NEW YORK – Many in the former states of the Soviet Union that experienced the brute force of the military during the empire’s twilight have expressed a darker view of Mikhail Gorbachev after his death.
The news media in Azerbaijan, for example, referred to him on Wednesday as the “butcher of the Azerbaijani people” or a “bloody executioner”.
The foreign minister of Latvia, Edgars Rinkevics, wrote on Twitter: “The end of the Cold War was great, but killing of people in Tbilisi, Vilnius, Riga is also part of his legacy.”
In all four countries – Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania and Latvia – Soviet forces opened fire in an effort to quell protests, killing scores of people before the effort to break free of Moscow succeeded.
In Tbilisi, Georgia, in April 1989, Soviet soldiers shot at protesters demanding independence, killing 22 people.
Troops killed 150 people under similar circumstances in Azerbaijan in 1990, an event referred to ever since as the Black January massacre.
In January 1991, 14 civilians died when the Soviet army stormed parliament and a television station in Vilnius, Lithuania. That same month, five people died when Soviet soldiers occupied the interior ministry in Riga, Latvia.
“Lithuanians will not glorify Gorbachev,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania, wrote on Twitter. “His soldiers fired on our unarmed protesters and crushed them under his tanks. That is how we will remember him.”
That sentiment was also expressed in Georgia, even though some defended him as having ultimately freed millions of people from the Soviet yoke. “You need to understand that a good person could never become a leader of the evil Soviet system,” Zurab Japaridze, a Georgian lawmaker and leader of the Girchi party, wrote on Facebook.
He accused Gorbachev of fomenting violence across the Soviet republics as the union dissolved. “Nothing broke up without blood,” he wrote.
The history is complicated, however. The Soviet Union was in its death throes at the time, and Gorbachev’s role in the deployment of Soviet soldiers has not been clear.
Even if he did order their deployment, questions remain about whether he endorsed the use of deadly force or whether other senior officials acted on their own volition.
Those four incidents stand in sharp contrast, for example, to his refusal to deploy the military in East Germany to prop up the Soviet satellite state there after protesters began to tear down the Berlin Wall, the physical manifestation of the Cold War.
“Compared to all other Soviet leaders, he was certainly opposed to the use of force and he didn’t even use it to protect his own power at the end,” said William Taubman, who wrote “Gorbachev: His Life and Times”, published in 2017. “In these cases it is possible that he was finally convinced to use it. But there are all of these uncertainties.”
Vytautas Landsbergis, the head of the Lithuanian parliament when the nation declared independence on March 11, 1990, wrote on Facebook that Gorbachev had been a prisoner of a system in which he “was never allowed neither to think by himself, nor to speak his mind freely”.
Landsbergis, the grandfather of the current foreign minister, acknowledged that Gorbachev started the political and economic reforms that the Baltic States used to regain independence.
“But,” he added, “he is not seen as a hero because he was the one who tried to stop it by force but simply didn’t succeed.” NYTIMES