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Moscow: Euphoria. There is no better word to describe my feelings, the feelings of many in the Soviet intelligentsia, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and started the reforms that the world came to know as perestroika and glasnost. It was the euphoria of liberation, freedom, hope.
Changes that had seemed unthinkable were suddenly a reality, prompting a torrent of disbelieving questions. Did you know? Have you heard? Have you read…?
Did you know that dissident Andrei Sakharov has been freed from exile? Have you heard that Gorbachev himself phoned Sakharov and asked him to come back to Moscow and resume “patriotic activities”?
Sakharov took those words literally. He was elected a delegate to the Congress of People’s Deputies, which brought together representatives from all 15 Soviet republics in the first freely elected parliamentary body since the Bolshevik revolution.
He took the floor on the opening day during a discussion on electing Gorbachev as head of the smaller standing parliament, something that was a foregone conclusion. “I support Gorbachev, but only conditionally,” he declared.
On the last day of the two-week session, he grabbed the microphone and started to deliver a speech on the need for more radical reforms.
Gorbachev, obviously annoyed, switched off the sound – not realising that, while the hall could no longer hear Sakharov, the rest of the country could, because the TV feed remained live.
It was a small sign that Gorbachev, having unmuzzled the opposition, would struggle to control the pace and direction of the process he had started.
Fast-forward two years to the late spring of 1991, when I was with a group of journalists who “doorstepped” Gorbachev in the parliament building inside the Kremlin. Several of his security chiefs were with him.
One of us shouted something like: “Mikhail Sergeyevich, there are persistent rumours that many around you are unhappy about your reforms and are planning to remove you.”
I had never seen Gorbachev so furious. Nearly spitting, he denied the rumours and any suggestion of a rift in the leadship.
But on August 19, 1991, those same security chiefs launched a coup that left Gorbachev isolated at his Crimean holiday villa for three days.
I spent those 72 hours in the White House, where Gorbachev’s ambitious rival Boris Yeltsin, newly elected president of Russia within the Soviet Union, led resistance to the coup.
The putsch collapsed quickly and Gorbachev returned to mount a last attempt to save the Soviet Union in some form. But before the end of the year, Yeltsin and other leaders of Soviet republics had dissolved the Union, and Gorbachev was out of a job.
At a global level, Gorbachev changed the course of 20th century history for the better. He played a key role in ending the Cold War; he did not resist or use force to stop the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, letting the communist states of eastern Europe go their own way; and he withdrew the Soviet army from a bloody and futile campaign in Afghanistan.
But in national terms, he largely failed. His “perestroika” reforms could not reinvigorate and preserve the Soviet Union. The freedom of expression – “glasnost” – that he championed has all but vanished for citizens of more than half the former Soviet states, foremost Russia, whose authoritarian leaders tolerate little or no opposition.
I can’t imagine his torment if his mind was still alert on February 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine. He may well have been asking himself, “Which of those countries is mine?”, for his mother was Ukrainian, as was the father of his beloved late wife, Raisa.
Gorbachev showed a part of his human side that I hadn’t seen before in Vitaly Mansky’s 2020 documentary Heaven.
Overweight and barely able to walk, but still alert, he skilfully dodged tricky questions and took pride in his achievements – but he only really came alive when talking about his soulmate.
“Meaning in life? Not anymore,” he said. “There was – when Raisa was alive.” After a couple of vodkas, he sang softly in Ukrainian in what felt like an echo of their time together.
Possibilities Opened – And Closed
On a personal level, I am eternally grateful to Gorbachev. Before perestroika, it would have been ludicrous to think that a former member of the Komsomol Communist youth organisation, the son of a university teacher of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, could become an accredited reporter for a Western news organisation. He made it possible for me to live the life of my choice, not one determined by the fact that I was born in the communist Soviet Union.
I find it poignant now to recall his resignation speech on December 25, 1991: “We opened ourselves to the world, gave up interference in other people’s affairs, the use of troops beyond the borders of the country – and trust, solidarity and respect came in response. We have become one of the main foundations for the transformation of modern civilisation on peaceful democratic grounds.”
Sadly, with the war in Ukraine, all of this has been undone. Maybe it is just as well that Gorbachev has passed away now.
Rest in peace, Mikhail Sergeyevich, and thank you.