Queen Elizabeth and Mikhail Gorbachev
Two individuals died recently. Both had an enormous impact on the world – but their passing evoked a remarkably different memorial celebration. In fact, the one who arguably had the greater impact was least honored in death.
Former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev died on August 30th of this year. He – along with American President Ronald Reagan – negotiated an end to the 44-year Cold War between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the free world – bringing down the Iron Curtain that had isolated the Soviet Union from the free world. The Chinese communist half of the Cold War ended in 1972, when President Nixon traveled to Beijing – bringing down the so-called Bamboo Curtain.
By Soviet standards, Gorbachev was a small-d democrat. He created an elected President to replace the “Leader” as the head-of-state in Moscow – meaning the chairman of the Communist Party. He served as Russia’s first President. He infused a level of transparency in the previous ultra-secret government operations – and provided a modicum of justice into the system.
As Reagan had demanded, Gorbachev tore down the wall that separated East and West Berlin. He presided over the independence of the so-called “Captive Nations” that comprised the “union” in the Soviet Union. More than a dozen nations that were “captive” within the Soviet empire became independent republics. Several even joined NATO – an alliance created to check the imperial aggression of Russia.
Gorbachev opened an evolving era of capitalism in the old Communist empire. Western businesses flocked to Russia as they had to China after the Nixon initiative. One of the most publicized and celebrated business ventures was the opening of the first McDonald’s in Moscow.
The new era of cooperation made Gorbachev one of the most popular and admired world leaders – except with an obscure KGB agent languishing in East Germany. A guy named Vladimir Putin. He would undo all that Gorbachev had achieved – putting the world back into the dark days of the Cold War.
In 1990, Gorbachev was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize – an honor that would have been shared by Reagan had it not been for the petty leftward lean of the Nobel Committee.
Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8th after an unprecedented reign as the British monarch for more than 70 years. She was succeeded in world monarchical longevity by the 72-year reign of the boy king, Louis XIV of France.
Like Gorbachev, Elizabeth was the head-of-state – but the titles were the only similarities. Under the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain, she was a figurehead, with virtually no political powers. She had largely ceremonial or magisterial duties – but still, great influence based on respect and admiration for her modest demeanor and renowned intelligence. Gorbachev, on the other hand, was an autocratic ruler with virtually absolute power over policy and politics.
AS Queen, Elizabeth was the “defender of the monarchy” – a responsibility she executed with extraordinary competence. During her 70-year reign, she was sensitive to the external pressures and threats to the monarchy – and initiated reforms to quell each of them as they arose. She allowed for the taxation of royal income. She opened the palaces and gardens for public visitation. She mitigated the wrath of the public over the issues relating to Princess Diana by bowing deeply as the coffin of her controversial daughter-in-law passed by.
In an astonishing display of diplomacy, Elizabeth shook the hand of Martin McGuinness, the one-time head of the rebellious Irish Republican Army that had assassinated her cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, in 1979. It would be no exaggeration to say that Elizabeth was responsible for the peace in Northern Ireland in the past decades.
Despite the fact that the British monarch is to remain apart from public policy and political matters – and she almost never shared a public opinion on such matters — it would be wrong to say she did not have a significant impact on both British domestic and foreign affairs. Her private counsel was sought by every British Prime Minister and virtually every world head-of-state. Behind the façade of the matronly mother and grandmother was a woman of impressive intelligence and a strong will.
Is it not ironic that two of the most important leaders of the last half century passed on with such remarkably different memorials?
For Elizabeth, it is more than a week of major events as her coffin is moved from one site to another – with each move and enshrinement witnessed by hundreds of thousands of bystanders and literally billions more on television. It is an official state funeral with all the pomp and pageantry that is the British monarchy.
Every obituary and royal event received constant coverage in the media. Elizabeth’s 96-year biography is repeated over and over in news reports and hour-long documentaries. Her death has supplanted the war in Ukraine, the American border crises, the crime wave, inflation, and – to a large extent – even Donald Trump as a major news story.
By contrast, Mikhail Gorbachev slipped away into the annals of history with little more notice than one might expect of an aging Hollywood star who has not made a movie in a generation. Even in Russia, the event drew little attention from the government or the national media.
There was a reason for that – and his name is Vladimir Putin. The Madman of Moscow hated Gorbachev. In Putin’s mind, he was a traitor to Mother Russia. Gorbachev was the reason Putin has had to go on an aggressive warpath to reclaim the pieces of the old Soviet Union. Putin’s hatred and ambitions crystallized as he witnessed the re-ordering of the world order from his modest KGB post in East Germany.
The deaths of important people are generally celebrated according to how they die – or more importantly when they die. That could not be truer than the recent deaths of Queen Elizabeth II and Mikhail Gorbachev. But that reality neither enhances nor diminishes the accomplishments of these two remarkable world-changing individuals. May they both rest in the peace they BOTH so richly deserve.
So, there ‘tis.