Historian: Gorbachev was of “fundamental importance to the development of Czechoslovakia”

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has died at the age of 91. He played a key role in the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain. In Czechia, Gorbachev’s legacy lies mainly in the hope for a better future that his reforms helped bring about and his non-interventionist policy when it came to Soviet satellite states.

Soon after the news of Mikhail Gorbachev’s death was announced on Tuesday evening, leading members of the Czech political scene began issuing statements. Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said that Gorbachev was a man whose policies helped end communism and break up the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský wrote on Twitter that the Soviet leader was inspired by the Prague Spring and had given the people of the USSR hope for a better future.

This emphasis on the end of communism and the breakup of the eastern block was quite discernible in many of the reactions to Gorbachev’s death among the Czech political class. It also speaks volumes about how Mikhail Gorbachev is primarily remembered in Czechia as opposed to in the West, says Cold War historian Matěj Bílý.

Mikhail Gorbachev | Photo: European Commission

“Gorbachev was of fundamental importance to the development of Czechoslovakia and its politics. It was the reforms that he managed to get passed which, in the second half of the 1980s, led to a weakening of state socialism and the power of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. It also resulted in the eventual fall of these types of regimes in Central and Eastern Europe.”

“After November 1989, Gorbachev became a sort of glorified political figure. He was celebrated for his reforms, which made the collapse of communist power possible. I think that this is the main way in which he is remembered here. Meanwhile, in the West, Gorbachev is mainly seen as a statesman who was peaceful and ready to make concessions that ultimately ended the Cold War.”

Bilý says that this evaluation of Gorbachev can be contrasted with the impressions that some members of the anti-Communist opposition had about him before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Many opposition members felt let down by Gorbachev’s lack of involvement in Czechoslovak affairs when the leader first visited Prague in April 1987, says the historian.

Mikhail Gorbachev in Prague in 1987 | Photo: ČT 24

“They thought that Gorbachev would support a greater opening up of the political system, that he would be in favour of introducing more reforms in Czechoslovakia, or even that he would condemn the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

“None of this happened and I think that the reason was because Gorbachev was in favour of emancipating the states that were under the Soviet sphere of interest. He didn’t want to make any significant interventions, even if it meant liberalising and democratising.”

However, it was this unwillingness of Gorbachev to intervene in the affairs of Soviet satellites that would help bring about the sudden rapid collapse of Communism two years after his visit to Prague.

Authors: Thomas McEnchroe , Olga Vasinkevich
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