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Gorbachev's legacy may depend on who, and where, you ask

Reagan Gorbachev
Boris Yurchenko/AP
FILE - U.S. President Ronald Reagan, right, talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during arrival ceremonies at the White House where the superpowers begin their three-day summit talks in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Dec. 8, 1987. Russian news agencies are reporting that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has died at 91. The Tass, RIA Novosti and Interfax news agencies cited the Central Clinical Hospital. (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko, File)

In the West, history will likely smile upon Mikhail Gorbachev as one of the great leaders of the 20th century. But in his native Russia, he remains reviled by many for the Soviet Union's collapse.

That's the take of Angela Weck, a Russia expert and executive director of the Peoria Area World Affairs Council.

"World history will recognize that he was a pretty great leader, and that he had great intentions for his country. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was not in his plan," said Weck. "But there were so many forces at play that he could not control without being that autocrat that he did not want to be."

Gorbachev introduced perestroika and glasnost policies to reform the USSR's stagnating communist economy and roll out additional social liberties. Weck said he believed communism was a choice the people needed to make for themselves, and he was confident they would do so when given the choice.

"But when you take the lid off that tightly controlled society, it's like the jack in the box. How do you get it back on? And at the end, that's why he was ousted," she said. "Because he was trying to put the lid back on and control the speed at which things were changing."

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 under the tension between reformers and Communist Party hardliners. Weck said Gorbachev remained in Russia, even though that wasn't easy.

"He took the abuse when he'd go out to the grocery store, and somebody would yell at him. He felt badly for were the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he always believed in the Soviet experience," she said.

Gorbachev was a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian style, but he also blamed the United States for Russia turning its back on democracy.

"He also argued that by diminishing and essentially making Russia a second class power, that provided a space for somebody like Putin to step into it and assert more authority," Weck said. "And that's why Putin is so popular at home, because he is that strong man that they want."

Putin said he will not attend Gorbachev's funeral.

Weck said Gorbachev's style was different. A man of reason, she said he was upfront with his country and the world about the Chernobyl disaster in 1985. That was a different approach than past Soviet leaders, but in line with his philosophy that nuclear threats impact the entire world.

A mutual appreciation for that threat sparked the friendly relationship between Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan which may have staved off a nuclear conflict between the two superpowers.

"Had we had a different president here, had they had a different leader there, we would still have a tension. Maybe we would have already passed the point of no return, I don't know," Weck said. "But between Reagan and Gorbachev, there was this, both mutual respect, and then friendship that led to a more peaceful world."

Gorbachev died Tuesday at age 91.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.