Amid the frenzy of nationalism stoked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, many Russians are obsessing about the recent past, namely the circumstances surrounding the end of the Soviet empire. This collective exercise in naval gazing is fueling a wacky and warped meme: “Mikhail Gorbachev was an American agent.”
That some Russians are having a hard time coming to terms with the past was underscored on April 10, when the Russian press reported five MPs filed a brief with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office requesting a probe into the “events that took place around the collapse of the USSR.” The undeclared aim, it seems, is to determine whether Gorbachev made treasonous mistakes as he presided over the Soviet Union’s demise.
“For the assessment of institutions of current power, a total and credible judicial analysis of the events of 1991 is necessary … This will give us an understanding of the current position of the ‘fifth column’ and its technologies, which, by the way, have changed very little,” one of the co-authors of the document, Yevgeniy Fyodorov said, using President Vladimir Putin’s preferred term for those working to foster civil society in Russia.
“As for Gorbachev, I don’t think that Germany will hand him over in the case that the results of the investigation show his guilt in the breakdown of the country and his status as a spy of the USA, according to which he built his erstwhile domestic policies,” said Fyodorov, who in addition to being an MP is also holds top leadership position in Putin’s United Russia party.
Gorbachev has long been an object of ire, even blind hatred among a significant segment of Russian society. For example, while he was widely lauded abroad for his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize, Gorbachev was reviled at home for not stopping the Soviet Union’s slide into economic dysfunction. In addition, his perceived deficiencies as a leader -- especially his inability to keep the three Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, from breaking away – prompted the unsuccessful coup against him in 1991, the event that triggered the Soviet empire’s implosion.
For most of the past two decades, the vast pool of animosity for Gorbachev simmered. Then, the Ukraine crisis came along and turned up the heat on a variety of perceived historical slights and injustices, quickly bringing the issue of Gorbachev’s actions to a full boil.
Fyodorov, in particular has a long history of blaming Gorbachev for destroying the Soviet Union. His calls for punishment, however, had not resonated much until very recently, in part because the MP always seems to push the envelope on conspiracy theories. In early April, Fyodorov claimed that part of Gorbachev’s anti-Soviet plot as “American Agent Number One,” was to provide CIA-written rock music to the massively popular rock band “Kino,” a claim for which he may now be sued by another Duma member.
As one of the top officials in Putin’s United Russia, Fyodorov, and those like him, are setting the tone. Elsewhere online, Sazhi Mulatova, who identifies herself as a representative of “the Party of Peace and Unity,” a semi-defunct political entity with the catchy slogan “Strong Rule – Great Homeland” has claimed that “Gorbachev ruined the great homeland and saved America,” having opened the USSR’s borders to international trade just as the US veered into recession in 1987. Meanwhile, Sergey Chernyakhovsky, an “analyst” regularly quoted by newspapers including the reputable Kommersant daily, wrote on a different website, that if a plebiscite has not yet been conducted to ask Russians whether they believe Gorbachev is guilty of inducing the Soviet collapse, it is because the affirmative is obvious.
Gorbachev has characterized the calls to put him on trial as “absurd,” sniping that the current government should have more urgent problems to wrestle with at the moment.
Somewhat ironically, human rights activists in Russia have come to Gorbachev’s defense by recalling his undemocratic tendencies. An article on the website of the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights, for example, pointed out, that all of the recent denunciations of Gorbachev have ignored his well-documented stance in 1991 in favor of preserving the Soviet Union. Another fact that precluded him from ever being a capitalist tool: Gorbachev wouldn’t endorse the concept of private ownership of land, a concept that is a cornerstone of any market-economic system.
The alarming thing about the calls to put Gorbachev on trial is that they could be a harbinger of a broad witch hunt designed to rid Russian society of perceived deviants from the Kremlin line. Fyodorov’s, comments about Russia’s ‘Fifth Column,” and his comparisons of the Soviet collapse to the success of the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine, shouldn’t be taken lightly.