THERE are two Russias. There is the Russia of glittering art, brilliant innovation, beautiful literature and with ponderous but steady advance towards freedom, democracy, of a sort, and a responsible role in the affairs of a world of whose landmass it occupies such an enormous part. And there is the Russia of winner-takes-all brutality, corruption, crime, extortion and monopoly greed, inward-looking, unco-operative, aggressive and paranoiac.
The former is what should have emerged when Mikhail Gorbachev, beginning 25 years ago today, started to unravel the Soviet Communist party after 70 years of trauma, terror and over-centralism. The latter is what Russia has sadly veered towards, although with many pockets and oases of resistance, many courageous voices calling for a change of direction and even some officials in high places pleading for reform before Russia sinks further. I met Gorbachev several times, first when he was the chairman of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, and therefore in a sense my opposite number as chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and then when he came later on official visit to the UK as General Secretary of the Communist Party (the last one) and head of state, and in a position – alas, too briefly – of supreme power.
He had great charm and spoke very fast in the beautiful Russian language, but had beside him an interpreter so good that one literally felt he was speaking English. He had a vision. This was of a gradual unfolding of great Russia, after the dark years of trauma, enshrined in the twin goals of perestroika and glasnost – breaking out from past stagnation and opening out Russian society. This required nothing less than the removal of the Communist party machine, with it myopia and its deadly dogma, from every walk and level of Russian life.
What went wrong? Gorbachev heavily under-estimated the sheer viciousness of the Russian heavy mob. Into the vacuum left by the unwinding of Communist control stepped not local democracy, entrepreneurship and community spirit, but the opportunists, conmen and swindlers – and worse – who found it easy to play on the fears of a gullible population cowed by years of dictatorship and impatient for quick betterment. Gorbachev the gradualist could not deliver. He had unleashed forces he could not control. His situation was made much more difficult by the facile advice poured into Russia by ill-informed western economists, ideologues and even statesmen – all telling Russian leaders that they only had to lift all controls and the markets would produce the goods.
It was only a matter of time before the slowness of results, the greed of the oligarch monopolists and the restiveness of the losers from change – not least the military – broke the political settlement and paved the way first for a comically inefficient attempted military coup, the break-up of the old USSR and then for Boris Yeltsin, who seemed at first like "a good thing". But Yeltsin, although brave, was also lazy, bottle-happy and content to let the nastier Russian elements have their way. Criminal and official activities became sinisterly and indistinguishably mixed – and remain so. These developments – especially oligarch greed and the staggering disparities between super-rich riding high on oil and gas revenues and the poor masses – paved the way for the hard men from the KGB to take over again, with Vladimir Putin at the head.
So now, 25 years later, the historic opportunities which for a moment Gorbachev looked like opening up, have mostly been wasted. Instead of offering an attractive, liberalised environment for investment and enterprise, the Russian economy has become increasingly dangerous and risky, riddled with mafia scams and violence, with no-one quite sure where government ends and crime begins. Only the continuing, although diminished, flow of oil and gas revenues offer the illusion of wealth (for some) although the Russian dominance of the European gas market looks now about to end. Instead of a Russia ready to contribute positively to global stability, helping to curb Iranian nuclear dreams and promoting universal human rights, we are left with an unpredictable and surly colossus, stretching from Europe to the far end of Asia, full of potential in terms of resources and talent, but undeveloped and wasted.
But Gorbachev himself, although he came to be hated in Russia, suffering the fate of all political leaders who raise expectations unduly and then find that in the real world they simply cannot deliver, remains a noble figure in 20th century history. We have to put him alongside Margaret Thatcher (who famously said she could do business with him), with Lech Walesa, who first broke the Communist grip on Eastern and Central Europe, and with other great figures who, at the very cusp of 20th century change, in the '70s and '80s – from decades of collectivism and state domination to liberalisation and market freedom – took the lead and set change in motion.
As for poor Russia, perhaps the era of Vladimir Putin, the muscle man still effectively in charge, will pass and a reformist leadership will finally gain power and clean out the crooks and scam-masters with whom the Russian administration remains riddled. Perhaps the judiciary will be improved, the corruption checked and a free press allowed to operate without fear. Perhaps the long-suffering Russian people will once again deploy their enormous talents in the interests of the global order and shake the hand of friendship which, at least in Britain, is always there ready to stretch out – and maybe now, too, in Obama's America. For the moment, Mikhail Gorbachev must be judged as a brave failure. But, in the longer sweep of history, I believe he will be treated much more generously.