The loss of Queen Elizabeth and Mikhail Gorbachev

Reading Time: 5 minutes

by Tonio Galea

The world in a few weeks lost two icons of recent history…the death of Queen Elizabeth and that of the last Soviet leader with the passing away of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Two leaders that defined their time and a somewhat extinct breed of leaders in a world now where financial success and celebrity now reign.

A 70-year reign is more than the lifetime of most people.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary came to the throne at a tipping point in British history. As her reign progressed, the old order – Church and aristocracy, the gradations of class and knowing your place – crumbled. She was described as politically neutral, and diplomatically useful.

It was this avoidance of any political controversy as head of state, and her refusal to bend the monarchy to the winds of fashion, that enabled her to triumph in the role that would earn her the love and respect of so many, as head of the nation.

Some commentators describe her reign as a “golden age” reminiscent of that of her namesake Elizabeth I, who ruled England 400 years ago during a period of growing power and cultural flourishing.

Others argue she leaves no tangible mark, only an institution unfit for purpose in a world of egalitarian aspirations, irreverent social media commentary and scrutiny by round-the-clock media outlets.

Yet it is hard to deny that no matter what the critics say, her legacy is still remarkable: ensuring the monarchy survived an era of rapid change. While the nation she reigned over sometimes struggled to find its place in a new world order and her own family often fell foul of public expectations, the queen herself remained a symbol of stability.

During her reign presidents, popes and prime ministers have come and gone, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Britain’s empire has gone, replaced by a Commonwealth of 56 nations which Elizabeth was instrumental in creating. As head of state, she had 15 British prime ministers, the last Liz Truss, who she only appointed a day before her death, was her 15th.

During the Cold War, however, her meetings with leaders from the Soviet bloc were few and far between.

In 1956, Elizabeth received Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was overseeing a political thaw after replacing Joseph Stalin.

But it would be more than three decades later, in 1989, that Mikhail Gorbachev would be invited for an audience. It came after he launched a policy of “perestroika” (restructuring) which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The queen was the first British monarch in history to visit Russia when she was hosted by President Boris Yeltsin in 1994.

Like the Queen, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev left a lasting impression on world history, the Russian words “glasnost” and “perestroika” became common words in the English language, the Cold War ended, and the Soviet Union crumbled. Loved abroad not so much at home.

Many were the word of praise outside Russia, less so from within the former Soviet Union. Similar judgements on past leaders are difficult, complicated, and always controversial.

Russian President Vladimir Putin missed the funeral of the last Soviet leader, denying the man who failed to prevent the collapse of the Soviet empire the full state honours granted to Boris Yeltsin.

Gorbachev, idolised in the West for allowing eastern Europe to escape Soviet communist control but unloved at home for the chaos that his “perestroika” reforms unleashed, was buried after a public ceremony in Moscow’s Hall of Columns.

It was a marked contrast to the funeral of Yeltsin, who was instrumental in side-lining Gorbachev as the Soviet Union fell apart and hand-picked Putin, a career KGB intelligence officer, as the man most suited to succeed him.

When Yeltsin died in 2007, Putin declared a national day of mourning and, alongside world leaders, attended a grand state funeral in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine appears aimed at reversing at least in part the collapse of the Soviet Union that Gorbachev failed to prevent in 1991.

Gorbachev’s decision to let the countries of the post-war Soviet communist bloc go their own way, and East and West Germany reunify, helped to trigger nationalist movements within the 15 Soviet republics that he was powerless to quell.

Five years after taking power in 2000, Putin called the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.

It took Putin more than 15 hours after Gorbachev’s death to publish a restrained message of condolence that said Gorbachev had had a “huge impact on the course of world history” and “deeply understood that reforms were necessary” to tackle the problems of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Gorbachev promoted transparency by opening the Soviet archives so that Russians could see for themselves how many millions of their own people Stalin and Lenin had killed for no reason. Putin did the opposite: Closing the archives, censoring history books, reintroducing the state’s dogma of infallibility, and resorting to lies to promote the patriotic education of the masses. 

During his time, Gorbachev withdrew troops from the unwinnable Afghanistan war. Putin, on the other hand, has dispatched forces in a “special military operation” to fight non-existent fascism in Ukraine.

Gorbachev secured a place in the history books. No other politician changed the world for the better in the second half of the 20th century as he did. Millions of people across the world started learning the Russian language because of Gorbachev, this new, humane politician.

Gorbachev like everyone in life had his successes and failures, some remember either one or the other, but his main political aim was always to strive for a better world.

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