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Reflecting on Mikhail Gorbachev's life and achievements

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For more on Gorbachev's legacy, we're turning to Michael McFaul. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. He's now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of political science at Stanford University. Good morning.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Good morning.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So you wrote a book on Gorbachev's legacy - "Russia's Unfinished Revolution." How do you see him being remembered?

MCFAUL: Well, it depends who you ask, right?

FADEL: Right.

MCFAUL: If you ask me, I think he's one of the most consequential leaders of the 20th century. It's hard for leaders - individual leaders to change history - right? - their structural forces, their power, history and culture. And yet this single individual, I think, is responsible for freedom in Eastern Europe. He created the permissive - the conditions for those revolutions in 1989. And then he oversaw the relatively peaceful - not completely peaceful - collapse of the Soviet empire, and empires rarely collapse peacefully. I think those are great outcomes. As an American, that's how I see it. If you're Russians, however, as Charles just talked about in his piece...

FADEL: Right.

MCFAUL: ...They see it very differently. Today, he is not seen as an important leader - just the opposite. He's seen as a failed leader for most Russians.

FADEL: Now, when you look at Russia today, on the opposite side of conflict with Western powers, the U.S. - I'm thinking about Syria, Iraq and, of course, Russia's war on Ukraine - did Gorbachev actually end the Cold War, or did he simply start a temporary thaw in U.S.-Russian relations?

MCFAUL: Well, that's a great question, and I don't have a great answer. I think it's important to say that he did end the Cold War. To see it as a continuum, I think, suggests that it had to be this way. I don't think that. Just as the individual, Gorbachev, played a consequential role in ending it - and, by the way, not by himself. Ronald Reagan played an important role, and small-D democrats in Poland and Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia itself, I think, played the driving role to end the Cold War. But I think Putin himself is the one that revived it. The scenarios that you just talked about, those conflicts you just talked about, especially his barbaric invasion of Ukraine - that has sparked a new confrontation with the West. But it didn't have to be that way. It didn't have to be a continuum with the Cold War. Those were choices that Putin himself made.

FADEL: Now, we're talking about a Russian leader that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Gorbachev became a darling of the international community because of his role in bringing down the Iron Curtain, in stopping possible nuclear war, really. But today, Russia, as we've talked about, is led by a very different man whose war in Ukraine is making him somewhat of a pariah in much of the international community. Is this a reversal of everything Gorbachev was trying to do when he was a leader?

MCFAUL: It's definitely a reversal. It is a return to confrontation. And again, it did not have to be that way. But it's not a complete reversal. If you think about the three big things Gorbachev tried to do, he tried to destroy - destroy is a strong word. That's what I would call it. He would say he tried to reform communism and introduce market principles in the Soviet Union and Russia. That's more or less in place. That happened. He tried to reform the Soviet Union, and he's - he failed at that. He wanted to keep the Soviet Union, but it collapsed, and that hasn't been resurrected. Despite things that Putin says, he has not resurrected the Soviet Union and never will. The biggest tragedy, of course, is that he did introduce democratic reforms, and they took hold for a while in Russia in the '90s. Russia was a democracy in the 1990s, and Gorbachev helped to introduce those political reforms. That has been completely reversed by Vladimir Putin.

FADEL: In the few seconds we have left, you knew Gorbachev personally. What was he like?

MCFAUL: Well, I was a student when he came to power in 1985. And I remember at that time, nobody predicted that he would be such a revolutionary leader. And on a personal level, you know, we argued. We disagreed. But he was a very engaging intellectual, I would say. And I always learned from every conversation I had with him.

FADEL: Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, now senior fellow with the Hoover Institution - Michael McFaul, thank you so much for your time.

MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER O'RILEY'S "MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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