I saw Mikhail Gorbachev with my own eyes in February 1987. He was speaking to youth organisations about Communist Party propaganda in the lecture hall of a big, grey, ugly building next to the party’s local headquarters. Rising to the lectern he said, “Welcome, young communists of Riga, capital of Latvia!” Except that it wasn’t Riga and it wasn’t Latvia. It was Tallinn, Estonia.
This blunder was characteristic of Gorbachev. The results of his actions were often very different from his original intentions. As Soviet watchers understood at the time, he wasn’t on a mission to dissolve the Soviet Union. His buzzword, “perestroika”, means “rebuilding”; the goal was to rescue the Soviet empire from the crises left by previous leaders and keep it intact. But he attempted this so incompetently that it all fell apart in his hands.
The coup attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991 remains a mystery. Three half-drunk party hardliners announced a putsch and a halt to all reforms on Soviet state TV. I can’t help but wonder whether Gorbachev was the playwright of this little drama: perhaps he hoped that the coup would turn back the clock on his reforms, allowing order to be restored in the Soviet Union despite the fall of the Berlin Wall. It did not. I was one of the millions of people living under the umbrella of the Soviet Union at the time, watching on television the trembling hands of the generals. I knew at that moment that this putsch – and the Soviet Union itself – would collapse and that maybe Estonia would have a chance to regain its independence. It did later that month.
Gorbachev will be remembered internationally as the architect of a peaceful revolution but that’s not the view here in Estonia. Was he a good man? The answer is no. I believe that Gorbachev was an evil man, like every Soviet leader before him. He rose to the top by playing by the same rules as Stalin, Brezhnev and others. If he had had his way, the Soviet Union would have continued in a “refurbished” fashion and occupied nations – such as Estonia – wouldn’t have seen freedom until today. Luckily for us, he was a klutz.
Priit Hõbemägi is editor in chief of Estonian newspaper ‘Postimees’, based in Tallinn.