that it was not capable of responding to the challenges of the science and technology revolution.” He became angry as he recalled that, in the early 1980s, the Soviet leadership that preceded him had planned to establish a commission to “solve the problem of women’s pantyhose. Imagine a country that flies into space, launches Sputniks, creates such a defense system, and it can’t resolve the problem of women’s pantyhose,” he groused. “There’s no toothpaste, no soap powder, not the basic necessities of life. It was incredible and humiliating to work in such a government.”