REVILED AT HOME, MIKHAIL GORBACHEV STILL FINDS FRIENDS IN THE WEST
REVILED AT HOME, MIKHAIL GORBACHEV STILL FINDS FRIENDS IN THE WEST
With the gloomy pragmatism that springs from their troubled history, Russians often cite an old proverb that says,
“You never appreciate what you have until you lose it.” Since the death of the Soviet Union 15 months ago, Mikhail Gorbachev has clearly spent much time thinking about what he and his former fellow Soviets lost—as well as what they achieved. As he began an eight-day visit to Canada in Calgary last week, a plumper, more reflective Gorbachev bore the air of a man t= who has put away old ideals, but I not yet discovered new ones, ¡S In a 45-minute interview with
Maclean’s in the penthouse of a downtown Calgary hotel, Gorbachev spoke, sometimes wistfully, on topics ranging from his future place in history to his shattered belief in communism and his failure to find a spiritual substitute. Communism, Gorbachev said that he has now concluded, “was a false utopia created by those who did not respect the proper development of people.” Asked whether he now holds any religious affiliation, he replied, “I have not found one, yet.”
At 62, Gorbachev retains many of the characteristics of the youthful, vigorous reformer who revolutionized global politics after coming to power eight years ago—and sustains all of the allure of a political celebrity. Often ignored at home, he is fully at ease in North America where he is among friends and admirers, trading jokes and spontaneous remarks through an interpreter with a grace that many Western politicians would envy. With his conservative, well-cut suits, expensive gold Rolex watch and confident ability to dominate a room, he could easily pass for a well-heeled Calgary oil industry executive. Even his manner of speaking has become more cosmopolitan. When he first came to power in the mid-1980s, Moscow intellectuals used to privately mock his “peasant” speaking style that reflected his rural roots. Now,
Gorbachev speaks more slowly and his speech is littered with such anglicisms as “bizneesman.”
Last week’s star tour was a whirlwind round of public appearances before sellout crowds. In sessions organized by the University of Calgary, Gorbachev was repeatedly deluged by normally diffident academics and well-pressed business executives seeking his autograph. Even the media appeared smitten. The deeply conservative and free enterprising Calgary Sun newspaper had a front page headline reading ‘Welcome” in Russian on the day of Gorbachev’s arrival. And the estimated one hundred journalists covering the visit abandoned their air of neutrality to join in standing ovations for him. Whether Gorbachev was donning a cowboy hat at Calgary City Hall or breaking away from bodyguards to shake hands with students, he behaved with easy aplomb.
Ostensibly an expedition aimed at raising funds for his Gorbachev Foundation charity, the speeches and media events also served a more commercial function. The well-orchestrated tour keeps a Cold War-era politician front-and-centre before Western audiences, a practical strategy for a man soon to publish his memoirs of a rapidly fad-
ing period of history. But, as Winston Churchill discovered in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, many people are still eager to hear the opinions of a former leader during turbulent times. And behind the public bravado and undying acclaim, Gorbachev makes little attempt to hide his dismay over the current troubles in Russia, or his dislike for the man who succeeded him at the pinnacle of power, Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
In one speech, Gorbachev tore into Yeltsin so vigorously and rapidly that his renowned English-language translator, Pavel Palazhchenko, was unable to keep up with him.
Instead, after Gorbachev finished a two-minute-long denunciation of the Russian president, a beaten Palazhchenko offered only that Yeltsin “appears not to understand the gravity of his shock therapy policies.”
And, despite the fact that Yeltsin played a key and courageous role in defusing the August, 1991, coup against Gorbachev’s government, the last Communist leader hides none of his bitterness towards the man who later deposed him. Asked by Maclean’s how Yeltsin will ultimately be judged, Gorbachev said curtly, “He will need a more substantial body of achievement in order to be judged at all.”
Still, history’s verdict on Gorbachev’s own time in office is the topic that clearly preoccupies him these days. While in power,
Gorbachev was repeatedly criticized for his slowness in implementing such key reforms as the right to run private businesses or to own private property. Last week, he showed a flash of
regret for an opportunity lost. “It is true, in retrospect, that I might have used different tactics in timing and in making those changes,” he conceded. But Gorbachev also displays a Nixonian determination to defend his record and his place in history. “If I had to do everything all over again I would,” he said to thunderous applause from his University of Calgary audience. And he is most proud of the fact, he said, of “bringing freedom to my country and thereby altering the way our people live.”
That the grey Soviet lifestyle was buried along with the Soviet Union on his watch is undeniable. But Gorbachev and his coterie sometimes still appear uneasily poised between the lifestyles of the West and their own former traditions. Gorbachev and his translator, Palazhchenko, blend effortlessly into Western mannerisms and social culture. But some members in the entourage of his charitable group, the Gorbachev Foundation, are clearly less at home. Although Gorbachev has slipped easily into the habit of referring to his fellow Russians as gospodin or Mister, some of his aides still address each other as “tovarich” or comrade—a holdover greeting from Communist days.
Back in Russia among the Communist alumni, Gorbachev is clearly regarded as history’s man. Only Western reporters pose the question about his prospects for a political comeback. At home, where he
was the object of derision among many Russians even when he was in office, most people would put the odds of his returning to power as only slightly better than those of Lenin. But Gorbachev himself bristles at suggestions that he is now far more popular outside his home country than within. When asked about his waning relevance in Russia, Gorbachev stiffened, narrowed his eyes and blamed the Russian media for that “biased” perception. Then, he snapped, “I suggest you rethink that belief.”
That was a rare cross moment in a tour that bordered on mutual
reverence between Gorbachev and his hosts. This week, he will speak to sold-out lunch and dinner groups in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, and meet with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Some advisers to Mulroney initially told him that it would be politically unwise to see Gorbachev so close to the April 3 and 4 summit meeting in Vancouver between Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton. But Mulroney, said press secretary Mark Entwistle, “feels the world still owes this man our undying gratitude.”
In Canada, Gorbachev appears certain to receive that recognition. And, although exhausted by a 14-hour series of flights and a 10-hour time difference between Moscow and Calgary, he continually rose to the occasion. When the Maclean’s interview ended, Gorbachev appeared to be initially annoyed when asked to remain for additional photographs. But his manner quickly changed as soon as the lenses were focused. Then, Gorbachev, who says he does not speak English, looked up at the camera, gave a wide grin and in perfect English drawled, “Che-e-e-e-e-se.” Even after leaving the forefront of the world stage, Mikhail Gorbachev continues to be one of its most satisfying players.
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