‘Mikhail Gorbachev was Hard to Understand’

Mikhail-Gorbachew

Mikhail Gorbachev was a decent man — too respectable to be the leader of his country, a fact that is more obvious than ever today.

He tried to reform the USSR and eventually democratize it but was overwhelmed by the people and forces he freed. More than any other world leader, he helped end the Cold War; but he lived to see it replaced by a new one. He went to great lengths to avoid using force and violence at home and abroad; his once-removed successor, Vladimir Putin, has relied on repression and violent aggression. Gorbachev was, as the Russian thinker Dmitri Furman wrote, “the only politician in Russian history who, having full power in his hands, voluntarily opted to limit it and even risk losing it, in the name of principled moral values.” For that, he has been fiercely mocked by critics, primarily Russian, as naïve and hapless. Yet he goes down in history as an icon in much of the West.

Gorbachev was extraordinarily optimistic and self-assured, perhaps to a fault. How else can we explain his confidence that he could bring freedom to a country that had never known democracy? Even though he grew up under a totalitarian regime that turned citizens against each other, Gorbachev trusted too much in the Soviet people’s capacity to govern themselves. He also overestimated his ability to control the Communist hard-liners who mounted an abortive coup against him and Boris Yeltsin, who ultimately forced him out of power. Unlike many politicians, especially Soviet Russian politicians, he was devoted to his wife and family but lived his last years without them. His wife, Raisa died in 1999; his daughter and two granddaughters chose to live in Germany.

In 1988, my family and I spent five months in Moscow on an academic exchange program. I witnessed Gorbachev’s attempts to make his country and the world a better and more decent place through his plan of perestroika and glasnost. But I started to get to know the man when I met him in 2005, more than a decade after he was forced to resign as the USSR’s first and last president. After that, during many meetings over 14 years, I encountered first-hand some qualities that made him both so admirable and so vulnerable.

When I set out to write Gorbachev’s biography, I assumed I’d have to overcome his ingrained suspicion of a Western writer. But by then, he had become one of the most unpopular men in Russia, where he received less than 1 percent of the vote as a presidential candidate in 1996, so I hoped I might strike him as preferable to a post-Soviet hack. I approached him through his long-time close aide Anatoly Chernyaev, whom I’d come to know at a couple of history conferences, and the late American Russia specialist Stephen F. Cohen, a personal friend of the Gorbachev family. But rather than ask Gorbachev’s permission to undertake his biography (for fear he would say no), I told him I was doing it and requested his cooperation. Hoping to impress him, I sent him a copy of the English version of my biography of Nikita Khrushchev, followed by the Russian translation. But I couldn’t tell whether it had the desired effect because, as Chernyaev warned me, Gorbachev was chary with praise for others, even close aides who worshiped him. “Solid book,” Gorbachev grunted when I saw him next.

He did agree to cooperate, however, and a year later, he approached me and my wife Jane (a Russian language, literature, and film teacher at Amherst) at a Moscow concert held in his honor. Kissing her three times on alternative cheeks with a twinkle in his eye, he pronounced in Old Church Slavonic, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Jane wasn’t quite sure whether the former leader of Godless Communist Russia was teasing her or not.

“How’s the book going?” Gorbachev asked me. “Slowly,” I apologized. “That’s alright,” he chirped, “Gorbachev is hard to understand.” He had a wry sense of humor, but his habit of referring to himself in the third person revealed a robust ego that may have undermined him. At Gorbachev’s 75th birthday party, held at a private banquet hall on the outskirts of Moscow in March 2006 — in contrast to Yeltsin’s celebration the same year in Putin’s Kremlin — Gorbachev paused amid a series of fulsome in-person and taped tributes from world leaders to announce proudly that the American author of Khrushchev’s biography was now at work on Gorbachev himself.

A veteran Western ambassador who represented his country in Moscow under Gorbachev later told me, “Gorbachev is not hard to understand.” Perhaps not to him, but I spent more than a decade trying to do so — mainly to figure out what made him think he could democratize a country that had never known democracy.

During the spring of 2007, Jane and I spent several months in Russia. After requesting a series of formal interviews with Gorbachev, we were granted “at least one.” With the prospect of further conversations depending on how the first one went, I deployed two tactics. One was to preface every question I asked with reference to something he had previously said or written — to show I’d done my homework and to discourage him from simply repeating himself. Second, I began by asking about his grandparents, on the theory that by the end of a couple of hours, my garrulous interviewee would have barely finished recounting his childhood and would welcome more conversations so he could talk about his accomplishments during his years in power.

These tactics worked. Jane and I had seven more long interviews. We expected Gorbachev to demand that we submit our questions in writing before the interviews, but he never did. We expected him to have his interpreter present (though Jane and I are fluent in Russian), but he didn’t. He was candid throughout our conversations. I was shocked when he volunteered the story about how his mother often whipped him with a belt until, at age 13, he grabbed it, tore it from her, and said, “That’s it! No more!” She burst into tears because, he added, “I was the last thing she could control, and now that was gone.”

During a later interview, I was surprised when Gorbachev said he didn’t tell his wife he was about to become Soviet leader until the night before he was anointed. Was that because she would fear he wouldn’t get the nod, I asked, or that he would? The latter, he admitted. “Do we need this?” she asked him that night — an early sign that the strain on her, as Gorbachev’s great project floundered, would be even greater than on him. He seemed to enjoy that Jane and I worked together; still in love with Raisa, he always respected women, unlike most of Russia’s leaders, particularly the current one.

Gorbachev was warm, natural, and informal during our interview sessions — and funny, as well. When we mentioned that our daughter and son-in-law were coming to Moscow to visit us, he grinned and asked, like a true politician, “Would they like to have their picture taken with me?” When our daughter Phoebe asked to take a solo picture, he posed with a copy of his memoirs and read out a passage describing his grandfather’s garden: an apple tree, a pear tree, and a tree whose Russian name I didn’t understand. I turned to Jane for rescue, but she didn’t know the fruit either. Then Gorbachev, his eyes twinkling again, pointed an accusing finger at Jane and said with a big grin, “And you call yourself a Russian teacher?” We later figured out it was a cherry plum.

The rest of our interviews lasted about two hours each in 2007 and later years up to 2016. We weren’t always sure when they would occur. Often his office would summon us suddenly, and we would rush across Moscow to his office, where he would greet us with warm, strong hugs. In the beginning, the Gorbachev Foundation occupied most of its office building on Leningradsky Prospekt, with one floor rented out to a bank to bolster the foundation’s budget. By 2016, with that budget reduced because the visibly aging Gorbachev could no longer continue his lucrative overseas lectures, the space devoted to the foundation was also shrinking drastically. Still, Gorbachev facilitated our meetings with current and former aides in Moscow and Stavropol, the southern city where he climbed the ladder of the party apparatus, and our visit to Privolnoye, the village where he was born. We also found other ways to meet his former rivals and adversaries.

By the time my book, Gorbachev, was published in 2017 (Russian translation 2018), he had grown ill and frail. Although my approach is generally admiring, it is sufficiently critical that I worried it would wound him in his debilitated state. So Jane and I were surprised when we were invited to a small luncheon at his foundation in our honor. The foundation’s executive director told us he was determined to come, although he had been in the Kremlin hospital and was deeply embarrassed to be seen in a wheelchair. He entered the room unsteadily and greeted us again with powerful hugs. Among the few other guests were a filmmaker, Vitaly Mansky, and a playwright, Aleksandr Gelman, who was making a documentary film about Gorbachev, eventually called “Gorbachev. Heaven.” The film shows him living in a comfortable dacha. With a chef, waitresses, and chauffeurs/bodyguards, Gorbachev’s home at first looks indeed like “heaven.” But in fact, he lived alone without his family, and the film shows him agonizing about his career, proud of what he had done, but debating with himself about the outcome of it all — underlined by the recurrent image on the television screen behind him of Vladimir Putin delivering a speech.

While we were at the luncheon at the Gorbachev Foundation, its executive director whispered to me that Gorbachev liked my book. I half-felt embarrassed to be praised by its subject — as if in return for his help, I had sacrificed my objectivity to please him — but pleased because the man I had struggled to understand thought I had succeeded.

In 2019, early on the morning of my birthday, the phone woke us in our Amherst, Massachusetts, home. The Gorbachev Foundation was calling. After a pause, I heard a familiar voice. “Bill, how ya doin’?” Gorbachev said that he had employed not only relatives and friends but most of his subjects using the intimate second person singular. “When are you coming back to Moscow? And by the way, how’s the book selling?”

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