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Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet leader, reminisces and analyses
Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet Union president and communist party leader, was interviewed by Valeriya Bondarenko, a free-lance journalist.
Traditionally, Russian — and previously Soviet — politicians lead a quiet life after their retirement, keeping a low profile. Boris Yeltsin is one of more recent examples — after leaving office, he is hardly seen or heard any more. Mikhail Gorbachev seems to be an exception to this tradition of disappearing from the public scene after leaving office. He travels widely, gives lectures that invariably draw large audiences; he has become the leader of the Social-Democratic Party of Russia; he has founded the Gorbachev Fund. He is talked and written about in the west more than in his homeland; his role in history is being assessed in articles and books. In Russia, the attitude to him is still very emotional rather than objective, and varies from fascination to total rejection.
Mr Gorbachev kindly agreed to be interviewed and the interview took place in the premises of the Gorbachev Fund. His age had begun to tell on him but he was as always full of energy and of vigour. And I found it exciting to be talking to him.
Several photographs could be seen on the walls of his office, most of them taken more than a decade ago. In these photographs he looks quite a different person; in some, his late wife Raisa is by his side. The reflections of the sun on the glass of the photographs gave the people in them a sort of a spiritual radiance.
Mr Gorbachev, do you regard yourself now to be a public figure, a politician or a businessman?
I’m a politician, I continue my political mission, though in different ways than before, mostly through the Gorbachev Fund. Any attempts to get me involved full-time in business are doomed to failure.
But you did get involved in making commercials, or in creating the brand Gorbie which has come to be very popular in the world.
I did, but I needed money for creating my fund. During my presidency I did not embezzle any of public money to put into Swiss banks, and my savings were not enough to start a fund. Of course, I could turn to some international organizations and beg for help, and I would not have been refused, I know that for sure. But I never begged and always earn money by honest work, and I have never failed this principle. But in different times, conditions are different — in my young years I earned money by working as a tractor driver; then my party work was the main source of livelihood, and still later, at the early stages of my post-presidential life, it was advertisement that brought money. The world is in constant change and our attitude to things also changes, and that’s the way it should be. I can look people in the eye with a clear conscience — I’ve never stolen anything from anyone. I’ve never cheated anyone out of anything, I’ve never begged and I will never beg. And it’s not a sin to be working at any age. Besides, that advertisement of pizza allowed me to purchase the premises for the fund, plus to buy everything else that was needed for its work. I do not find anything disgraceful in earning money that way. These days I earn money by delivering lectures in different countries of the world — for each lecture and for answering questions that follow I get over a hundred thousand dollars on average. These payments come from the fees that those attendees pay for attending, and there are quite a few of those who want to come and listen to the lectures and ask questions. The auditoriums are always full to capacity. And I feel I’m of some use both for the people who come and for the fund. And they are useful for myself as well.
What is your attitude to the current Russian president? Do you maintain any relations at all?
At the previous presidential election I regarded him with a considerable measure of skepticism — there were substantial grounds for that. Putin had never worked for any considerable length of time in the highest echelons of power, had not come to know Russia well, and had not had any team of like-minded people to speak of. The power had almost literally fallen on him. And the main difficulty — he had inherited a chaos in the political situation in the Russian Federation, in the economy and in social policy. And it’s not an easy task in this country to bring the former leaders to account; besides, even if something is done along these lines, it does always do much good. It’s like disturbing a hornets’ nest. I thought that such a person as Primakov who was much more knowledgeable in the backstage maneuvering, suited better for the role of president.
But in spite of all of my reservations, Putin proved to have enough willpower, understanding, rationale, ambition and good health not to succumb under the pressure of the daunting tasks he faced. Putin’s rule has come to be characterized by relative stability and a possibility has emerged to map serious and promising plans for the future. I can say now with confidence — Putin has not been a failure as president. It is thanks to him that Russia has not only acquired a measure of stability but also has began moving forward in many directions. And you cannot fail to notice it. The process of stabilization continues, but for it not to stop, it should be continuously pushed forward and cleverly controlled. So far, the correct thoughts have been expressed by the president, and the steps that were taken, were for the most part, well considered. But watching the economic and political machine pick up speed, one cannot help asking a question — what’s next?
What is it precisely that worried you?
I’m just drawing parallels. I recollect the first years of Brezhnev’s rule — they also brought certain stabilization, were met with support, and it played a positive role. But later, this period was followed by stagnation, the deepest stagnation, a veritable quagmire, bureaucratic bog, quicksand in which all the best ideas, thoughts and feelings sank without trace. Healthy initiative was hardest hit.
I came to work in Moscow four years before Brezhnev’s death. He was already badly sick then, and could not control the communist party politburo. In fact, half of its members were of the same ilk and in a similar state. Stagnation was Brezhnev’s misfortune but those who allowed it to happen, who derived some benefits out of it, were to blame for it. The apogee of inertia, conservatism and inaction was reached, and it is common knowledge what it eventually led to.
Or take Khrushchev, for example. He also started his rule on a positive, progressive note — and very much so! — but he gradually slipped into voluntarism. But Khrushchev should be given credit for challenging the personality cult of Stalin, and everything else that this cult had brought with it. I remember those times very well. I worked then in the land of Stavropol in the south of Russia. I was just moving on from the komsomol [young communist league] to the communist party work.
What would you support these days?
The irreversibility of the current positive processes; a possibility for people at the country level, at the regional level and at the family level to carry out the plans they map; plans if not for ten years ahead but at least one year ahead.
As far as the international community is concerned I wish the powers that be turned at last to face the global problems without solving which we shall doom the humankind to a death sentence.
Global problems seem to have become the main focus of your work. Recently, complaints have begun to be heard that Gorbachev was so engrossed in global matters that he neglects the national interests and national policy.
As I put the general interests of the humankind above anything else, there’s nothing strange in that. I’m not the first to do so. At the time when the atom bomb had not yet been created, Albert Einstein was known to have said, ‘Now, when the humankind is no longer immortal, the world needs a new type of thinking.’ At present we have come to a point when the world is in the grip of a global ecological crisis, and without solving this problem, the world will always be in jeopardy. In this connection, the situation in the world reminds me of the Titanic — the ship is heading towards destruction but everybody are chilling out on deck — some sing, others just stroll around, still others wave flags…
That is why one of the top priorities of the Gorbachev Fund is the study of the globalization processes. Recently, a book was released under the aegis of the Fund — The Facets of Globalization.
Globalization is a problem that has a direct impact on Russia, and as such it is one of the main reasons why I’m worried about the destiny of Russia, and about the reforms that are taking place in it.
In which way globalization influences the processes that are taking place in Russia and in other post-Soviet countries?
The world is becoming increasingly interdependent — and it’s a fact. Such a turn of events was predicted in our talks with Reagan and Bush, and with other political leaders of those times. At first glance it seems that this process of increasing cooperation among the states, nations and peoples, the development of high technologies, the revolution in the sphere of informatics and telecommunications will make it possible to use more effectively all the opportunities and possibilities that the world offers us. But instead of channeling the obtained means into doing away with poverty, into supporting positive changes, into building a positive world, two processes of quite a different nature have been taking place in the past twenty years. On the one hand, we have an extremely rapid development of information technologies — and on the other, we have a sharp polarization of society. According to the UN statistics, the incomes of one percent of the world’s richest equal fifty-seven percent of the incomes of the poorest all around the globe. When the globalization processes are stepped up, it leads to the ruination of the traditional ways of life of many nations.
As a result, those who had had an advantage at the start of the globalization process, reaped colossal additional benefits in the decade that followed the Cold War. In the present-day global structure of power, all the countries are mutually dependent, but in varying degrees. The division of the world into a dominant centre and a dependant periphery is becoming ever more pronounced. There is an increasing tendency in the USA to take unilateral decisions and actions. The way Bush Jr is trying to rule his country and at the same time the whole world does not only lack any prospects for the future — it is dangerous in many respects. It breeds discontent, with its extreme expression — terrorism. I don’t think I should explain what such a tendency may mean for Russia.
There’s another tendency which has become apparent and which, I must admit, has shocked me. In 2000, at a world conference of political scientists in Quebec, the unanimous opinion stated that the countries that had done away with the totalitarian regimes in the past quarter of a century, experienced an upsurge of democracy — and the democratization process involved practically all the continents — which later was followed a wave that rolled in the opposite direction, and immediately there was a great demand for totalitarian leaders. It was evident even in such countries as Austria or France, let alone in other countries. And this wave proved to be so powerful that political scientists made a somewhat frightening prognostication — the twenty first century will become an era of authoritarianism.
Speaking in general terms, one can say that globalization has hit everybody hard — particularly hard hit were the post-Soviet countries.
Can your words be interpreted as suggesting that Russia is also leaning towards authoritarianism? What about Ukraine in this context?
Neither Russia, nor Ukraine will have authoritarian regimes — that’s definite. But there will be a transition period aggravated by the influence of global contradictions — it is also a fact. We will have to use some authoritarian means to deal with the situation — we won’t be able to avoid using them. And we can observe some of these processes already taking place.
But it does not mean that we should delete from out agenda such things as democracy, liberties and freedoms, and everything else that is connected with their implementation. All of these things should be maintained and controlled on all sides.
In this manner we should gradually introduce into every sector of the economy such mechanism of management which would work effectively and for the benefit of the country without such levers — or if not totally without, we should be realists, but with their minimal presence — as preferentialism, favouritism, nepotism, behind-the-scenes politicking, secret interests, and other such things. But unfortunately it is on such principles, inherited from the Soviet times, that the policies of departments, structures and organizations at all the levels, low and high, are based. These things are so deeply ingrained that they slow down the reforms.
Take the last Soviet constitution, for example, the one that was often referred to as “Brezhnev’s constitution.” It’s a great document! If only half of what is written down there had been implemented, it would have been really great. It says, in part, that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a federation of sovereign states, each of which has the right to self-determination up to secession from the Union. It was in the constitution but no law was passed to regulate the secession mechanism — no one could ever think then that any of the Soviet republics would ever want to secede from the Union. But when it did come to a point when several republics wanted out, it proved to be, from the legal point of view, a dead-end situation. It was the bureaucracy that created an impasse and ruined everything.
Will Russia, in your opinion, ever be a truly democratic state?
Yes, it has such a potential, but it’s a matter of time. When I deliver lectures in America, one and the same question is invariably put to me, How are things with democracy in your country? And I reply, If, by democracy, you mean the democracy of your, American type, then you overestimate us; we are much more talented than you are, but not to such an extent. You have been improving your democracy for over 200 years, and you want us to create such a democracy in a decade! And also a hard, hindering legacy from the past must be taken into consideration — the Mongol yoke [the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century and subsequent Mongol domination that lasted for two centuries]; serfdom [the medieval-type serfdom was abolished in Russia only in 1861], and seventy years of socialist serfdom blessed by a new religion called “communism.” All of these things are still present deep down in us, on the genetic and moral levels. And they influence our thoughts and actions.
But the sociological polls show that the thing that affects us most is our poverty. On a list of our priorities democracy and freedoms sometimes feature on the third or the fourth place.
However, it is too early to give any estimates. It’s not those who “make the pancakes” and do rash things that should be appreciated [the translator fails to grasp what Gorbachev exactly means here].
As far as you, Ukrainians, are concerned, you have a situation very similar to the one we have in Russia, but much milder. You solve the problems that emerge in a democratic way. Authoritarianism does not make any gains. Why? As long ago as in the 1950th, Malyshko [this reference to the Ukrainian poet is not clear] asked this question. Sometimes, though this [democratic way of solving problems] does not bring benefits. There’s no answer to this, probably, it’s our mentality.
In one of your interviews you said that when you were launching perestroika, you never thought it would lead to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But you did whatever you could to prevent it from collapsing, didn’t you?
I did, I did try very hard. At the very outset, I did admit that the Soviet Union was a savagely cruel totalitarian state, which did not leave any initiative to the local bodies of government, to the republics, in which their own national intelligentsia, their own culture and ruling clans were formed. It was necessary to reform the Soviet Union. In order to do it, the Soviet Union had to be gradually decentralized. To achieve it, we had to walk, as they say on the edge of the razor’s blade, not letting things go too far, and yet not overdoing it. Both overdoing and “underdoing” were bad for the country. A certain balance was reached through a great effort but the putsch destroyed this balance. It dealt a devastating blow [to our hopes]. And even now, sixty percent of our difficulties are a consequence of that collapse.
What was the role of Yeltsin in all this?
The nomenklatura [the Soviet power elite, their minions and relatives; Soviet system of appointments to specified posts] lost the election in 1990 though it had at its disposal all the resources, and there was an attempt to stop the reforms. Starting from the fall of 1990, purposeful attempts were made to get rid of me. I submitted my resignation several times, but it was rejected. In July 1991, things came to a head, and Kryuchkov [KGB head], Yazov [Defence Minister] and Pugo [Interior Minister] made a report to a closed session of the Supreme Soviet [parliament] claiming that the government was powerless and that [parliament] should assume the presidential authority.
Yeltsin, no doubt played a role in the resistance to the putsch, but later he was encouraged to think that he’d get through the reforms faster if he got rid of the load of the republics. There was a certain euphoria in the air then. It was believed that the moment we go independent, we’d become rich.
So, in your opinion, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the only mistake, the consequences of which turned out to be so grave?
Another grave mistake made then was the disintegration of the communist party. In July 1990 we had a serious plenary session of the communist party convened and we were planning to hold an extraordinary communist party congress. I’m sure that if we had had that congress convened, we’d avoid many problems. There were several movements present in the communist party — conservative, liberal, social-democratic and other kinds. At that time the communist party was a good ground for the emergence and formation of different parties of all kinds of orientation. The process of their formation would be logical and not have been so painful as it was. There would be no need to tear apart the living structures.
In some of the post-Soviet countries the communist parties were banned altogether, and in some of these countries, former communists were denied the right to fill government posts…
I categorically disagree with such approach. The communist party of the Soviet Union, as well as our Soviet past should not have been thrown overboard like redundant load. You should not do away with your history — it is necessary to take the best things from it, and there were things worth taking along. It gives continuity and provides the prerequisite for the successful development in the future. The communist party was a unified, well-functioning, working system, with a great number of clever cadre with excellent prospects. And all around the political chaos reigned supreme, there was a lack of any systematic approach, no management of it, and it could not lead to any progress. People acted more under the influence of emotions, and now it’d be good to give what I’m saying a good thought. I said about the same when I met Vladimir Putin. The system of education that had trained excellent cadre should not have been done away with. The [communist] ideology should have been removed but the basic principle [of education] should have been preserved. The principle on which the medical care was based should not have been rejected either because free medical care is the highest manifestation of democracy. In this connection my attitude to the Russian reforms in education and medicine is very critical. I discussed this with the president and we argued over it, and later I, at his request, put forward my arguments during a meeting with the minister of education. We argued for three hours! How is it, that instead of creating the best conditions for teachers, improve the material basis [of education], this khrenovina [khrenovina — a colloquial term for trash, nonsense, unworthy, senseless things] is being done. I think it’s a good word, with all kinds of meanings concentrated in it, and I think it fits here.
Could you comment the imperial ambitions of Russia?
Unfortunately, from time such tendencies do appear, though it’s not worth stepping up this process [like in many other instances, it is not quite clear what Gorbachev means; from what he says it appears that he acknowledges the presence of imperial ambitions and adds that these ambitions — “process” — should not be fanned]. Independent states should be recognized once and for all. Otherwise nothing will come out of it. That is why the process [of relations] with Belarus is moving along with such difficulty. In Russia, there immediately emerge propositions to give Belarus a status, similar to the one of Bashkir Republic or Tatar Republic within the Russian Federation. [They do it] forgetting that it [Belarus] is a sovereign state, even though it pursues, somewhat specific internal policies; [it is a country] that has been a UN member for over half a century. But I don’t think it’s what most Russians think [probably, Gorbachev means that the Russians don’t believe Belarus should be incorporated in Russia]. That such “regurgitations” [throwbacks to the past] do take place, it’s a fact.
What is your assessment of what happened with Tuzla [a small island in the Kerch Straight that was a bone of contention between Ukraine and Russia]?
It was a stunning episode. Of course, nothing comes out of nothing [that is, there must have been reasons for the tensions to flare up]. But I would relegate it to the sphere of politics, that’s what I was telling about — the eternal wrangle between the tsars and the hetmans… That’s why reasonable compromises should be searched for. It’s the policy of reasonable compromises that made it possible in the past for the USA and the Soviet Union to end The Cold War. Not a single global problem can be solved without [careful] assessment of the means [to be used to reach an end] — [otherwise] it causes a catastrophe.
The president of Estonia once said that it was you he was grateful to for avoiding bloodshed in Estonia.
I’ve always been an adherent to [the policy of] a dialogue, not of a fist fight. But the disintegration of the Soviet Union did bring about a lot of bloodshed. I did my best, wherever I could, to prevent it. At that time, the Balts [Baltic states] did suck a lot of our blood [created a lot of unpleasantness for us]. But they must be given credit for never leaving the boundaries of peace talks [probably, meaning: they stuck to peacefully negotiating controversial issues]. These days, when we meet with the Estonian president at international symposiums, we talk, sometimes recollect those times [when the Soviet Union was falling apart].
Do you meet Boris Yeltsin on some occasions?
I have not seen him in the past ten years. And I never had any wish to see him.
What about Aleksandr Lukashenko [president of Belarus]?
He’s not a bad man, really, but his style [of work] and methods remind me of a bull in a china shop. I said it to his face but he has gone too far and can hardly be stopped.
What about Leonid Kravchuk [former Ukrainian president]?
He is a jolly sort of chap to be sure [this statement is open to any interpretation].
What can you say then about the current president of Ukraine?
Nothing. I’ve never met him. And he never invited me to come over to Ukraine.
Do you support any of the social-democratic parties of Ukraine, if so, which?
We maintain purely person-to-person relations with [members of] the Social-Democratic Party of Ukraine (United), but after Zinchenko had left it, we keep more contacts with the socialists — Moroz, Buzduhan and others.
What is your general attitude to Ukraine?
This [my] attitude comes from my internal state. Genetically, I belong to both nations. My mother is a Ukrainian, and my father is from Voronezh [Russia]. And these two halves cannot be separated. I’ve sucked the Ukrainian language with my mother’s milk, in a literal sort of way. My mother was so beautiful. And she sang so well! Putting so much soul into it, so clearly. When I remember that, I feel my heart starts beating so fast it wants to jump out of my chest. She was head of a team of women peasants working in weeding. When they were returning home riding in the wagons, or walking behind them, they were singing. And in that chorus I always heard my mom’s voice. I was so proud of her at such moments. I still know quite a few of those songs. And I sing them, putting all my heart into singing. My wife Raisa was also half Ukrainian. Her maiden name was Tytarenko; her father was from the land of Chernihivshchyna, and her mother was from Siberia. She knew quite a few of Shevchenko’ verses by heart.
When did you visit Ukraine the last time?
A long time ago. And I will go there with great pleasure if I have a chance to do so. But I don’t think it’ll happen any time soon — there’re too many things on my international schedule [that is, on the schedule of visits to foreign countries].
You seem to be well received abroad, but the attitude to you in your country is ambiguous. What do you make of that?
It’s quite a normal thing. Let’s turn to history. [Can you] find a reformer that would be liked [in his own country]? There are no such [reformers]. The Chinese even have such a curse, May you live in the period of changes! But I not only lived in such a period — I was right at the pinnacle, working there for so many years! So in this sense, I did get it in full [meaning: I faced all possible problems and difficulties], and I still feel the repercussions, but it’s the way it should be. That’s why my attitude to it is a philosophical one. Our people are like that — they accept [you] and understand [you] only after [your] death. It happened like this with my wife Raisa — there was so much rejection, such social negative [that is, society regarded her in negative terms], but when she was on her deathbed, there were so many weepy letters arriving, there were bags full of them all around; the letters said, Oh we are sorry, we were mistaken in our assessments, and we’ve begun seeing clearly and differently. She kept asking me then, Do I have to die in order to earn their understanding and their love?
Mr Gorbachev, your present life politicians often call “Life after life.” What’s the taste of [how does it feel to be leading] such life? And the main thing — do you have any goals in life?
“It’s really a different kind of life [that I’m leading]. But I can’t tell you which taste now I like most. It’s just very different. In my current life there’s no crushing burden [that I once had to carry], there’s no recognition everywhere [meaning: people immediately recognize wherever I appear in public], there’s no constant tension, no constant telephone calls. There’s more time for being with my family — my granddaughters, my daughter. And the world is perceived differently, not through the prism of narrow and strict protocol. There’s more time for talking to people, for enjoying those countries, of which earlier I could only get the glimpses. In this respect, there are many things which are fresher and more interesting. But on the other hand, there are losses, the bitter taste of which cannot be suppressed by emotions, no matter how positive they can be. But the main thing is that I feel I’ve reached a level, at which I can assess many global processes without any bias. And, in this respect, I can be still of use to the world. That’s why I devote my time to global problems. The saving of the world is in creation of a wiser civilization, whose foundation is the policy of partnership, balance of interests and stable compromises. The world should develop on the principles of partnership, and in this respect centres of influence which counter balanced each other, should be formed. With the UNO at the head as the main governing centre of the world but our nearest task is to renew its authority.
The new [21st] century should be built on the principles of solidarity and interaction of all the members of the world community, and in the interests of the humankind as a whole. Chances to change the situation [for the better] today are quite real. In order to do it, international processes should be radically democratized. And when I’m abroad and they ask me, What’s to be done to achieve it, I reply — new [way of] thinking and global perestroika. That’s what I live for.
The interviewer expresses her gratitude to Viktor Myronenko for his help in organising interview.