Revered in Germany, Disputed in Russia: Gorbachev Turns 75 | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 02.03.2006
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Revered in Germany, Disputed in Russia: Gorbachev Turns 75

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev celebrates his 75th birthday on Thursday -- in the German city of Bremen. Germany reveres him as the man who made peaceful German unification possible.


Germans view Gorbachev as being key to their country's unification

In the summer of 1989, just months before the Berlin Wall fell, Soviet President Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, made a state visit to West Germany. "GORBI, GORBI," read the title page of Bild, Germany's most widely circulated paper, on which the couple was shown smiling with a German boy in their arms.

The newspaper clipping is now part of the display at the Bonn "House of History" museum, which documents German history from the end of World War II to the present. The part of the exhibition on the 1980s is devoted to Gorbachev and his reforms.

"We use the headlines of the German press to show that Gorbachev was celebrated like a superstar," said museum employee Andrea Mork. "Here, people had a clear sense that someone they could pin their hopes on was visiting Bonn."

Cha n gi n g the world

Later, Germans viewed the man identified with the policies of glas n ost and perestroika -- policies focused on emphasizing openness and making the Soviet economy and bureaucracy more efficient -- as a hero who had made it possible for their country to be reunited in 1990.

"For that we owe him abiding thanks," said Werner Krawietz, a professor at the University of Münster, which bestowed an honorary doctorate on the former president on the 20th anniversary of perestroika. "It's not just a mere memory, but a vivid sentiment that Germany feels towards Gorbachev."

Michail Gorbatschow und Wladirmir Putin in Gottorf

Gorbachev is still engaged in changing Russia

"He has contributed to dismantling prejudices, to mutual understanding and to cooperation in all areas of political, cultural and social life like hardly anyone else," Krawietz said, drawing attention to his role as Russian chairman of the so-called Petersburg Dialogue, an annual series of intensive talks between German and Russian elites.

"There are good reasons for saying that Mikhail Gorbachev changed the world -- and for the better -- for the decades-long Cold War was dismantled through his changes to Soviet policy," said Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was West Germany's foreign minister at the time.

U n popular at home

In Russia, however, comparatively few people revere Gorbachev.

German writer Klaus-Rüdiger Mai, who recently completed a biography of Gorbachev, interviewed many Russians about the former president. Some saw Gorbachev as the man who opened up their country, others as the man who destroyed it.

Roter Platz in Moskau mit Mousoleum und Basilikum Kathedrale

Gorbachev lost power over the Kremlin after the USSR broke up

After introducing wide-ranging reforms in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev allowed the country's satellite states to become independent. In the end, the Soviet Union broke apart and was replaced by the loose alliance of its former republics, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). He subsequently lost power to Boris Yeltsin.

Many Russians blamed Gorbachev's reforms rather than Yeltsin's economic policies when their standard of living declined.

Gorbachev himself is sober about his legacy.

"My hopes for a rapid turnaround and a quick change for the better in Russia were premature," he told DW-RADIO. "There are still people who don't accept the idea of perestroika, above all in the n ome n klatura that still exists in politics, business, civil service and bureaucracy."

Re-assessi n g the legacy

Biographer Mai though was convinced that Russians would one day change their assessment.

"The reformers repeatedly moved the country forward," he said. "That's why I think that one day people will come to terms with his great legacy. Gorbachev correctly saw the route to democracy in Russia: it can only happen step by step."

For his part, Gorbachev doesn't appear bothered by his lack of fans in Russia. Asked by an interviewer for the German magazine Ster n why he was so unpopular at home, he responded: "Do you know a reformer who's loved?"

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