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Do Russians ever change? They tried once. Remember that Western-styled imposter named Mikhail Gorbachev? Remember the sweeping democratic reforms the great liberator brought? Today Vladimir Putin, a real Russian, helps us understand how great Mr. Gorbachev was – and what an aberration he was as well.

He had just come to power when I arrived in Moscow as correspondent for this newspaper in 1985. The old Soviet world was much in evidence then. Outside the Intourist hotel, which we called the Anti-tourist, the Communist stereotype in all its melancholy was apparent. Throngs in dark coats moved across hard-packed snow in a harmony of despair. On leaving three years later, the air of gloom and repression had begun to lift.

Imagine having a state-controlled media – and voluntarily dispensing with it, as Mr. Gorbachev did by freeing the press with his politics of glasnost, thus opening the floodgates to condemnation of the repressive system. And while you're at it, while ending totalitarian dictate at home, imagine reversing the arms race as he did, letting Eastern Europe go its own way and spearheading the drive to end the Cold War.

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Yet something needs to be remembered. While over here we viewed Mikhail Gorbachev as a liberator, in his homeland the people were not impressed. Not then, not since that time. He never became a hero to Russians. Vladimir Putin has been more popular.

The Russian people, you might say, are a mix of pride and shame. Much of their pride is derived from their giant land mass and an aura of power that the muscle-flexing Putin is always seeking to restore. Much of their shame is derived from a loss of empire. The democratic rights Mr. Gorbachev brought were nice but couldn't make up for the Soviet Union's dissolution.

In his younger days in Stavropol, Mikhail Gorbachev had the option of becoming a KGB man. Turned it down. Vladimir Putin, of course, did no such thing. He is a KGB man through and through. Under the thin smile, as his actions in Ukraine attest, is a cold-blooded authoritarian.

We needn't get carried away. The shooting down of the civilian airliner involved inexcusable miscalculation. But the miscalculation was hardly as grievous as the one made by the Bush White House on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Tens of thousands died in Mr. Bush's war, a war triggered by a bogus supposition. Do Mr. Putin's actions in Ukraine – it would be interesting to hear Foreign Minister John Baird on this – compare with the American-led conflagration in Iraq?

Depressingly, the democratic forces unleashed by Mr. Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin have not been enough to counter the Putin course. He hasn't turned back all the democratic advances, nor will he be able to. But he has enough support from the people to establish an old-style command system.

I never sensed a great hunger among Russians for Gorbachev-styled Westernization. It wasn't a revolution from below. It wasn't as if his hand was forced. He had the entire KGB apparatus at his disposal to keep, if he so wished, the dissidents at bay, rebellions from fomenting, a free press from taking root. He had a crippled economy but other Soviet leaders had endured with the same. He had withdrawn from Afghanistan but still had a powerful enough military at his disposal to quash unrest.

In bringing in glasnost, he turned to an old acquaintance, Vitaly Korotich, a poet from Ukraine. Mr. Gorbachev made him editor of the magazine, Ogonyok, and he turned it into a trailblazing reformist publication. A key figure in the democratic drive was the ambassador to Canada, Alexander Yakovlev, who met often with Pierre Trudeau. Before becoming general secretary, Mr. Gorbachev had toured Canada, learning about our system. He got to know Mr. Yakovlev well and later made him his right-hand man.

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Those were heady times, watching one man move the Soviet Union out of the darkness. Now we witness one man slowly rolling back the clock. Sadly, his people do not seem to mind.

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