Russia: A Gorby Celebration

When Mikhail Gorbachev turned 70 earlier this month, his admirers honored him with a series of high-profile concerts, public discussions and parties. TV shows, magazine cover stories and newspaper interviews re-examined his legacy. In a poll published in the newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti, 56 percent of the respondents described him as an "outstanding politician." But the best gift may have come from President Vladimir Putin, who has invited Gorbachev back into Russian politics as an adviser.

It is a startling turnaround for the last leader of the Soviet Union, who garnered a mere 0.51 percent of the vote when he ran in the Russian presidential election in 1996. Throughout the past decade many Russians reviled Gorbachev for what they saw as his key role in the demise of the U.S.S.R. If anything, the adulation he received on his trips abroad, during and after the perestroika years, only deepened resentment against him back home. The same reformist policies that impressed foreigners were seen as destructive by many Russians as they lost their superpower status.

Now some Russians are succumbing to Gorby's charms as well--if not quite to Gorbymania. And his most prominent fan is none other than Putin. As part of his effort to restore a sense of Soviet-era prestige to Russia's reputation, Putin seems to value Gorbachev as a symbol of continuity and statesmanship. Free marketers and traditional communists were both discredited by the turbulence of the 1990s, says Dmitry Yevstafiev, of Moscow's PIR Center, a think tank. By comparison, he says, Gorbachev's cautious social-democratic ideas now look centrist--a nice fit with Putin's blend of authoritarian government and market economics.

Not surprisingly, Gorby's feeling more at home in Moscow these days--and enjoying the limelight. At the end of February, for example, it was left to Gorbachev to announce that Putin was preparing a radical new package of economic reforms. Gorbachev even suggested that Putin should "put together a new team" in the government. Gorbachev also has been producing a TV documentary on the history of the 20th century built around interviews with other former world leaders. Altogether, it is a public display of vitality that contrasts with Gorbachev's old rival Boris Yeltsin, who spent his own 70th birthday not long ago invisibly bedridden with a bad case of pneumonia.