Stavropol, South Russia: In Search of Gorbachev’s Roots

The origins of a soviet leader revered as a visionary reformer in the west, but reviled as a weak American puppet in his native land

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

People of my generation — Westerners at least — who grew up at the tail-end of the Cold War can still get a bit starry-eyed about Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the former Soviet premier who celebrated his ninetieth birthday in March this year. Leader from 1985 to 1991, he seemed to end the Cold War overnight, showed us “communism with a human face” and appeared at pains to sign away the nuclear weapons we had spent our childhoods cowering from.

A leader popular enough to get a nickname, to us he was “Gorby”, the man in the black trilby, the approachable Soviet premier that Margaret Thatcher could “do business with”. He was the communist who made Reagan revise his estimates of the USSR as “an Evil Empire” and consign the phrase to “another time, another era.”

Yet in Russia itself, away from metropolitan liberal circles, pro-Gorby declarations are usually met with pity or contempt. In his own country, he is remembered as the windbag with port wine stains — “Misha the Marked” — the apparatchik who harangued them with interminable speeches in a Wurzel-like Southern burr and let them down where it really mattered. He left the economy in ruins, the shops empty, the queues for household goods a daily torment.

With his perestroika (a radical restructuring of Soviet life) and glasnost (openness) he managed to break up an empire, shaking the USSR so hard it came to pieces in his hands. “A traitor”, you hear, “a weak, soft leader”, “naïve”, a “bad politician” and — the worst crime of all — “He was working for the Americans”.

Objections that he worked not for but with the Americans and had to do so to save the Soviet economy, are usually dismissed. For many, Gorbachev did the unforgivable. “What can one make,” muttered one Russian acquaintance, “of a man who inherits a family of nations and then just gives it all away?”

Yet as with so many of my generation, Gorby-loyalty is in my DNA. Those of us who have spent our adult lives travelling or living in Eastern Europe largely owe them to Gorbachev and his reforms, his demolishing of the Iron Curtain. At any rate, when I was offered the chance to visit his birthplace in South Russia earlier this year, I grabbed it at once. There were few world-figures whose origins interested me more.

Cupolas and idealism

Gorbachev’s birthplace, Privolnoe, can be found about 90 miles north of Stavropol, the Southern city he was later to make, as Regional General Secretary, almost literally his own. It’s a village of about 3,000 people surrounded by, as he put it, “steppe, steppe and more steppe”, endless flat green prairie.

Alongside the motorway heading to it are numerous roadside cemeteries and thickets of trees all painted, in the Russian way, fetlock-high in whitewash, a precaution against insects and heat. The sun beats down from a vast sky and the floating clouds are a procession of wonderful shapes. Some look like work-brigades, some faintly like sputniks, others like combine harvesters. Here the weather can change instantly: Brits will feel at home. Privolnoe today is a well-manicured collection of one-storey brick or wooden houses complete with iris-blue shutters. It is surrounded by playing fields for the village’s kids, and springy-looking meadows with wildflowers.

Unlike many Russian villages it has an infrastructure — for which read a bar and a decent supermarket — and everywhere there are stabs at a kind of (naïve) idealism. By the side of the road an enormous figure of a goose sits by a fairy-tale well, with the slogan “Protect Beauty” next to it. There’s a children’s playground called “The Ant Hill” with a mocked-up dragon and robots, and an Eternal Flame at the end of an avenue.

Nearby is one of the city’s war memorials. As different from ours as can be imagined, it shows the faces, absurdly young, of four of the city’s fallen, with “They Could Have Lived” accusing you beside them. Right behind are the cupolas of the village’s Orthodox Church — funded, it seems, heavily by Gorbachev — and the village’s “House of Culture” for knees-ups and fun. Though populated, like most Russian villages, either by children or the elderly (those of working age have left for the city) it’s a place whose pride in itself is clear.

Childhood of terrors

It was Gorbachev’s house I wanted to find, and the first person I asked pointed me to it. It can be found by turning left down a side-road, then left again by the school — a dull grey building with happy transfers of aeroplanes and tanks stuck to the window, at which Gorbachev himself studied way back when. There’s little fanfare surrounding the Gorbachev home: simply a grey brick building behind fences with a metal roof and those trademark blue shutters which seem to define the village. It looks closed-up and unvisited, except by foreign film crews and Gorb-anoraks such as myself.

When I tell a cashier at the local shop why I’m there, her lip curls: “Oh, so you respect him in England, do you?” In a BBC news extract from 2016, villagers were more balanced. “Of course, Mikhail did a lot for our village, a lot,” one local says, “but as for the USSR, we’re upset about that.” Another echoes him, “Germany’s united now, but our country fell apart. That’s a mistake by our leaders. They could have saved it.”

Privolnoe has endured worse. The village, founded in 1861, has been through as much as any southern Russian village, but 1931, when Gorbachev was born, was one of the low points. Stavropol Krai, Privolnoe’s region, is heavily agricultural, packed with sunflowers and wheat. This made it vulnerable to Stalin’s collectivisation campaign, as he wrenched private land away from reluctant local farmers, to herd them into kolkhozes — collective farms — or send the richer of them to the Gulag.

For those who didn’t comply, a worse fate awaited, and this spelt terror for places like Privolnoe. A terrible famine was inflicted on the South — most notoriously in the Ukraine but here and in Kazakhstan as well — as an already chaotically disrupted workforce saw the grain quotas demanded of them soar, starving the locals to death.

Family memories

It became a capital crime to steal even an ear of corn, and between 1932 and 1933, two of Gorbachev’s uncles and one of his aunts were to die of starvation. Gorbachev’s earliest childhood memory was of his grandfather boiling up frogs in a desperate attempt to feed his family. He remembered, he said, their white stomachs floating in the bubbling water, though couldn’t remember if he’d choked one down or not.

Such memories are far from uncommon in this region: many families went through the same. Nor was it unique that both Gorbachev’s grandfathers — farmers the pair of them — should be imprisoned under Stalin. One of them, the communist Pantelei, whose zeal didn’t save him from arrest quotas in 1937, was tortured so badly he returned, Gorbachev said, a permanently altered man. The other, Andrei — a pronounced anti-Red — worked so hard in the Gulag he came back from Siberia with four medals for it, thereafter swallowing his politics and getting on with the job.

The terror of Gorbachev’s early childhood gave way to others as the Germans roared into his village in 1941

As his biographer, William Taubman, pointed out, Gorbachev’s life as a child was already ideologically riven. Andrei’s house was stuffed with religious icons, Pantelei’s with portraits of Stalin and Lenin. The grandfather who believed in Christianity was hard as nails, while Pantelei, the Party Man, was warm and kind, and despite his rural background seemed almost an intellectual. Gorbachev seemed to live out these contradictions all his life.

The terror of Gorbachev’s early childhood gave way to others as the Germans roared into his village in 1941. Their four-month occupation left the place in tatters, the community divided, the women reduced to dragging ploughs themselves in a desperate attempt at a harvest. For a period, Gorbachev lived on a single cup of uncooked grain a day.

Later, as men up to the age of 50 were conscripted and the working age dropped to 12, he began to slog regularly as an employee of the Machine Tractor-Station. In 1949, just turned 18, he received “The Order of the Red Banner of Labour”. Along with his candidate membership of the Party, it ushered him into Moscow University, to study law. It was goodbye to the village.

Unstoppable rise

It is difficult to think of greater contrasts to Privolnoe than Moscow, but Gorbachev never worked as the lawyer he trained to become there. When he emerged with a degree five years later, it was to a different world.

Gorbachev had in 1953 married his Raisa, a philosophy student, but something even more momentous happened that same year. A few months earlier, Stalin had died and the country was changing fast. In Stavropol region — Gorbachev went back there to start his working life — there was a shattering backlog of cases, as prisoners flung into Gulags for poor harvests in the thirties now had their charges re-evaluated and their sentences overturned.

To a newly-wed, one can see why the backbreaking tonnage of legal paperwork might not have appealed. Instead, Komsomol, the Soviet youth organisation (a kind of boy-scouts/girl-guides with political teeth) had vacancies, many of their senior members leaping to fill posts at the newly-created KGB. Within a few years, Gorby had been made Komsomol First Secretary for the region. His unstoppable rise had begun.

By now, he and Raisa were living in Stavropol. A fort-town in the North Caucasus, it was established in 1777 and is now Russia’s “greenist city”. Today Stavropol is stuffed with shopping centres, wine bars, street cafes and a population of 400,000. Back when Gorbachev arrived, it barely scraped a quarter of that, the town almost a big village.

Raisa Gorbacheva, she of the natty dress-sense and catty relationship with US First Lady Nancy Reagan, spoke about the “sea of mud” she had to cross to get to the Teachers’ Institute, the lack of central heating and running water (she and Gorbachev had to fetch theirs from a public fountain).

Not that life started very beautifully for the Gorbachevs in Stavropol. They lived in a single room with (in Raisa’s words) “a bed, a table, two chairs and two huge boxes full of books”. Raisa cooked each night on a paraffin burner in the communal corridor. The house, 49 Kazansky Street, a solid-looking affair, can still be found quite easily, up a slope and a sandy road, though there’s no plaque at all to its previous occupants (in fact Stavropol region, in terms of memorials, seems to have washed its hands of the Gorbachevs altogether).

As Gorbachev worked his way up through Komsomol and then the Party, their circumstances improved, with better properties on Morozov and Dzherzhinski streets. These names (still in place) are bitterly ironic — one referring to a young snitch (Pavel Morozov) who shopped his parents for unorthodoxy, the other to Felix Dzerzhinski, creator of the Soviet secret police. A Russia, in other words, Gorbachev did so much to try and free his people from.

Perestroika, he always said, had started for him in Stavropol. Made General Secretary for the entire region in 1970 — the Stavropol party boss — he brought in numerous reforms to agricultural work, introducing incentives and restructuring the farming system. Colleagues from the time have mixed memories. Some of them speak of his geniality, his openness and energy, the fact he drank so little. Yet historian William Taubman reports others describing him as “vain and easily offended”, “two-faced” in his habit of saying “different things to different people”, and “with a craving for power that led him to fawn on those who would give it to him.”

Such things though were endemic to the USSR and arguably came with the job, and the Gorbachev we know in the West was summed up by another colleague: “He was a great guy: inspiring, loved to joke and laugh, didn’t get drunk, a good, progressive thinker.”

Powerful allies

Only one criticism was to dog him throughout his career: his failure to thank the people who helped him. Later, in the Kremlin, it bled loyalty away from those who might have been his rescuers.

But nothing helped Gorbachev more in his ambitions than Stavropol itself. At the bicentenary of the city in 1977 (part of his luck), a key visitor from Moscow was Mikhail Suslov — Chief Ideologue of the Party and creepy grey eminence of the Brezhnev years. Gorbachev, ever the genial host, schmoozed him and made an ally. He was boosted too by Stavropol’s geography, and those sanatoria in the Caucasian mountains. Not only Suslov but prime minister Kosygin and KGB head Yuri Andropov had diabetes and kidney problems. When they visited the South for treatment, Gorbachev was on hand to wine and dine them, gaining three patrons in the process.

In November 1978, after some stunning agricultural successes, he received the call to join the Central Committee in Moscow. He and Raisa packed their bags and left Stavropol forever — back to Moscow and the centre of power. Just seven years and three dead General Secretaries later, Gorbachev, aged 54, would be leading the whole empire.

His father Sergei, who from Privolnoe witnessed so many of his son’s successes, wasn’t alive to see these ones, having died in 1976 (his grave is easily locatable in Privolnoe’s tranquil cemetery). But his words from an earlier letter give some sense of what Gorbachev’s family might have felt:

“We congratulate you on your new job. There is no limit to your mother’s and father’s joy and pride. We wish you good health and great strength for your work for your country’s well-being.”

Heartening words, from a father to a son. But whether you nod respectfully at that final phrase or scream with laughter will very much depend, it seems, on a single thing: which side of the Iron Curtain you grew up on. Perhaps the last word, though, should go to Gorbachev himself. Asked by film-maker Werner Herzog in 2019 what his epitaph should be, he had a ready answer: “Mi staralis … We tried.”

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