Framing Gorbachev: How World Leaders Reacted to the Death of Mikhail Gorbachev

On Wednesday, August 31st, it was announced that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev died aged 91. As is the case with any major event, different news outlets narrated Gorbachev’s differently. Newspapers, websites and bloggers all adopted different narratives, or frames when depicting Gorbachev .

For instance, the BBC headline read “Mikhail Gorbachev: Last Soviet leader dies aged 91”. The BBC thus associated Gorbachev with the decline and fall of the Soviet Union. Conversely, Reuters headline read “Last Soviet leader Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War and won the Nobel prize, dies aged 91”. Unlike the BBC, Reuters credited Gorbachev with ending the Cold War and even ushering in an era of peace for which he received a nobel prize. The New York Times offered a different frame proclaiming “Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Reformist Soviet Leader, Is Dead at 91”. In this headline, there is an emphasis on Gorbachev’s actual leadership of the Soviet Union through reforms, as opposed to an emphasis on the end result of these reforms- the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

 Finally, a UK newspaper ran an altogether different headline “World mourns a true man of peace”. In this frame, Gorbachev’s death actually brings the world closer together as all mourn the loss of an important figure.

When reacting to Gorbachev’s death on Twitter, different world leaders also offered different frames. The UN’s chief Antonio Guterres tweeted:

According to this frame, Gorbachev changed the course of history and was an exemplary leader due to his commitment to multilateralism. This is not a surprising frame as the UN chief essentially tied a current event, the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, with his own institution’s goals- preserving and bolstering the multilateral system.

A similar approach was taken by EU President Ursula von der Lyden who framed Gorbachev as the man who set Europe free. This freedom not only ended the division in Europe but also paved the way to Lyden’s institution, the European Union.

The UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, lined the death of Gorbachev with present day Russian policies. In his tweet, the Prime Minister contrasts Gorbachev’s courage and devotion to peace with Russian President Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. As such, the Prime Minister used a current event to reiterate his nation’s foreign policy and comment on an ongoing crisis.

Former Swedish Prime Minister and Twitter aficionado Carl Bildt dwelled on the positive and the negative aspects of  Gorbachev’s tenure. According to Bildt, the same leader who accepted the collapse of the Soviet Union also sent tanks to stop the independence of the Baltic states. Bildt’s choice of image speaks louder than his words as it depicts a man courageously facing down a Soviet tank. This frame thus tend to associate Gorbachev with the legacy of oppression in the Baltic region, a region now fearful of Russian military interventions.

The President of Latvia went even further than Bildt stating that despite Gorbachev’s will Baltic states gained independence. There was no mention here of peace, the end of the Cold War or a reference to Gorbachev’s nobel prize. Yet this frame does resonate with a national historical narrative which views the Soviet era as one of oppression and violence.

What is similar in all these frames, is that they are representative of what I term as “Media Jacking”. By Media Jacking I refer to social media users’ attempts to leverage a trending news event to attract attention to their cause, institution or policy priorities. For instance, activists may leverage a trending news story to bring attention to a certain cause be it climate change or equality in education. Leaders’ may leverage a trending news event to justify their policies, or narrate an ongoing event. High level policy makers can use a trending news event to draw renewed attention to their institution or to highlight their institution’s raison d’etre.

Both the UN Chief and Ursula von der Lyden Media-Jacked Gorbachev’s death and associated this event with their institutions. Boris Johnson Media Jacked Gorbachev to justify the UK’s hard-lined policies vis-a-vis Russia while Bildt and Latvia’s President Media-Jacked Gorbachev’s death to emphasize national historical narratives and to manage how the past is viewed in the present. Given that each leader had a different goal, they each used a different frame to narrate the same event.

The study of Gorbachev’s death is important for three reasons. First, it demonstrates that even in the digital age there are ‘media events’ or events that capture global attention. Second, it demonstrates that Media Jacking is not solely the domain of activists but can also be done by world leaders and international policy makers. Finally, the Gorbachev case study is illustrative of how the past is always present in the digital age. The legacy of the Soviet Union, of Gorbachev’s leadership and his reforms are used to make sense of present day occurrences, be it the need for a renewed commitment to multilateralism or Russia’s threats towards the Baltic states.  

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