Getting to Know Gorbachev
Gorbachev is hard to understand.
Mikhail Gorbachev was a decent man—too decent to be the leader of his country, a fact that is more evident today than ever before.
About, Getting to Know Gorbachev
He tried to reform the USSR, and eventually democratize it, but he was overwhelmed by the people and forces he liberated. He was the world leader who did the most to end the Cold War. But he lived to see a new one replace him. He made great efforts to refrain from using violence and force both domestically and abroad. His once-ousted successor, Vladimir Putin, has relied on coercion and violent aggression.
Gorbachev was, as the Russian thinker Dmitri Furman wrote, “the only politician in Russian history who, having absolute power in his hands, voluntarily chose to limit it and risk losing control in the name of moral principles.” “What?” He has been roundly mocked for this by detractors, primarily Russian, who portray him as immature and defenseless. But in many parts of the West, he will go down in history as an icon.
Gorbachev was unusually optimistic and self-confident, perhaps to a fault. How can we explain his confidence that he could bring freedom to a country that had never known democracy? Although he grew up under a totalitarian regime that turned citizens against each other, Gorbachev had great faith in the Soviet people’s ability to govern themselves.
He also overestimated his ability to control the communist hardliners who staged an unsuccessful coup against him, and Boris Yeltsin, who eventually forced him out of power. Unlike many politicians, especially Soviet Russian politicians, he was devoted to his wife and family but spent his last years without them. His wife Raisa died in 1999. Her daughter and two granddaughters choose to live in Germany.
In 1988, my family and I spent five months in Moscow on an educational exchange program. I witnessed Gorbachev’s efforts to make our country and the world a better and more civilized place through his perestroika and glasnost programs. But I got to know the man when I met him in 2005, more than a decade after he was forced to resign as the first and last president of the USSR. Then, during many encounters over a period of 14 years, I encountered for the first time some of the qualities that made him so admirable and so vulnerable.
When I set out to write a biography of Gorbachev
I assumed that I would have to overcome his skepticism about Western authors. But by then, he had become one of the most unpopular men in Russia, where he had received less than 1 percent of the vote as a presidential candidate in 1996, so I hoped to see him as a Soviet. I would prefer it over a post-union hack. I contacted him through his longtime close associate, Anatoly Chernyaev, whom I had known at a couple of history conferences, and the late American Russologist Stephen F. Cohen, someone close to the Gorbachevs.
But instead of asking Gorbachev for permission to start my biography (for fear he would say no), I told him I was doing it and asked for his cooperation. I sent him a copy of the English version of my biography of Nikita Khrushchev, followed by a Russian translation. But I couldn’t tell if it had the desired effect because, as Chernaev warned me, Gorbachev admired others, even close associates who adored him. “Solid book!” groaned Gorbachev as he looked ahead.
However, he agreed to cooperate, and a year later, he approached me and my wife Jane (a teacher of Russian language, literature, and film at Amherst) at a concert in Moscow in his honor. He kissed him three times on alternate cheeks, with a twinkle in his eye. In Old Church Slavonic, he said, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Holy Spirit, and.” The former dictator of godless communist Russia may have been making fun of Jane, but she wasn’t entirely sure.
“How’s the book going?” Gorbachev asked me. Slowly, “I apologize.” I apologized. It’s okay, he joyfully remarked, “Gorbachev is difficult to grasp.” He was funny, but his propensity to speak of himself in the third person betrayed a big ego that may have hurt him.
At Gorbachev’s 75th birthday party, held in a private banquet hall on the outskirts of Moscow in March 2006—in contrast to Yeltsin’s celebration in Putin’s Kremlin that same year—Gorbachev personally and on behalf of world leaders paused between a taped sequence. They proudly announced that the American author of Khrushchev’s biography was now working on Gorbachev himself.
A veteran Western ambassador who represented his country in Moscow under Gorbachev later insisted to me, “Gorbachev is not difficult to understand.” Perhaps not for him, but I tried to do so. He spent more than a decade specifically trying to figure out what made him think he could democratize a country that had never known democracy.
Jane and I traveled to Russia for several months in the spring of 2007. After requesting a series of formal interviews with Gorbachev, we were granted “at least one.” With the possibility of further communication depending on how the first conversation went, I used two tactics.
One was that I prefaced each of my questions with what he had said or written before—to show that I had done my homework and to discourage him from simply repeating himself. Second, I began to ask about his grandparents, on the theory that by the end of a few hours, my excited interviewer would barely have finished recounting his childhood and would welcome further conversation so that he could reflect on his years. He could talk about his achievements while in power. Getting to Know Gorbachev
These tactics worked. Jane and I had seven more lengthy interviews. We expected Gorbachev to demand that his questions be put in writing before the interview, but he never did. We expected him to have his translator (even though Jane and I are fluent in Russian), but he didn’t. He was candid during our conversation.
I was amazed when he volunteered the story of how his mother often whipped him with a belt until, at the age of 13, she grabbed it, ripped it off, and said, “That’s it! That’s it!” At this point, she cried because, as she added, “I was the last thing she could control and now she was gone.”
During a later interview, I was surprised when Gorbachev said he didn’t tell his wife he was going to be Soviet leader until the night before he was anointed. I asked if it was because she would fear he wouldn’t get approval, or would he? The latter, he admitted, was the case.
“Do we need it?” He asked her that question that night, a foreshadowing of the pressure that would mount on him as Gorbachev’s grandiose plan failed. He enjoyed the fact that Jane and I worked together. Still, in love with Raisa, he always respected women, unlike most of Russia’s leaders, especially the current one.
During our interview sessions, Gorbachev was warm, natural, and informal—and funny, too. When we mentioned that our daughter and son-in-law were visiting us in Moscow, he smiled like a true statesman and asked, “Would they like to have their picture taken with me?”He read a section from his memoirs while posing with a copy of the book and reading about the trees in his grandfather’s yard, including an apple tree, a pear tree, and a tree whose Russian name I couldn’t decipher.
I looked to Jane for help, but she was also unfamiliar with the fruit. At this, Gorbachev, his eyes sparkling again, pointed an accusing finger at Jane, and with a big smile said, “And you call yourself a Russian teacher?” We later found out it was a cherry berry.
The rest of our interviews, in 2007 and subsequent years up to 2016, lasted about two hours. We were not always sure when they would occur. Often, his office would call us out of the blue, and we would rush across Moscow to his office, where he would greet us with a warm hug. Initially, the Gorbachev Foundation occupied most of its office building on Leningradsky Prospekt, but one floor was rented out to a bank to cover the foundation’s budget.
By 2016, with the budget slashed because the aging Gorbachev could no longer continue his lucrative overseas lectures, the space devoted to the foundation was shrinking rapidly. Still, Gorbachev facilitated our meetings with current and former aides in Moscow, the southern city of Stavropol, where he climbed the ladder of the party apparatus, and our village of Privolony, where he was born. We also explored other ways to meet his former rivals and opponents. Getting to Know Gorbachev
When my book was published Getting to Know Gorbachev
When my book, Gorbachev, was published in 2017 (Russian translation in 2018), he was sick and frail. Although my approach is generally admirable, it is significant enough that I feared it would injure her in her vulnerable state. So Jane and I were surprised when we were invited to a small luncheon in our honor at her foundation. The executive director of the foundation told us that he was determined to come even though he was in the Kremlin hospital and was embarrassed to be seen in a wheelchair. He casually entered the room and greeted us again with a big hug.
A few other guests were a filmmaker, Vitaly Mansky, and a playwright, Alexander Gelman, who was making a documentary about Gorbachev, eventually called “Gorbachev.” Paradise.” The film shows him living in a comfortable home. With a chef, waitresses, and chauffeurs/bodyguards, Gorbachev’s home at first seems like “paradise”. But in reality, he is without his family. The film shows him agonizing over his career, proud of what he’s done, but debating with himself about the consequences of it all repeated over and over on the television screen behind him. hints at the upcoming photo. Vladimir Putin’s speech.Getting to Know Gorbachev
When we were at lunch at the Gorbachev Foundation, its executive director whispered to me that Gorbachev liked my book. I felt half ashamed to be complimented by his subject—as if, in exchange for his help, I had sacrificed my objectivity to please him—but glad because the man to whom I had given it I struggled to understand that I had succeeded.
In 2019, on the morning of my birthday, the phone woke us up in our Amherst, Massachusetts, home. The Gorbachev Foundation was calling. After a little delay, I recognized the voice. “Bill, how are you? Gorbachev stated that in addition to his family and friends, he worked closely with the majority of his topics in the second person intimate. “When are you coming back to Moscow?
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev died at age of 91
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