News Release

Gorbachev * Ended Cold War * Unpopular in Russia


Available for a limited number of interviews, Matlock was U.S. ambassador to the USSR from 1987 to 1991 and is author of the book Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War EndedHe said after Gorbachev’s death Tuesday: “President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev, cooperating with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, negotiated an end to the Cold War and tamed a dangerous arms race. He then liberated the Soviet Union from its Communist dictatorship, freeing its peoples to build a democratic future. He should be remembered for his achievements and not for the failures of his successors.”

Publisher and editorial director of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel and her husband, the late Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, interviewed Gorbachev at his foundation in Moscow in 2009.

She said today: “Gorbachev was perhaps the most radical thinker about security to ever lead a major world power — and to ever lead a nuclear weapons state. As Soviet president, he reversed generations of military buildup and democratized the Soviet Union and put an end to the Cold War — for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Last year, Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote the piece “Here’s what leaders facing global crises can learn from Mikhail Gorbachev” for the Washington Post. She wrote: “Gorbachev, one of the most committed arms reductionists to ever lead a nuclear country, was revolutionary when in the 1980s he called for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. Yet his vision of demilitarization remains not only unfinished but increasingly under threat. Key arms treaties have been allowed to expire, and some nations, including the United States, Russia and China, are now modernizing their arsenals. The United States, for example, plans to order 600 new long-range missiles, each 20 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.” She highlights the study from the National Security Archives, “NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard,” regarding declassified documents showing “security assurances against NATO expansion to Soviet leaders from Baker, Bush” and other NATO leaders.

Willerton is a professor of political science in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona focusing on Russia. See his TEDx Talk, “The Russian Soul” from 2013. He said today: “Gorbachev was a leader of tremendous consequence for both the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the world, his legacy very rich, but complicated. For those of us in the West, he was a sober leader who took risks to change the Soviet Union domestically while daring to engage the United States to achieve significant arms control. Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’ did represent a profound shift in engaging the West, not just militarily, but politically, economically, and socially.

“But for Russians, his efforts were seen as leading to the Soviet Union’s collapse, both in accelerating a deteriorating domestic political and socioeconomic situation, and in naively engaging a West which Russians believe took full advantage of his government’s compromises. For Americans, Gorbachev was arguably the most respected — even popular — Russian leader of the past century. For Russians, as consistently revealed in opinion surveys, Gorbachev was judged as their country’s worst leader of the past century. Seen by Americans as thoughtful and far-sighted, Gorbachev was viewed by Russians as weak and vacillating. As with so many aspects of our contemporary American and Russian reality, there is a profound division between Americans’ and Russians’ perception and judgment of the USSR’s last leader.

“In the coming days and weeks, it will be interesting to watch the discussions of Mikhail Gorbachev’s life and legacy here in the United States and in the Russian Federation. I expect very contrasting assessments. Understanding that most Russians are sentimental, and with Russians knowing that Mikhail Gorbachev died after a long illness at age 91, I anticipate an initial, respectful public atmosphere that will mark the passing of an important Russian historical figure. But as time passes, I expect the judgment of Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy by the Russian mainstream to be brutally honest, generally negative, and at times harsh. Many Americans — and Westerners generally — will be surprised by this likely widespread Russian assessment. But Mikhail Gorbachev is not alone among world leaders whose lives and legacies are evaluated one way at home, and another way abroad. Whatever one’s ultimate assessment of the leadership of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, he was a profound late 20th century figure who made an enduring mark on both Russian and global politics.”