Journalists Reflect on the Legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev

As soon as he arrived with a small motorcade in rural Eureka, Illinois — population 5,400 — he was the center of attention.

“It looks like everyone in this small town is a photographer!” former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev exclaimed through his translator amid the crowd of cameras.

He wasn’t the biggest name to visit these parts, however. That distinction belongs to the man who was both Gorbachev’s adversary and his partner in reshaping geopolitics: former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Well before he was in the White House, Reagan attended Eureka College, graduating in 1932. In 2009, the college invited Gorbachev to accept an honorary degree, nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I diligently followed Gorbachev throughout his campus visit, managing to place myself on one side of a segment of the iconic Berlin Wall, gifted to the college in honor of Reagan, while Gorbachev stood across from me on the other side, reflecting on their historic relationship and the fall of that wall in Europe, both figuratively and literally, as my camera rolled.

“Ronald Reagan said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ And when I am asked what was my impression when he said that, I said that didn’t have much of an impact on us. We knew that Mr. Reagan, in his initial career, was an actor! But I still must say that my feelings about Ronald Reagan remain very high,” Gorbachev said through his translator.

“Mikhail Gorbachev was a patriot of his country, and that was immediately obvious when you encountered him or you listened to him. And to be clear, his country was the Soviet Union,” said Jeffrey Trimble, a former Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report who covered Gorbachev during the height of the Cold War. He later served as deputy director of U.S. international broadcasting.

“Mikhail Gorbachev was remarkably accessible to the journalistic community. This was the time of glasnost, of course, so it was relatively easy as a foreign correspondent to get direct access to Gorbachev,” Trimble said.

“He appeared genuinely interested in connecting with people,” said Andrew Nagorski, who worked in Moscow as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine. “He did want to be respected. He did want to project a view of a younger generation,” he told VOA’s Russian Service.

That view continued into Gorbachev’s later years, when he delighted in answering questions from college students 60 years younger than him.

“What do you want to most be remembered for?” a young Eureka College student asked Gorbachev in a question-and-answer session during his 2009 visit.

“I reply to this question always the same way: History is a fickle lady,” Gorbachev replied.

“I think outside Russia, he will be remembered as a transformational figure,” Nagorski said.

When asked just how transformational, Gorbachev himself said, while standing near the section of Berlin Wall at Eureka College in 2009, that the global opinion of him might not be unanimous.

“There is still a debate as to what was done right by Gorbachev and Reagan and what was not done right,” Gorbachev admitted. “But no one can deny one very important fact: The Cold War was ended. We started the process of eliminating nuclear weapons, and relations between our two nations at that time turned into an excellent relationship. There was even euphoria in the Soviet Union for cooperation with the United States.”

Euphoria that has since transformed into apprehension amid a continuing war in Ukraine that has put Russia and the United States on opposing sides of a conflict.

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As Boris Johnson Departs, Britain’s Next Leader Faces Daunting Challenges

Britain will have a new prime minister next week, nearly two months after the resignation of Boris Johnson in July, following a series of scandals. As Henry Ridgwell reports, Johnson’s successor faces a series of daunting challenges — while Britain’s allies, including Ukraine, are watching closely.

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To Ukrainians, Gorbachev Remains an ‘Imperialist’

Mikhail Gorbachev could have been celebrated for involuntarily opening a path toward Ukraine’s independence, but his support for Crimea’s annexation and silence in the face of Russia’s invasion have stained his reputation there.

Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, triggered its demise in 1991, which led to the formation of 15 new independent countries including Ukraine.

But it is no accident that the Ukrainian government is still mute, a day after the death of Gorbachev, whose mother and wife were of Ukrainian origin.

Ukrainians walking through the streets of Kyiv on Wednesday did not mince their words about the leader of the “occupying” and “imperialist” Soviet power.

“I’m very happy he died. The more enemies and their supporters die, the happier I’ll be,” said 32-year-old Oleksandr Stepanov.

Katerina Boyuk, a 17-year-old student, is convinced that Gorbachev “did not really care” about Ukraine and that the country’s independence has “nothing to do” with him.

“He was just the ruler of the USSR, and he couldn’t manage to keep his throne,” she said.

“I think he’s as much of an aggressor as the current Kremlin leaders,” said Vytalya Formantchuk, 43, adding that Gorbachev “put a lot of effort into destroying Ukrainians, their culture and their language.”

The visible hostility of Ukrainians toward Gorbachev also stems from his silence regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Gorbachev, mostly popular in the West, never publicly commented on what has turned out to be the worst conflict in Europe since World War II.

One member of his close circle, Russian journalist Alexei Venediktov, said in July that Gorbachev was “disappointed, of course.”

Even worse, Gorbachev said he “approved” Moscow’s annexation of Crimea to Russia in 2014.

He argued that “the people” had spoken in the referendum on the unification of the peninsula to Russia, widely regarded as a sham.

Kyiv never forgave him for that.

Gorbachev is perceived in Ukraine “with a lot of skepticism — we do not share the enthusiasm we’ve been seeing in obituaries all around the world,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, philosopher and editor-in-chief of the ukraineworld.com website.

“His destiny is the same destiny as many Russian reformers who want reforms, but only up to a certain point: when people start questioning Russian imperialism and decolonization,” he said.

Gorbachev was Soviet leader in 1986, when Chernobyl’s No. 4 nuclear reactor exploded, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident and spreading radioactive contamination across Europe.

Moscow first tried to downplay the extent of the disaster, which delayed evacuation of locals.

Gorbachev is widely blamed for this and for the decision to maintain the May 1 parade in Kyiv five days later.

Thousands of people, including many children, marched through the city holding flowers and singing songs, blissfully unaware of the radioactive cloud surrounding them.

Gorbachev “was an ordinary Russian imperialist. He simply did everything he could to save the USSR and restore the Russian Empire, which is now waging war against us,” popular blogger and activist Yuri Kasyanov posted on Facebook.

Disliked by Russians, rejected by Ukrainians, Gorbachev still regularly talked about his Ukrainian roots.

“I am, after all, half Ukrainian. My mother was Ukrainian, and my wife, Raisa, was too. I spoke my very first words in Ukrainian, and the first songs I heard were Ukrainian,” he said in a 2015 interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel.

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American Nun, 83, Abducted by Jihadists in Sahel is Free

An 83-year-old American nun who was abducted by jihadists in northern Burkina Faso in April has been released, the Catholic Church said. 

Sister Suellen Tennyson, a nun with the Congregation of Marianites of the Holy Cross, had been kidnapped in the parish of Yalgo, where she had worked since 2014. 

In a statement, the bishop of the diocese of Kaya, Theophile Nare, announced “to all, that with great joy and gratitude to God,” Tennyson “has been released by her kidnappers.” 

She is “currently in a safe place … [and] in good health,” Nare said, in the statement that reached AFP on Wednesday, adding that he had no details about the conditions of her release but was “deeply grateful to all those who worked for it.” 

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman confirmed “the release of a U.S. citizen in Niger who had been held hostage in West Africa.” 

The spokesman did not identify the individual, but Tennyson was the only known American hostage in the region. 

“This individual will soon be reunited with loved ones. It is the wish of the individual to remain private at this time, and we ask that all respect that wish,” the spokesman said. 

Yalgo lies between the towns of Kaya and Dori, in the heart of a region of northern Burkina Faso that, like neighboring Niger, has been plagued by jihadists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. 

Thousands of people have died and nearly 2 million people have fled their homes in the 7-year-old insurgency. 

In April 2021, three Europeans who had been reported missing after an attack in eastern Burkina — two Spaniards and an Irishman — were “executed by terrorists,” the authorities said at the time. 

 

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UN Report: At least 50 Killed in April By Malian Army, ‘Foreign Troops’

At least 50 civilians were killed and more than 500 arrested during a military operation conducted by Mali’s army and “foreign troops” on April 19, the United Nations said in a report on Wednesday.

The alleged massacre took place on market day in Hombori municipality, in the central region of Douentza, after a Mali military convoy hit an improvised explosive device.

The victims included a woman and a child, the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission MINUSMA said in a quarterly report on human rights violations between April and June.

Mali’s military spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.N. has repeatedly accused Malian soldiers of summarily executing civilians and suspected militants over the course of their decade-long fight against groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

The military has in some cases acknowledged that its forces were implicated in executions and other abuses, but few soldiers have faced criminal charges.

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Namibia Plane Crash Kills Family of German Tourists

Authorities in Namibia have confirmed a family of four German tourists and their pilot were killed when their plane crashed Tuesday during take-off in the country’s northern Zambezi Region.

Namibia’s Ministry of Works and Transport says it is investigating what caused the six-seater Cessna 210 to crash shortly after take-off, killing all five people on board.  

The ministry says the plane crashed on Tuesday afternoon near Impalila Island, on the Zambezi river in the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area.

The plane was carrying four members of a German family on holiday. Namibian media report the pilot was South African.

Ministry spokesman Julius Ngweda told VOA the plane belonged to a local company, Scenic Air, but could provide no further details.

Scenic Air Managing Director Michael Bottger said in a press release the cause of the crash is not known.  

“Everyone at Scenic Air is devastated by this tragic event,” read the release, “and our deep and heartfelt condolences go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones.”

Namibia’s Police Chief Inspector Elifas Kuwinga told VOA authorities would release the names of the deceased after their next-of-kin were notified.

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