Mikhail Gorbachev: the Soviet leader who learned to love freedom of expression
The former president, who has died at the age of 91, wrote presciently in the pages of Index on Censorship
31 Aug 22

Mikhail Gorbachev in 2008. The former President of the Soviet Union passed away on August 30th. Photo: European Parliament.

Mikhail Gorbachev in 2008. Photo: European Parliament, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2000 Mikhail Gorbachev wrote a short piece for Index on Censorship about the dangers to free expression in 21st century Russia. It followed raids carried out by masked, armed police on the offices of the Media-MOST consortium, then one of the most powerful media organisations in Russia. It was a show of force by the incoming president, Vladimir Putin, and a chilling sign of things to come.

The article, entitled Citizens’ Watch, expressed the best of the former President’s instincts in support of democracy and freedom: “Without a free press people don’t have a voice. They can be used as the authorities see fit; they can be manipulated”.

It was also prophetic in its concerns that the Russian people were sleepwalking into an authoritarian disaster: “I’m… worried and dispirited by the apathy of the public. The journalists are having to defend themselves on their own. It’s time we understood we shall never be a democratic state until we have learned to be citizens.”

He concluded: “It is not easy to live as a free man; without democratic institutions and rules, freedom often becomes its opposite.”

But the piece also demonstrates Gorbachev’s fatal weakness. As a good man with good intentions, he was too willing to give those with bad intentions (such as Vladimir Putin) the benefit of the doubt. Musing on who might be ultimately responsible for the crackdown, he wrote: “I find it hard to believe that raids like these can take place with the president’s knowledge. If, indeed, it is with his knowledge, I personally feel very disappointed.”

Disappointment defined Mikhail Gorbachev. As the last leader of the Soviet Union, he was quite possibly the most influential political figure of the post-war period, but from the moment the Berlin Wall fell, his life was marked with a series of disappointments. He had hoped the break-up of the Soviet Union would lead to democratic transformation and the introduction of a market economy with social safeguards. In many countries of the former Eastern bloc, this was indeed the case, but he also witnessed the rise of tyranny and corruption in many of the former Soviet republics. In his beloved Russia itself, he saw his liberal economic reforms hijacked first by the oligarchs and then by the state itself. This man of peace, whose childhood had driven him towards dialogue with the West, stood by as his country descended into an increasingly aggressive foreign policy with wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and latterly in Ukraine. History will judge him harshly for his support of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, although in his mind it was consistent with his lifelong support for national self-determination.

But possibly his greatest disappointment was what he saw as the catastrophic failure of world leaders to deal with the environmental crisis. In an interview with the Russian publication Dos’e na Tesnzuru reprinted in this magazine in 1998 he noted that “ecology” sprang to the top of the agenda in Russia thanks to his policy of glasnost (openness). As a result, 1,300 polluting enterprises were closed. It was his dream to establish a global environmental organisation to address the combined challenges of security poverty and environmental destruction and following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 he established Green Cross International in Geneva.

His words in Index sounded an important warning: “Everyone can see that the forests are retreating, rivers becoming polluted. The reasons are obvious – people rule the earth, but they are not looking after it, only making demands: give me cotton, give me wood, give, give, give. We have to manage things differently.”

The end of the Cold War was Gorbachev’s greatest legacy and he knew that the freedoms he helped establish were built on the work done by the dissident intellectuals that came before him. He also knew that complacency was not an option.

A quarter of a century ago he told Dos’e na Tesnuru (which means Index on Censorship in Russian): “I am not a pessimist. All over the world the last dictators are leaving the political scene; attempts to impose dictatorship are ridiculous. Only one thing can protect us from such attempts – freedom of speech. That’s why any defence of freedom of speech is so important. Without it we could find ourselves once again caught in the trap.” His prediction of the demise of dictatorships was perhaps premature, but he was never wrong about the antidote.

By Martin Bright

Martin Bright has over 30 years of experience as a journalist, working for the Observer, the Guardian and the New Statesman among others. He has worked on several high-profile freedom of expression cases often involving government secrecy. He broke the story of Iraq War whistleblower Katharine Gun, which was made into the movie Official Secrets (2019) starring Keira Knightley.