In Vietnam, Gorbachev remains a divisive figure

Communists viewed the Soviet Union’s last leader as a traitor. But many credit him for Vietnam’s own reforms.
By RFA Vietnamese
2022.09.01
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In Vietnam, Gorbachev remains a divisive figure Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev defends his policy of perestroika, or restructuring, while speaking to reporters following a conference which marked a decade since the institution of the reforms in Moscow, April 7, 1995.
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Though staunch communists in Vietnam reflected on Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing on Tuesday by calling him a traitor for causing the USSR’s 1991 collapse, others in the country credited reforms he implemented as the Soviet Union’s last leader with starting Vietnam on its own path to modernization.

Gorbachev, who passed away on Tuesday at age 91, is most remembered for his policies of glasnost, or more transparency in government, and perestroika, the political and economic restructuring meant to kick start the stagnant Soviet economy of the 1980s that eventually led to the end of the Cold War.

Those policies had a ripple effect well beyond Soviet borders, eventually affecting the entire communist world, including Vietnam, sources said.

“In my opinion, what Gorbachev did was to establish peace for the world,” Dinh Kim Phuc, a former history lecturer from Ho Chi Minh City Open University, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.

“He was one of the historic figures of the 20th century who turned into a new chapter in world history. After 1991, international relations came into a new age — the time of one superpower, multi-powered and multi-centered world orders,” he said.

Dinh Kim Phuc also said that the Soviet Union’s collapse made all other communist countries nervous and forced them to reform.

Gorbachev, during his 1985-1991 tenure, eliminated socialist and Stalinist economic models that eventually transformed Eastern Europe, Le Cong Dinh, a lawyer, told RFA.

“He gave Eastern European and Baltic countries the freedom to choose their own political system, which helped Germans to reunify their country. He withdrew Russian troops from Afghanistan, ended the Cold War and stopped the nuclear weapons race, ending many decades of hostility with the West,” Dinh said.

But communists in Vietnam at the time saw Gorbachev as someone who “betrayed communist ideology, caused the collapse of socialism, and may have even been an agent of the U.S.

“These days, however, such blind and historically unknowledgeable criticism has dwindled and humanity has come to realize it is truly indebted to him for hammering the first nail into the coffin of communism in Europe,” Dinh said.

The collapse of the USSR was not Gorbachev’s fault, but rather that of the cancer that had festered in the country’s “inhumane and unnatural” political regime for many years, Vo Thi Hao, a writer, told RFA. But she said Gorbachev undeniably deserves the credit for causing the fall of socialism. 

The bad reputation among Vietnamese communists needs to change, Nguyen Quang Vinh, a former officer in Vietnam’s military, told RFA.

“Many Vietnamese see him as a traitor who dissolved the Soviet Union. However, many reforms and achievements that Vietnam has made so far can be partly attributed to his work. I think Vietnamese people should have a more open minded and fair view on him,” Vinh said.

Party lines

The Vietnamese Communist Party “hated Gorbachev” by the end of his tenure, a former party member who requested anonymity for security reasons told RFA.

“In Vietnam, there were some people with a conscience wishing to follow Gorbachev to bring in democracy and liberal spirit. Unfortunately, this force was too weak and was cracked down on by the Vietnamese Communist Party,” he said. 

“Moreover, China, the Vietnamese Communist Party’s teacher and boss, has provided it with hundreds of measures to harm and persecute democratic forces,” the former party member told RFA.

ENG_VTN_GorbachevReaction_09012022.2.jpg
Communist Party heads of the COMECON countries pose before their meeting, November 10, 1986, in Moscow. From left: Janos Kadar of Hungary, Nikolae Ceaucescu of Romania, Erich Honecker of East Germany, Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, Truong Chinh of Vietnam, Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria, Gustav Husak of Czechoslovakia and J. Batmunh of Mongolia. Credit: TASS/AFP

Opinions on Gorbachev also differ based on where people live, Tuan Khanh, a musician from Ho Chi Minh City, told RFA.

“People from the South like him very much, but many people in the North hate him,” Khanh said. Communist North Vietnam defeated the anti-communist South and unified the country at the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975.

“In the North, there were people who dreamed of a stable, subsidized life under socialism and communist world dominance. But their dreams were broken, and they could not accept the reality,” he said.

Southerners view Gorbachev as a reformer and revolutionary.

Even during Gorbachev’s tenure, the Vietnamese Communist Party viewed Gorbachev as a traitor, because he had asked Vietnam to reform, Tho Nguyen, a Vietnam observer from Germany, told RFA.

“Their viewpoint is that he was a traitor, but even back then there were more modern-minded party members who hoped that his reforms would drive Vietnam along a similar path,” he said.

“His policies forced Vietnam to reform because he took away aid,” said Nguyen. “At that time, the party got angry because he eliminated socialism in the Soviet Union, and took away their support. But, thanks to this, Vietnam had no choice but to take more risks with its own reforms.”

Blurred headlines

News of Gorbachev’s death published in state-owned media included sharp criticism of the former leader, although the accounts were later replaced with more neutral reports.

The Industry and Trade newspaper published a report initially entitled “Mikhail Gorbachev, traitor who caused the Soviet Union to collapse, passes away.” The headline was later changed to “Former Leader of Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev passes away.”

The People’s Army Newspaper translated a report by Russian newspaper Pronedra entitled, “The Soviet Union’s collapse and Mikhail Gorbachev’s role in disintegrating an extensive country.” 

The report describes Gorbachev as the driving force in ending the Soviet Union, claiming he started a five-year plan to dismantle the superpower from 1985. Within days, the report was removed and is now no longer available on the newspaper’s website.

VietnamNet said in a report that Gorbachev was seen as a divisive figure and "his supporters say that he played an important role in ending the Cold War while his opponents accuse him of causing the Soviet Union’s collapse and undermining Moscow's global prestige and influence."

Nguyen said that the change to a more neutral tone shows a split between the communist party and the government in general.

“From the Party’s standpoint they are angry with Gorbachev as he caused the collapse of communism. However, the Vietnamese government wanted to be balanced to a certain extent. They did not criticize Gorbachev as much as the Party did within itself,” Nguyen said.

“Gorbachev” was the third most-heavily Google search term in Vietnam on the day of his death.

Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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