When Rina Atroshenko’s family was leaving the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, she thought she would never see her country again.
But in the decades that followed, the Soviet Union went through turbulent years as its economy chaotically shifted to a free market, new reforms led to perestroika and the Iron Curtain finally went down.
Since then, Atroshenko, the owner of Traktir Restaurant in Tarzana has visited Russia and Ukraine multiple times without fear of being prosecuted. That was possible due to reforms by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who died this week at 91.
“He changed many lives,” she said.
His death prompted mixed reactions from world leaders and Russian-speaking immigrants in the San Fernando Valley, varying from criticism to robust praise, with some reflecting on his complex political legacy and policies that have transformed lives.
Not many leaders have left such a profound effect on their country as Gorbachev did. He didn’t just end the Cold War, he dissolved the Soviet Union, opened the economy, welcomed freedom of expression and religion, and opened the borders — allowing millions of people to immigrate to the West.
Nobel Prize-winning editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, praised Gorbachev for releasing political prisoners and stopping the nuclear arms race.
“He gave us thirty years of peace,” Muratov wrote in Russian. “There will be no more gifts like this.”
Novaya Gazeta shut down operations in March. Gorbachev had used the funds from his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize to buy computers and launch the Novaya Gazeta publication. Since 2000, seven of its reporters have been killed in connection with their journalism investigations.
For Gary Rapoport, a real estate agent from Burbank who was 19 when he immigrated to Los Angles in 1991, Gorbachev’s lifting of travel restrictions on Soviet citizens was life-changing.
“Thanks to him, I was able to immigrate to the United States,” he said in Russian. “For that, I’m grateful to him.”
Rapoport said Gorbachev was able to transform a broken political and economic system that had pulled the country down.
“When people ask me how it was to live in the Soviet Union, I tell them: ‘Socialism is when everyone is equally poor,’” he said. “Everyone dreamed about moving to the U.S.”
Valley restauranteur Atroshenko, who moved here from the city of Chernivtsi in southwestern Ukraine, said being able to go back under the new freedoms created by Gorbachev meant reconnecting with her roots.
“We were able to go back and see our country years later,” she said. “We never thought that we would be able to do that.”
Sofiya Fikhman, who now lives in West Hollywood, moved from the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1991, just before the Soviet disintegration. She saw Gorbachev differently, saying he symbolized the collapse of the empire.
“He wasn’t a strong leader,” she said in Russian. “If he was a strong leader, he wouldn’t lose the power the way he did. Just overnight he stopped being the Soviet leader.”
She argued that no one from the former Soviet republics benefitted from the collapse of the Soviet system.
“Look at how many people immigrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” she said. “They all were looking for a better life.”
Reforming the massive, corrupted, repressive Soviet system turned out to be harder than expected, said Robert English, director of the USC School of International Relations.
“Many people’s lives have been negatively impacted,” English said. “His legacy is mixed because he didn’t succeed in the end in reforming the Soviet Union, making it prosperous and keeping it united. But he did give people freedoms to choose their own fate.”
There’s an irony attached to those who now live the good life in the West and criticize Gorbachev, he argued.
“He removed the KGB border police and gave people visas and passports,” English said. “People who enjoy those liberties now blame him for wrecking the country. Well, maybe they should have stayed and helped fix the country.”
This week, Associated Press journalists from around the world shared their stories of meeting Gorbachev in the three decades that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin described the collapse of the Soviet empire as “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” While rolling back political freedoms created by Gorbachev, Putin called Gorbachev a “statesman who made an enormous impact on the trajectory of world history.”
Imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny said in a tweet this week that he learned about Gorbachev’s death over loudspeakers in his prison, adding that “it was under his rule that the last political prisoners were released in the USSR.”
Путин в траурном зале ЦКБ pic.twitter.com/lcZGpsl0qZ
— Кремлевский пул РИА (@Kremlinpool_RIA) September 1, 2022
As English at USC explained, many immigrants who came to Los Angeles in the 1980s or ’90s benefited from Gorbachev’s reforms and opened borders and “for that, many people will be eternally grateful — including the people in Los Angeles.”
He noted that the reason Gorbachev’s legacy is complicated is because “the politics and the problems of his era were extraordinarily complex.”
It’s inevitable, English said, that “with so many different dimensions, so many contrary currents — foreign, domestic, national, economic, that the results would be confused — some good, some bad, some indifferent.” And out of that, he said, “some people would remember a more positive side and others would remember something more negative. It’s just a complexity of perestroika and his era.”
In his tribute to Gorbachev, Muratov of Novaya Gazeta wrote that Gorbachev will always be remembered for the love of his late wife Raisa Gorbacheva, and choosing human rights above the state, and valuing a peaceful sky more than personal power.
“There is no longer a man named Gorby standing between the world and a nuclear explosion,” Muratov wrote. “Who will replace him? Who?”