Gorbachev feted at home on 80th birthday

2nd March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia marked Mikhail Gorbachev's 80th birthday on Wednesday, shining a rare spotlight on the last Soviet leader that he has not enjoyed at home since the days of his historic reforms.

The man whose perestroika and glasnost programmes were meant to revive the struggling Soviet Union but instead helped bring about its ultimate collapse, was due to mark the occasion modestly in Moscow with family and friends.

But Russia's state-controlled media has spent the week devoting remarkable attention to Gorbachev despite polls showing that he remains more marginalised in society today than at any time in the past.

None of the broadcasts painted him as the man who helped alter the course of history by ending the Cold War without armed conflict and allowing Eastern Europe to relish the freedoms it had demanded from Moscow for brutal decades.

But they underscored his commitment to family and featured contemporaries who defended Gorbachev against domestic criticism that has made him increasingly bitter today.

The government's Rossiyskaya Gazeta awarded front-page attention to a man who, it cautiously noted, led the country through an era of "hopes and disappointments".

"Gorbachev was certain that by limiting freedom you cannot attain justice, and that without justice there is no freedom," a close Gorbachev ally and current Russian Academy of Sciences member Ruslan Grinberg told the paper.

And the popular Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a two-page interview that ended with Gorbachev noting that his happiest moment in life came when he first met his late wife Raisa -- a global figure who herself played a part in reshaping Russian society.

Both of Russia's main state television channels scheduled late night features and made the anniversary one of their lead items on the morning news.

Channel One television declared in its programme title: "Mikhail Gorbachev. He came to give us freedom."

The attention seems remarkable considering the increasingly limited role the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner has played in the country's politics after failing to revive his career in the mid-1990s.

An opinion poll released this week showed that Gorbachev "irritates" fewer Russians today than he did a decade ago.

Only five percent of respondents said they found him "revolting" -- an alternative answer that itself underscored what the pollsters expected to find in their study.

But the number of people who said they felt indifferent to Gorbachev rose from 35 percent in 2001 to 47 percent today.

Gorbachev's own birthday plans remained private. The Kremlin did not schedule any special receptions and news reports said that he was expected to spend the day at home.

The main festivities will quite symbolically happen in London on March 30 when the Albert Hall will be reserved for a gala concert in his honour attended by the likes of actress Sharon Stone and singer Bryan Ferry.

© 2011 AFP

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