The first and last President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, is dead. A hero in Western Europe, disgraced in his own country, he remains a historical figure for the world. And for me a person who changed my life. A personal obituary.

Without him there would be no Germany. Without him, Europe would have a different face today. And that’s why I’m moved that Mikhail Gorbachev died at the advanced age of 91. I was still studying history on June 12, 1987, when I watched US President Ronald Reagan at a rally in Berlin. He shouted to the leader of the Soviet Union from across the Berlin Wall: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Margaret Thatcher, who dubbed Radio Moscow the “Iron Lady” for her comment about the “Bolshevik Soviet Union,” later called him “charming and humorous.” For us he was at the latest since he had breathed into the ear of the GDR leader Erich Honecker during the brotherhood kiss: “Those who come too late are punished by life”, simply: “Gorbi”. With his attitude he made reunification possible and tore down the iron curtain in Europe. For me he has remained “Gorbi” to this day.

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Of course I know that they see things differently in Russia. And for me that is an example of how perspectives change apparent truths: For some Russians, Nobel Peace Prize winner Gorbachev is the gravedigger of a glorious time. The undertaker of the Soviet Union, whose successor states have never regained their former glory since then. And this perspective on history is also justified, because there is no such thing as an objective historiography. It is precisely the mindset that Vladimir Putin now employs when he justifies the Ukraine war. Putin was a KGB agent in Berlin when Gorbachev came to power.

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As a young man, the new man replaced a clique at the head of the Soviet Union that should have belonged in a retirement home long ago. He spoke of “glasnost” and “perestroika” and inspired a band from my hometown of Hanover, the “Scorpions”, who were not yet world-famous until then, to the title, which then became a world hit: “winds of change”. The winds turned into a storm that reorganized Europe but devastated the Soviet Union. To this day it is disputed whether Gorbachev fled to the front because he realized that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse with the West’s active support, or whether he actually wanted, as the Nobel Peace Prize Committee later put it, “that old European nation-states regain their freedom”. Did he actually believe that the market economy, of which freedom of expression is an integral part, is permanently superior to communism?

I have the TV images of Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl in their cardigans in mind, sitting on rough-hewn wooden furniture in front of Gorbachev’s dacha somewhere in the vastness of Russia and sealing the reunion. The picture also hangs in the House of History in Bonn, and I walk by there with my children from time to time. I’ll tell them the scene and they’ll probably see that I’m getting goosebumps and listen carefully for my sake. In my enthusiasm for the last Soviet leader and my naivety about the Soviet system, I had underestimated the forces working against him.

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The congress in Moscow elected Gorbachev, until then general secretary of the communist party and as such the most powerful man in the state, as the first and last president of the Soviet Union and he began to significantly cut the armaments expenditure. But the reactionary forces rejected this. The beleaguered President gave in. His confidante and co-architect of the new European order, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, resigned in December 1990. He warned of the “danger of fascism”.

I already had my history degree in my pocket when the coup against Gorbachev took place in August 1991 while he was on vacation in Crimea. Russian President Boris Yeltsin mounted the putschists’ tanks and called for resistance. The coup failed, only that Gorbachev was a president by Yeltsin’s grace. Consequently, he resigned as a failure in his own country on December 25, 1991.

Mikhail Gorbachev is proof that there are thinkers and doers in Russia who appreciate the values ​​the West espouses. I think of that when I observe today’s Russia. For me he has remained “Gorbi”. The nickname helped me to overcome the distance to this living monument, to this historical personality. He changed my life.

The article “Bye Gorbi! Farewell to the man without whom Germany would not exist” comes from WirtschaftsKurier.