Gorbachev dies shocked and bewildered by Ukraine conflict

  • The interpreter worked with Gorbachev for 37 years
  • He says he was shocked and disturbed by the events in Ukraine
  • Gorbachev says he still believes in the idea of ​​the Soviet Union
  • But he was against the use of force to achieve goals

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, was shocked and bewildered by the conflict in Ukraine in the months leading up to his death and psychologically crushed in recent years by deteriorating relations between Moscow and Kiev, his interpreter said on Thursday.

Pavel Palachenko, who worked with the late Soviet leader for 37 years and was by his side at many US-Soviet summits, spoke to Gorbachev a few weeks ago on the phone and said he and others had been shocked by the events in Ukraine.

“Not only the (special military) operation that began on February 24, but the whole development of relations between Russia and Ukraine over the past years has really been a huge blow to him. It really crushed him emotionally and psychologically,” Balachenko told Reuters in an interview.

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“It was clear to us in our conversations with him that he was shocked and stunned by what was happening (after the entry of Russian troops into Ukraine in February) for all reasons. And not only did he believe in the rapprochement of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, he believed that these two countries were mixed.”

President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what he called a “special military operation” he said was necessary to ensure Russia’s security against NATO’s expanding military alliance and to protect Russian speakers.

Kyiv says it posed no threat and is now defending itself against an unjustified imperialist-style war of aggression. The West has imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow to try to persuade Putin to withdraw its forces, something it shows no sign of doing.

In photos of the 1980s summits with US President Ronald Reagan, the bald mustache figure Palazhchenko can be seen repeatedly alongside Gorbachev, leaning in to pick up and convey every word.

Now 73, he is in a good position to find out the late politician’s mental state in the run-up to his death, having seen him in recent months and been in contact with Gorbachev’s daughter Irina.

Balachenko said Gorbachev, who was 91 when he died on Tuesday from an unspecified illness, had family links to Ukraine. He was speaking at the Gorbachev Foundation headquarters in Moscow where he works, and where Gorbachev kept an office dominated by a giant portrait of his late wife Raisa, whose father was from Ukraine.

quarrel over ukraine

While in office, Gorbachev tried to keep the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, together but failed after the reforms initiated by many of them encouraged demands for independence.

Soviet forces used lethal force in some cases in the dying days of the Soviet Union against civilians. Politicians in Lithuania and Latvia recalled those events with horror after Gorbachev’s death, saying they still blamed him for the bloodshed. Read more

Balachenko said Gorbachev, who said he believed in solving problems only through political means, either did not know about some of those bloody events in advance or “extremely reluctantly” allowed the use of force to prevent chaos.

Balachenko said that Gorbachev’s position on Ukraine was complex and contradictory in his mind, because the late politician still believed in the idea of ​​the Soviet Union.

“Of course in his heart the kind of mental map is still for him and for most people of his political generation a kind of imagined country that includes most of the former Soviet Union,” Palachenko said.

But Gorbachev would not have launched a war to restore the defunct country he headed in 1985-1991, as he suggested.

“Of course I can’t imagine him saying that is, and I would do anything to enforce it. No.”

While Gorbachev believes it is his duty to show respect and support for Putin, his former translator said he spoke out when he disagreed with him like treating the media. But he made the decision not to “present an ongoing comment” on Ukraine other than to agree to a statement in February that called for an early end to hostilities and addressing humanitarian concerns.

Gorbachev’s relationship with Ukraine was difficult at times. Kyiv banned him in 2016 after he told Britain’s Sunday Times he would have acted the same way Putin did in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.

“I am always with the free will of the people, and most of the people of Crimea wanted to be reunited with Russia,” Gorbachev said at the time, referring to the result of a referendum that Kyiv and the West called illegal.

Some Ukrainians also blame him for the initial Soviet coverage of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

the wisdom of history

While acknowledging that some Russians and people throughout the former Soviet empire have very negative views of Gorbachev due to the economic and geopolitical turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Palachenko has argued that Gorbachev’s legacy remains substantial.

Not only did he help end the Cold War and reduce the risk of nuclear war, he said, he voluntarily dismantled totalitarianism within the Soviet Union and gave Russia a chance for freedom and democracy.

“I think he remained optimistic about Russia’s future,” Palachenko said, despite his “distorted” legacy and what he considered “unfair criticism”.

“He believed that the people of Russia were very talented and as soon as they were given a chance, perhaps a second chance, that talent would appear…”.

Palachenko, who recalled the heights of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, chatting in a limousine with Gorbachev after White House talks, said he and his colleagues now faced the task of reviewing Gorbachev’s papers and books at the late state-owned political dacha outside Moscow. There was a lot of material that had not yet been systematically indexed in his archives.

Apparently angry at Gorbachev’s criticism since his death by some people on social media whom he called “haters,” Palachenko said his former employer believes history will judge him correctly.

“He liked to say that history is a fickle lady. I think he believed and he expected the final verdict to be positive for him.”

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Reporting from Andrew Osborne. Editing by Mark Trevelyan

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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