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Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev checks the time on his watch before his resignation speech in the Kremlin on Dec. 25, 1991, drawing a line under more than 74 years of Soviet history.Liu Heung Shing/The Associated Press

Seeing dictator Vladimir Putin ratchet up tensions again with the West stirs memories of the three years I spent in Moscow covering the Kremlin leader who did the opposite.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, one of the 20th century’s true political giants, is 90 years old now. How dispiriting the past three decades since he lost power must have been. He has watched as a crafty ex-KGB thug has benefited from undoing or reversing much of his liberating work.

Mr. Gorbachev was pivotal in ending the Cold War. Mr. Putin has started one up again. It’s on a smaller scale, but it will become much more menacing should he invade Ukraine.

Mr. Gorbachev was a peacemaker, withdrawing armies from Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. Mr. Putin has sent them back in – to Crimea and republics in South Asia.

Mr. Gorbachev ended totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, lifting the weight of repression from the shoulders of the people. Mr. Putin has restored oppressive rule.

And yet among Russians, Mr. Putin is the far more popular figure of the two. A majority think Mr. Gorbachev did more harm than good. He trails even the bloody tyrant Joseph Stalin in approval ratings. A poll last year from Russia’s Levada Center showed 56 per cent of Russians think Mr. Stalin was a “great leader.”

Mr. Gorbachev once made a telling remark in respect to what Russians expect from a leader. “A czar must conduct himself like a czar,” he said. “And that I don’t know how to do.”

Putin’s adventures ignore a historical truth: empire comes at a cost

On the mentality of the Russian people, he made another striking observation. He told William Taubman, author of Gorbachev: His Life and Times, that the transition to democracy in his country will take ages, maybe “even the whole 21st century.”

There’s a message here for American and NATO leaders. Russia is yet another example of their folly in thinking democracy can be imposed on cultures steeped for centuries in contrary traditions. Though many Russians may hunger for democratic ideals, most are comfortable with czars and Peter the Greats.

Mr. Putin understands this. He understands that Russians regret the dismemberment of their empire that came with the freedoms Mr. Gorbachev unleashed. Territorial aggrandizement as per an invasion of Ukraine will please many in that regard.

Size of empire, however, isn’t the opiate of the masses in the same way that vodka is. While in the Soviet Union, I heard more anger over a strict anti-alcohol campaign Mr. Gorbachev imposed than anything else. To wit, a little fable that made the rounds was of a comrade so fed up with waiting in line for a bottle that he headed off to the Kremlin pledging to kill the general secretary. On his return, he was asked: “Well, did you kill Gorbachev?” “No,” he said, “the lineup for that was even longer.”

Mr. Putin lets the masses imbibe, as did Boris Yeltsin, who drank enough himself to keep the distilleries humming.

With Mr. Putin, Mr. Gorbachev’s relations have been awkward and distant. He initially trusted him and thought he was committed to continuing democratic reform. When Mr. Putin showed he wasn’t – when he cracked down on media, silenced critics, manipulated the voting system – Gorby came out in opposition, particularly during the 2012 elections. He said Mr. Putin was out to “completely subordinate society.”

But on the seizure of the Crimea and on questions of standing up to the United States, in particular on the expansion of NATO eastward, Mr. Gorbachev has been strongly supportive. He claims the U.S. betrayed Russia, and that former secretary of state James Baker had promised him NATO would not expand one inch to the east.

Given the Kremlin’s blatant interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the incarceration of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and the hacking attacks, more opposition to the current ruler might have been expected from the man who took the evil out of the empire.

But the way things have gone since Mr. Gorbachev left office makes what he did in office look all the more remarkable. There was no inkling at the time that a liberator such as him could suddenly appear.

We can only wonder what may have happened if instead another Stalinist had come to power in 1985 – how long the real Cold War would have extended, how long Eastern Europe would have been frozen in communism, how long the alarming stockpiling of nuclear weapons would have continued.

What Mikhail Gorbachev did, the courage it took, was staggering. The tragedy of it, as the Russian trajectory has since demonstrated, is that he was a misfit.

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