Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin: The Lithuanian take on both is very different to their reputations in the West – Kenny MacAskill MP

It’s fascinating to get a different perspective on historical events.

Boris Yeltsin whispers to Mikhail Gorbachev during a session of the People's Congress in Moscow in 1991 (Picture: Vitaly Armand/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Yeltsin whispers to Mikhail Gorbachev during a session of the People's Congress in Moscow in 1991 (Picture: Vitaly Armand/AFP via Getty Images)

Reading the biography of Vytautas Landsbergis, the Lithuanian president who led his country out of the USSR, his view of Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev was significantly different from the orthodox take. That’s of the former being a drunken buffoon, the latter a great statesman who sought to steer the Soviet Union towards democracy. One’s almost reviled, the other glorified.

To be fair, I bought into the image. I went to see Werner Herzog’s movie on Gorbachev which I enjoyed and it portrayed him as facing down the totalitarianism of the regime, until overwhelmed by the last remnants of Stalinism. His biography similarly suggested he’d foresworn repression and that the Baltic States were but a sideshow and a nuisance.

But seen from a Lithuanian perspective, Gorbachev was no innocent and Yeltsin quite the hero. Landsbergis narrates early discussions as “perestroika” was unveiled.

Gorbachev was far from embarking on democracy but simply seeking to keep the Soviet Union together. Changes were to be made but none that would allow any real challenge to the regime, and certainly not the secession of a republic, even if it had been invaded and incorporated against its will.

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Such was Gorbachev’s intransigence that he initially espoused the denial of the hidden protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in which Stalin and Hitler carved up eastern Europe. Then, when a referendum was to be conceded, it was only on terms that frankly were laughable in their distortion of a democratic process.

When Soviet troops attacked, killing innocent civilians and surrounding the Lithuanian parliament, the idea that the Soviet leader played no part was ludicrous.

Meanwhile it was Yeltsin, the supposed ‘drunken buffoon’, who immediately condemned the atrocity and spoke up for the rights of Lithuania and other Baltic States to decide their own destiny.

Most fascinating was the suggestion that Gorbachev might have been no innocent in the failed coup that toppled him and the regime, which saw Yeltsin climb on top of a tank to show his opposition. Was he involved, awaiting a call? I’d never thought of that but now I’m not so sure.

Kenny MacAskill is Alba Party MP for East Lothian

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