Denison Forum – Last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dies at 91: A surprising part of his historic story

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-one. When he came to power in 1985, he introduced key political and economic reforms to the USSR that helped end the Cold War without the firing of a single shot. For his courageous leadership, he was awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.

He is one of the few people in history who can be said to have changed history.

Here’s a part of his story that surprised me: while Gorbachev is being hailed as a hero today by the West, he is widely seen as a villain in Russia. In a 2017 poll, only 8 percent of Russian citizens saw him in a positive light; more than 60 percent said they had a “distaste” or “hatred” for him.

This is because many Russians agree with President Vladimir Putin’s assertion that the collapse of the Soviet empire was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” In the same 2017 poll that held Gorbachev in such contempt,  83 percent held a positive view of Putin, while less than 5 percent responded negatively to him.

“To zero, to ashes, to smoke”

Has the invasion of Ukraine changed this perception?

Putin’s approval rating stands at 87 percent today, while 69 percent of Russians believe their country is on the right track. By contrast, only 10 percent of Americans believe our country is heading in the right direction; only 6 percent of us have confidence in Putin’s leadership.

In the Kremlin-controlled news media, the invasion of Ukraine is seen as part of a long history of enemies trying to subjugate Russia. According to this view, a wider civilizational war is being waged by the West against Mother Russia. As a result, only 14 percent of Russians are opposed to the war.

Unsurprisingly, Gorbachev felt his life’s work was being undone by Putin.

During Gorbachev’s tenure, the Russian words glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“rebuilding”) entered the English lexicon as he forged policies that allowed for greater freedom of speech, economic reforms, and easing of tensions with the West. However, since Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, Russia has passed laws that make criticizing the war an offense that can result in hefty jail sentences. Dissenting voices have been silenced; Moscow finds itself isolated internationally due to sanctions imposed by the West.

Alexei Venidiktov, a prominent Kremlin critic and personal friend of Gorbachev, says, “All Gorbachev’s reforms—to zero, to ashes, to smoke.” When asked for evidence of this, he answers, “When Gorbachev left, there were four thousand NATO rapid reaction forces in Europe. Now NATO has announced that there will be three hundred thousand by the end of next year.”

“He makes nations great, and he destroys them”

Americans are lauding today a Russian leader many Russians despise. At the same time, Russians are following today a Russian leader many Americans despise.

This does not bode well for future relations between nations possessing the largest nuclear arsenals in the world.

Add other geopolitical threats: a nuclear-armed North Korea, an ascendant China with aspirations of a global empire, and a rising Iranian threat to the Middle East and beyond. Now include the ongoing pandemic, global economic uncertainties, and deep and rancorous political divisions within the US and many other countries.

What more will it take to convince us that we need a Power beyond ourselves?

Job said of the Lord, “He makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away” (Job 12:23). On what basis? “The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God” (Psalm 9:17). By contrast, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Psalm 33:12).

The Lord told his prophet: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it” (Jeremiah 18:7–10).

“Our wills are ours, to make them thine”

I plan to apply today’s discussion directly and specifically to America tomorrow. For today, let’s close by applying it to ourselves. What is true of nations is true of those who live in them: “It is better to take refuge in the Lᴏʀᴅ than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lᴏʀᴅ than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:8–9).

When we “take refuge in the Lᴏʀᴅ” rather than in ourselves, we position ourselves to be used by God in ways we could never accomplish ourselves. When we begin every day by yielding it to his Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), he uses us to influence eternal souls in ways that affect their eternal destinies. When we surrender our resources to the One who gave them to us, he uses our service to exalt his Son and advance his kingdom.

You may never become a historical figure like Mikhail Gorbachev, but if Jesus is your Lord, you are the beloved of God, a child of the King. And ten thousand millennia after the Soviet Union and the United States of America are forgotten, your next act of faithfulness to your Lord will echo in eternity.

So begin your day by saying to your Father what Jesus said to him: “Your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). Say it to him all through your day and then follow where his Spirit leads in response. And remember that the will of God never leads where the grace of God cannot sustain.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson prayed, “Our wills are ours, to make them thine.”

Make your will his today, to the glory of God.

Denison Forum

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