By Andrew Osborn and Lev Sergeev
MOSCOW (Reuters) -The Kremlin on Wednesday hailed late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as an extraordinary global statesman who helped end the Cold War, but said he had been badly wrong about the prospect of rapprochement with the “bloodthirsty” West.
The comments underlined President Vladimir Putin’s feelings about the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which Gorbachev unwittingly presided over, and which Putin has lamented as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century which he would reverse if given a chance.
Putin, who on Feb. 24 launched what he called Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine, one of the 15 former Soviet republics, said beforehand that the demise of the Soviet Union was the “disintegration of historical Russia” and what it had built up over 1,000 years.
While Gorbachev, who died aged 91 in Moscow on Tuesday, is revered by many in the West for helping end the Cold War, many Russians regard him as a bumbling politician who accidentally destroyed a great country, triggering years of economic hardship, humiliation and a loss of geopolitical clout.
Others inside Russia, predominantly those who have long been critical of what they say has been Putin’s brutal clampdown on dissent and free speech, view Gorbachev as a democrat and as someone who tried to do the right thing.
In a carefully worded telegram to Gorbachev’s relatives on Wednesday, Putin expressed his condolences, describing Gorbachev as someone who had an enormous influence over world history and had tried to pursue reforms to overhaul the USSR.
“He led our country during a period of complex and dramatic changes and large-scale foreign policy, economic and social challenges,” said Putin, who was serving in the KGB security service when Gorbachev was in power.
But Putin, beyond that bare statement of facts, did not offer any assessment of Gorbachev’s 1985-1991 time in office.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, was more blunt.
He described Gorbachev as an extraordinary statesman who had helped end the Cold War but whose role in history was controversial.
“He sincerely wanted to believe that the Cold War would end, and that it would usher in a period of eternal romance between a new Soviet Union and the world, the West,” Peskov said.
“This romanticism turned out to be wrong. There was no romantic period, a 100-year honeymoon did not materialise, and the bloodthirsty nature of our opponents showed itself. It’s good that we realised this in time and understood it,” added Peskov.
LEGACY DIVIDES OPINION
Gorbachev suffered intermittent health problems for years and was seldom seen in public, but had occasionally issued pleas for better East-West ties and sought to encourage more dialogue between Washington and Moscow on nuclear weapons.
Some residents of Moscow, once capital of the Soviet Union, now of Russia, told Reuters they had a largely negative view of Gorbachev while being sorry he had passed away.
“At the end of the 1980s, it seemed to us that he was someone who would change the Soviet Union in a good way,” said Vladimir Kalintsov.
“In the end, though, he turned out to be someone who collapsed the Soviet Union… and that led to many wars in the former Soviet republics.”
Larisa Kalashnikova, another Moscow resident, said: “I have a negative view of him. He did a lot of harm to our country.”
In St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, Oleg Tikhomirov, an artist, had a more positive take.
“It’s a real shame,” he said of his death. “I think he was the kindest and most human of all our presidents and he gave us freedom, something we actively don’t have enough of now.”
The belligerent political talk shows that have made up the bulk of Russian state television programming since Putin sent his troops into Ukraine largely ignored Gorbachev’s death.
On the Rossiya-24 channel, one talk show displayed a list of tributes to Gorbachev by Western media, while host Olga Skabeyeva observed that reactions in Russia would “fundamentally, radically differ” but that it would be “indecent” to discuss them so soon after he died.
Jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny had warm words for the Soviet Union’s last leader however, noting that he had ordered the release of political prisoners.
“I am sure that his life and history, which were pivotal to the events of the late twentieth century, will be evaluated far more favorably by posterity than by contemporaries,” said a message from Navalny posted on Twitter by his allies.
Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov, a friend who edits Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper Gorbachev helped fund which has often been critical of the authorities, said the late politician despised war and realpolitik.
“He gave the world and his country an improbable gift: 30 years of peace, without the threat of a global or nuclear war. The gift is over, and there won’t be another one,” wrote Muratov.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former member of the Russian parliament and a Kremlin critic, lauded Gorbachev for freeing hundreds of millions of people from tyranny and for drastically reducing the number of nuclear warheads.
He said Gorbachev had given Russia a chance to be free.
“It’s not his fault that we couldn’t use it,” said Ryzhkov.
(Additional reporting by Felix Light, Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)