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Mikhael Gorbachev interview

Portrait: Rob Greig

I had wanted to interview Mikhail Gorbachev for years, and had made countless requests through his interpreter, Pavel Palazschenko. I had pretty much given up at the point when I blagged my way into Gorbachev’s eightieth birthday celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall. But when I got home from the surreal celebrations (which had included Shirley Bassey serenading the octogenarian with ‘Diamonds are Forever’ and an address from a pre-disgrace Arnold Schwarzenegger) I sent a last-ditch email to Palazschenko. It was one o’clock in the morning – the perfect time for a bit of what-the-hell correspondence. It was with some amazement that I woke up at the saner hour of seven to discover an email waiting for me, saying ‘He will see you.’

So here we are. Even at 80 Gorbachev cuts a bullish figure. His stubbornness feels like a separate physical presence in the room, his gaze is cool and constant and he does not hesitate to thwack a broad hand down on the glass table if he thinks I am about to interrupt him. Although he now suffers from diabetes, and only weeks after our meeting will have to have spinal surgery, it’s clear that he has a history of immense physical stamina. When he was only 17, he won the Soviet Union’s prestigious Order of the Banner of Red Labour for harvesting a record amount of corn with his peasant father, sweating his way through 20-hour days and sleeping just three to four hours a night.

Debate remains fraught over Gorbachev’s legacy. Viewed through the eyes of Thatcher and the West he was a hero, but in his own country he has experienced everything from grudging respect to downright contempt.”

Today, in stark contrast to his peasant origins, Gorbachev is frequently to be found in the UK’s most urbane circles. He has agreed to see me at his base at the Mayfair Hotel, in a suite which his security personnel are padding around like burly teddy-bears in slippers. He has many friends in London, not least his long-term collaborator in business and politics, Alexander Lebedev – owner of the Evening Standard and the Independent. The glitzy Hampton Court-based party to raise money for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation for combatting childhood cancer has placed him at the heart of the London social scene most summers, which is why he is so often to be seen in photographs with such capitalist butterflies as Kate Beckinsale and Hugh Grant.

The contrast between Gorbachev’s lengthy birthday reception (“It was great, but I thought that I would not survive it to the end,” he jokes) and his first visit here could not be greater. He remembers his first visit to the UK centred on a spiky – if eventually successful – encounter with Margaret Thatcher. “The visit came after a long pause in contact between the leaders of our countries,” he says. “I remember clearly a point where our discussion got very agitated. She said something I couldn’t possibly agree with, and I responded sharply – as they sometimes say, ‘I am a piece of work.’ We were so angry we both turned away from each other. [My wife] Raisa was having a conversation with Denis Thatcher on the opposite side of the room – when she noticed our body language she thought the visit was going to be a total failure. Eventually I turned back to face Margaret and said ‘I know you are a person of convictions. Not everyone likes that kind of person, but I do, because that’s what I’m like. Even so, you shouldn’t be worried. I’m not here under instruction to make you a member of the Communist Party.”’

He looks me in the eye like a retired boxer recounting his killer blow in a fight. Not a flicker of a smile, just a barely perceptible lightening of the expression in his eyes. “She laughed so loudly that everyone in the room turned round,” he continues. “From that moment a good conversation started to take place, and it was a successful visit.”

Twenty-six years after he became General Secretary of the Soviet Union, debate remains fraught over Gorbachev’s legacy. Viewed through the eyes of Thatcher and the West he was a hero, but in his own country he has experienced everything from grudging respect to downright contempt. Yet whatever your perspective, it’s impossible to overestimate not just how courageous but how unique Gorbachev was. Both politicians and scholars have pointed out that no other figure would have initiated reform on the scale that he did.

True, in the mid-eighties the USSR clearly needed the kind of change that would have provoked action from any leader. In his memoirs, Gorbachev describes how he woke up to the degree to which people needed a better life when he visited a village that looked as if it had been ravaged by the plague: “No contacts or ties existed between these shanty-town microcosms, just the everlasting barking of the dogs.” But Gorbachev had the intellectual and moral muscle to push the transformation further than anyone could have imagined – not least himself. When I interviewed former Czech president Václav Havel a few years ago, he described Gorbachev as someone “whose tragedy was that he thought that to get rid of some of the pressure in the pot it would be okay to lift the lid a little, but didn’t realise that once you make that small movement it blows up”.

Margaret Thatcher meets Mikhail Gorbachev at the British Embassy in Paris, 20th November 1990. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The greatest irony of Gorbachev’s career is that he never intended to become celebrated in the West to the extent that he did. Those political terms that sent waves of excitement round the globe – uskorenie (acceleration), perestroika (root and branch reform) and glasnost (openness/transparency) – were implemented to save the Communist empire, not bring about its disintegration. He was an ardent advocate of Leninism – the only Russian leader who made the pilgrimage to Shushenskoye in Siberia, where Lenin had lived in exile from 1897 to 1900. Yet right from the start, the West recognised him as a figure who – as Thatcher famously put it, smile carefully choreographed for the cameras – “we can do business [with]”.

The death of Raisa [from leukaemia in 1999] was a really heavy blow to me,” he tells me sombrely. “She did not survive the trials we had to go through.”

The backlash back in the USSR was considerable and the election of Boris Yeltsin as president of Russia signalled the beginning of the end of Gorbachev’s career. Commentators have described them as “two bears in one den” and as politicians linked resentfully in a “Janus-like embrace”. Yet whatever the metaphor, the crude reality is that the colourful, populist Yeltsin (who once, according to Bill Clinton, got so drunk at the White House that he was found outside in his underpants trying to hail a cab so he could go and buy pizza) was happy to savage Gorbachev and his version of perestroika in order to advance his political career on what he claimed was a more realistic course of privatisation for the Russian economy.

“Yeltsin even then showed he was not a real reformer,” wrote Gorbachev – still clearly licking his wounds a decade later – as he described the moment when the man he had initially seen as a collaborator criticised him publicly at a Central Committee meeting in 1987. “Everyday business and especially the difficult search for compromise were not for him. His human qualities were more suited to the era of Sturm und Drang. I do not know, perhaps this was due to his former profession [as a builder] – to the perpetual state of emergency in which our builders strove to complete one or another project at any price, often leaving new buildings full of defects or simply not finished.”

Hatred of Yeltsin and the regime he ushered in was accompanied by the devastating realisation of how deleterious the effect of opposition to Gorbachev’s career – from all sides – had been on his wife’s health.  “The death of Raisa [from leukaemia in 1999] was a really heavy blow to me,” he tells me sombrely. “She did not survive the trials we had to go through.” Valeri Boldin, Gorbachev’s former personal assistant, was one of those who led the attacks on their marriage. Raisa was the first Russian leader’s wife to have any prominence on the national and international stage, and in a book published in 1991, Boldin escalated allegations of her “interference”, saying that “for many years [she] ran not just the domestic set-up, but the entire perestroika carnival. She took part in the formulation of policy, where of course this was possible, and the deployment of personnel.”

It’s an extraordinary accusation, and in direct contradiction to this, Gorbachev says to me, “she hated politics – as a result I tried three times before I was 40 to quit. She did not want to discuss politics, and I never tried to get her involved. But she was like a lioness, always rushing to defend me publicly. When she saw that people refused to understand us, that undermined her strength.”

Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev boarding a flight from London, 1989. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Would Raisa be pleased that today her husband remains a prominent figure on the political stage? Not merely in the context of Russian politics – where he has been outspoken most recently on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s perceived abuses of power – but as an icon of profound political change, not least now that the Middle East is experiencing what many would term its “Berlin Wall moment”? What advice would he give to people fighting for democracy there? “No one can stop by force the movement of people who want freedom and democracy,” he replies. “It’s important to implement a system of elections that will give people real choice.”

And what does Gorbachev think of Gaddafi, with whom he briefly had cordial diplomatic relations, but who came out as one of the only world leaders to support the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev in Russia? “Sometimes you need to act when people are being killed,” he says. “Then rulers should be stopped. But that’s an exceptional situation. It is totally wrong that the same leader can be in place for 25, 30, 40 years. When I became president, fairly soon as part of our democratic process we adopted decisions concerning elections that established that no official can work in a position for more than two terms.”

It is hard not to see that these processes – a cause of such pride for Gorbachev – are being threatened by Putin. When Gorbachev heard the news in February that Putin was considering standing for a third (non-consecutive term) as president he responded by declaring that Russia was experiencing a sham democracy. Three months later his stance has softened a little. “One must never think that one almost has God by the coat-tails,” he says. “Putin is a capable person, but right now it’s very important for him not to stray from the road of democracy.”

Pacifism has always been as key to Gorbachev’s worldview as any of the other policies he implemented as a leader and it continues to drive him. We talk about the moment in 1943 when he and a group of children were running through the countryside after the snow had melted, only to stumble upon a wood filled with the remains of Red Army soldiers who had been killed the summer before. “It was an unspeakable horror,” he wrote in his memoirs, “decaying corpses, partly devoured by animals, skulls in rusted helmets, bleached bones, rifles protruding from the sleeves of the rotting jackets… There they lay in the thick mud of the trenches and craters, unburied, staring at us out of black, gaping eye-sockets.”

View the evolution of Gorbachev’s political persona as a series of Russian dolls, and it’s easy to see how the small boy, reeling in horror at this sight, is at its centre. This is what informed his passionate discussions with Thatcher and Reagan to end the threat of nuclear war. This is what gave steel to his strict policy of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, refusing to send the tanks into Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and, most importantly, Germany, where in early October 1989 the young people marched before him and their ageing leader, Erich Honecker, chanting “Perestroika! Gorbachev! Help us!”

The world-leader to whom he is compared most often today – although the similarities aren’t obvious at first glance – is the American president. In June 2009 a blog on the New York Times’s Economix site discussed “Obama’s Gorbachev moment”. In it, Peter Boone, chair of the UK-based charity Effective Intervention, and Simon Johnson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, wrote: “A superpower faces serious economic decline. People become increasingly nervous about the government’s ability to make good on its obligations, and the country’s broader global role comes into question. Recent foreign wars have not gone well… Into this situation steps a young dynamic leader… His name is Mikhail Gorbachev, and the moment is the Soviet Union in 1985.”

Vladimir Putin talks to Mikhail Gorbachev on 21st December 2004 at Gottorf castle in Schleswig (JOCHEN LUEBKE/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

Gorbachev is far too sophisticated to labour the parallels between them, but there is a sense of both respect and empathy, not least because he is conscious of the complicated legacy that Obama has inherited. This February, Gorbachev criticised the US policy of funding Islamic extremists in Afghanistan during the 1970s and 1980s as part of its fight against communism, talking about the “historical and political boomerang” that produced the conflicts we are witnessing now. By contrast, he says to me of Obama that “I think in most issues he is right, he has acted democratically, and sometimes this is seen as weakness. He should rule in a way that sparks fly. But he has the will to defend his stance. So, not by way of advice but as a matter of principle, I think that generally he deserves support, and Americans would lose a lot if they didn’t have the benefit of such a president.”

Now at the start of his ninth decade, Gorbachev is convinced that the secret of his own survival is hard work. He looks at me sternly. “To work is the best sport. People who have no plans, who just want to look good, they are doomed.” He looks towards his interpreter. “If you remove Pavel’s bald spot,” he jokes, “he would look 25. Because he’s very mobile, always in motion.” And what does he himself think of his legacy? We talk briefly about problems with freedom of the press in Russia, not least the murder of more than 300 journalists since 1993. His response is surprisingly optimistic. “Let us not start playing the blame game,” he declares. “You are right that we have had some setbacks in terms of being a free and democratic country but right now this is no longer just accepted. We have achieved glasnost. There will be more setbacks, but generally we must move forward.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #3 of Delayed Gratification

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