More than twenty years ago I was standing on Moscow’s central Manezh Square and watched in amazement as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protested the massacre of pro-independence Lithuanian demonstrators in Vilnius on January 13th 1991. At the time everyone in Russia’s chaotic pro-democracy movement was certain – Mikhail Gorbachev was to blame for this horror. For those of us who lived and acted in the 1980s, Gorbachev has two images.
One is that of a brave visionary putting an end to the Cold War, giving his countrymen for the first time in a century an opportunity to express themselves freely, giving the idea of freedom real currency in a country which nearly forgot that freedom existed at all. Another is of a scheming apparatchik, who missed his appointment with Russian history by not standing for a popular election in 1990 and who never came clean about his real role in a lot of events, including the Tbilisi and Vilnius bloodbaths in 1989 and 1991, as well the August 1991 coup.
The surviving plotters still claim he knew about their plans and his isolation in the Crimean villa was self-imposed. I have interviewed Gorbachev several times. The USSR’s first and only president has a talent for avoiding awkward questions.
Still, despite these unresolved questions, for me his eightieth birthday is definitely a cause for celebration, and I eagerly join the chorus of well wishers. Let God, history and Gorbachev himself judge his failings. His achievements are monumental and I am not going to recapitulate them.
But there is one thing that is particularly poignant about Gorbachev.
The 1980s and 1990s were a revolutionary epoch. They were influenced by and themselves produced people who had historical dimension built into their character and actions. Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Yakovlev, Eduard Shevardnadze and Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, for all their different views, roles, attitudes, sometimes mutual hatereds and, no doubt, mistakes were makers of history. And none of them would have been one if not for Russia’s premier living history maker - Mikhail Gorbachev.
Statesmen are different from mere politicians in one major way – they can act out of conviction rather than pragmatism and narrow interest. Which means, swimming against the tide because you believe something to be right.
In this sense Gorbachev brushing aside the Politburo’s opposition to glasnost or the military’s stubborn desire to stay in Central Europe, Shevradnadze’s resignation in December 1990, as a protest at Gorbachev’s inaction in the face of mounting hard line pressure, Yeltsin’s defiant anti-coup statement from the tank top and Gaidar’s decision to take responsibility for what seems like a desperate last attempt to save the country from economic collapse are actions of real magnitude, which changed the course of history.
Gorbachev today reminds us all, including Russia’s political class, of this crucial difference between political operatives and statesmen. He has convictions and he acted on them. Whether he failed or succeeded in this context is irrelevant.
It is yet another of history’s ironies that in spite of Gorbachev’s visceral dislike of Yeltsin, today he is doing pretty much what Yeltsin was doing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Rising above the ruling class itself, he warns and chastises, criticises and pleads. And we listen. Because, despite all his failings, he is the only elder statesman Russia has. What’s more, even those who disagree with him believe Gorbachev to be honest and not corrupt.
Sometimes I wonder if he actually has a chance of a comeback. Might the turbulent sea of Russian politics one day need a pacifier, a consensus builder, someone who is a known and at the same time disinterested personality? I don’t know. What I definitely know – he is OUR Gorbachev, part and parcel of what we are and what we might yet become, as a country and people.
Probably the first and only Soviet president would not have liked some of the things I have written and comparisons I have made in this column, but I am sure he would forgive me. Actually, as a political leader who – and this is yet another of his achievements - introduced the first law on media freedom in 1990, I am certain he would.
Happy birthday, Mikhail Sergeyevitch!
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.