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‘Big blow’: Mikhail Gorbachev died of shock from the Ukraine war

His translator said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, was shocked and bewildered by the conflict in Ukraine in the months before his death and psychologically crushed in recent years by deteriorating relations between Moscow and Kiev.

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 were shocked by the events. in Ukraine.

“It’s not only [special military] The process began on February 24, but the whole development of relations between Russia and Ukraine over the past years was really a big blow to him. “It really crushed him emotionally and psychologically,” Palazhchenko said in an interview.

“It was clear to us in our conversations with him that he was shocked and amazed at what was happening for all sorts of reasons. He not only believed in the rapprochement of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, but believed that these two nations were mixed.”

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

Kyiv says it is defending itself in the face of an unjustified war of aggression of the imperial type. Meanwhile, the West has imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow to try to persuade Putin to withdraw its forces, something it shows no sign of doing.

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Family ties with Ukraine

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 learn 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.

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The conflict in Ukraine

While in office, Gorbachev tried to keep the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, together but failed after the reforms he initiated encouraged many to claim 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.

Balachenko said Gorbachev believed in solving problems only by political means, and either he was unaware of some of those bloody events in advance or he “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.

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“Of course, for him and for most people of his political generation there was still in his heart the kind of mental map that comprised 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 ‘This is it and I would do anything to enforce it.’ No.”

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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 — such as the media’s treatment.

But he made the decision not to “provide a continuing commentary” on Ukraine other than to agree to a statement in February that called for an early end to hostilities and addressing humanitarian concerns.

“Failed Romance”

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

Not only did he help end the Cold War and reduce the risks 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 saw as “unfair criticism.”

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

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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday referred to Gorbachev’s view that the end of the Cold War would lead to warmer relations between the Soviet Union and the West as a “failed romance.”

Palachenko said he and his colleagues are now faced with the task of reviewing Gorbachev’s papers and books at the late state-owned political dacha outside Moscow, where there was much material that had not been systematically indexed in his archive.

Apparently angry at Gorbachev’s criticism since his death by some people on social media who 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.”

Mikhail Gorbachev
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev giving a lecture entitled My Life in Politics at the International University he founded in Moscow in 2012 [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP]

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