Staunton, December 28 – Mikhail Gorbachev who presided over the disintegration of the Soviet Union, says that “the main contribution” of Vladimir Putin is that he “saved Russia from the disintegration” which was beginning since “a very great number of regions essentially were no longer recognizing [the Russian] Constitution.”
Gorbachev made that declaration at the launch last week of his new book “After the Kremlin” (lenta.ru/news/2014/12/26/gorbachev/), adding that he had known and been impressed by Putin before the latter became president and that he Gorbachev had made many mistakes because he had operated on the assumption that he had everything under control.
Putin’s reaction to this latest voice of support for the claims of his backers that he stopped the disintegration of Russia is unknown, but given that it comes from Gorbachev and given what the latter’s words say about the nature of the Russian state as such, it is far from clear that the current Russian president would be entirely pleased by the words of the first and only Soviet one.
On the one hand, even if he were to welcome Gorbachev’s suggestion that he has “saved Russia from disintegration,” Putin could hardly be pleased by the former Soviet leader’s suggestion that “a very great number of regions” were essentially outside of the Russian constitutional orbit, a suggestion that implies the threat was far great than Putin has said.
And on the other, coming from Gorbachev who lost control of the Soviet bloc, the occupied Baltic countries, and 11 non-Russian republics as well as the Russian Federation itself, such praise looks dangerously like setting the bar rather low, given Putin’s aspirations not just to end the disintegration of the country but to restore its imperial greatness and extent.
But if one considers Gorbachev’s remarks from a broader perspective than Putin’s, they point to something many in Russia and elsewhere have not wanted to face: Russia’s disintegration did not end in 1991, and the forces threatening its further disintegration have not disappeared, despite Putin’s actions and his ban on any public suggestion that they have.
Instead, they remain strong and may even be growing not only in the North Caucasus where many have identified them to be but also in the Middle Volga and in predominantly Russian regions from St. Petersburg to Siberia, and preventing Russia’s disintegration thus remains the primary task of any Russian leader.
That in turn suggests something that neither Gorbachev nor Putin nor the supporters of either want to acknowledge: Russia is still an empire and not yet a country, however much many would like to think otherwise – and as such, it is subject to the forces both on the periphery and at the center that have torn all empires in the history of the world apart.