Former head of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev speaks during the presentation of his book "I Remain an Optimist" at a book store in Moscow on October 10, 2017. (Photo by Vasily MAXIMOV / AFP) (Photo by VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The demolition man

His legacy impresses and frustrates

The first time I interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev, in the eye of the revolution he launched in the late 1980s, he peppered his opening answer with the tell-tale headlines of his campaign of Perestroika, the re-structuring of the old Soviet Union. All of them hit home, just as he wished, to the Western audience I represented.

“Democracy is like pure air without which no socialist programme can survive,” he declared, fixing his eye on this interviewer with a laser-beam stare I always found somewhat unnerving. “We all need Perestroika, not just us,” he added, brushing that stained forehead with his hand. “Capitalism thinks it invented the market. No. Civilisation did.” He smiled at his own punchline.

That opening answer lasted 22 minutes, without pauses. When I returned to the ITN office in Moscow, I showed it to the woman who came in to cook our one good meal of the day in that time of dire shortages. She yawned: “I’m tired of Mikhail Sergeyevich, and his words.” Even back then, he was a prophet abroad, without honour at home.

As we remember Gorbachev, there is triumph and tragedy. He was the leader who dared to embark on the most important demolition job of the 20th century, dismantling the Communist party and the Soviet empire — yet without a plan for rebuilding and re-structuring, for all his commitment to that word we liked so much in the West, Perestroika.

His legacy is monumental

His legacy is monumental: the fall of the Berlin wall, because he was brave enough to tell that Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, from the Balkans to the Baltics, and its empire with such important players as Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, that they could go their own way. He embraced democracy, at home and abroad.

Consider his withdrawal from Afghanistan, which showed the wider world the dead end that awaited any empire pursuing domination via the barrel of a gun. Consider the treaty he signed with the Reagan/Bush administrations, eliminating a whole class of nuclear arms, and offering the West hope for a world without such weapons.

As a Moscow correspondent who travelled with him to the Vatican in December 1989, I would add his ground-breaking stance on religion. Gorbachev, who once told me that he believed in “No God,” was wise enough to go and see the Polish Pope — such a symbol of the conflict between the Church and the Soviets — then tell us: “religious freedom is essential, we must respect the spiritual needs of people.”

Yet it took a visit to his home region of Stavropol, farm country in the Caucasus, to understand a little more of where he came from, and what he thought the answer was, and perhaps to diagnose why he failed to convert his demolition agenda into the kind of reconstruction that could ensure his survival and the prosperity of his people.

Visiting his home village of Privolnoye, where we glimpsed his ageing mother Maria at home in her humble cottage still, you saw the semi-medieval, peasant society from which he emerged. You heard how, as party boss in the region, he had personally led farmers to re-tool and re-think what they planted, how they worked, and how they took product to consumer, increasing yields dramatically and permitting the kind of free market for goods that was not Soviet-style.

“The problem was that what we did in our home territory, the micro, met a wall of opposition when we took it to Moscow, and Leningrad, and Vladivostok, the Soviet macro,” I recall hearing from Eduard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, and a party boss in his native Georgia famous for once stripping his local Politburo of their Rolex watches at a meeting.

Gorbachev picked his battles without a strategist’s savvy

That was part of the story, yes. But equally, Gorbachev picked his battles without a strategist’s savvy. So, the Communist Party backlash hurt. At street level, you heard how Gorbachev’s attempts to curb alcohol use, for example, made him a loathed figure. In my Moscow days, a popular joke saw Vladimir in a long queue for a bottle of vodka under Gorbachev’s rationing, giving up, saying: “I’m going to go to the Kremlin and kill him.” An hour later he returns, shouting: “The line at the Kremlin to kill him is even longer!”

As for legacy, well — with Vladimir Putin at war in Ukraine, showing the very worst face of might without right, it’s very tough to see Gorbachev’s leadership as the harbinger of change the West so hoped for. Putin is certainly not a man we can do business with, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s famous rhetorical embrace of Gorbachev. It should be said Gorbachev compared Putin to Stalin long before the Ukraine invasion.

Still, history may look kindly on Mikhail Sergeyevich for his courage, for daring to identify the collapse of the Soviet Union from within, and for daring to make its dismantlement inevitable. That laser-beam eye saw what didn’t work yesterday. He could be understood, perhaps, given the enormity of his demolition job, for not knowing how to build tomorrow.

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