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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March 2005, 13:17 GMT
Gorbachev's legacy
The BBC's Steven Eke has worked and travelled extensively in the former Soviet republics. Here, he assesses Mikhail Gorbachev's legacy.

When he came to power, Mr Gorbachev was faced with an almost indescribable task
I lived in the USSR during the last year of its existence, and in one of the newly independent states, Belarus, during the first year of post-Soviet chaos that followed its collapse.

That event in itself made Mikhail Gorbachev politically irrelevant.

At the time, I remember hearing nothing but anger and scorn for him.

After all, a superpower that once stretched across one-sixth of the earth's surface, had collapsed and vanished forever.

Yet, the assessment of Mr Gorbachev as an historic figure has, in places, become perceptibly more sympathetic over recent years.

Reforming socialism

On coming to power, Mr Gorbachev was faced with an almost indescribable task.

Russians give their views on two decades of change

There was acute awareness of the Soviet Union's economic woes. Its people lived frustrating lives, faced with constant shortages. Educated, civilised people had to go to extraordinary lengths to find food and clothes for their families.

Although the issue is often downplayed, Soviet citizens were not free.

Even in 1985, when Mr Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, thousands of political prisoners languished in labour camps and psychiatric hospitals.

Mr Gorbachev sincerely believed he could reform Soviet socialism.

Indeed, for the first year of his rule, one of the most memorable slogans was "More Socialism".

He was deeply convinced that whatever the Soviet Union was, it was not "socialist" in his definition.

He also understood that the empire had reached the absolute limit of overstretch.


Looking from Moscow at the unpleasant regimes of Eric Honecker's East Germany, or Nicolai Ceausescu's Romania, Mr Gorbachev may easily have concluded that, once their fragile foundations began to give way, their inevitable demise should simply be allowed to happen.

He was the key instrument in ending the division of Europe into two ideologically opposed camps.

Gorbachev with Ronald Reagan
Gorbachev with Reagan: The former Soviet leader was popular among Western politicians
Yet, many former Soviet citizens berate him for their own subsequently difficult lives.

Although the USSR was poor, there was none of the drastic contrast between the super-rich and the poverty-stricken that is now an ugly feature of life.

Crime in countries now plagued by violence and criminality was low. Many people were genuinely proud of their nation's status and its incredible mix of nationalities and cultures.


Historians will always debate whether Mr Gorbachev was incompetent. But both Russian and Western analysts increasingly acknowledge that the system itself could not be reformed.

Many say that the intrinsic weaknesses that would destroy the USSR were present from its very creation.

Mr Gorbachev suggests that nationalism was the explosive that blew the USSR apart.

But Soviet rule was singularly unable to gloss over those same tensions. Most Soviet citizens realised that the officially propagated notion of "Soviet Man" was fiction.

More than a decade on, I still travel frequently to what was the USSR.

I find many things revealing. Among them, that in those places where life has become easier, many people have a more sympathetic view of Mr Gorbachev's legacy.

In those places - still the clear majority - where life hasn't improved, he remains the focus for anger, disillusionment and generations of dashed, unrealisable Soviet dreams.

Gorbachev tribute to old rival
07 Jun 04 |  Europe
'Forgotten' Gorbachev speaks out
19 Dec 03 |  Business
Timeline: Soviet Union
02 Jul 04 |  Country profiles


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