Gorbachev told The New York Times in an interview published Wednesday that Putin and his ally President Dmitri Medvedev appear to believe democracy is an obstacle to governing Russia.
"I am afraid that they have been saddled with this idea that this unmanageable country needs authoritarianism," Gorbachev said.
He said he thinks Russia has a long way to go to create the values and institutions necessary for a properly functioning democracy.
"All this is done through a major transformation in people's brains," he said. "And this, clearly, is changing very slowly."
Gorbachev criticized Putin's 2004 decision as president to eliminate elections for regional governors and the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
"Democracy begins with elections," Gorbachev said.
The last head of the old USSR was also critical of Putin's United Russia party which he called "a bad copy of the Soviet Communist Party."