A GYPSY IN THE PALACE
Today, 81-year old Mikhail Gorbachev lives in Moscow. He is a widower who still mourns his wife, Raisa, who died in 1999. They met while he was studying law at Moscow State University. In 2009, Mikhail recorded an album of Russian ballads called “Songs for Raisa.” He sings the songs himself, and the money it brings in is donated to the charity named for Raisa which aids sick children in St. Petersburg. Now he spends many hours with his daughter Irina and granddaughter Anastasia; and in remembering times past. But Mr. Gorbachev doesn’t hide himself away. He does numerous interviews, speaks around the world, and accepts the many humanitarian awards offered him. He is still outspoken in his political views and doesn’t duck controversy - but the fire inside him has dampened some since he first stepped into the international spotlight in 1985.
Since the regime of Joseph Stalin, the Communist Party leaders of Russia and Eastern Europe have ruled with absolute power. Even after World War II, when their countries increasingly lagged behind the economies of the west, they remained secure in their positions backed by the might of the Red Army. They knew that they could always use that might if things began to change too abruptly or went out of control. These leaders could never have conceived of a Soviet leader that would be conciliatory toward the west or initiate liberal reforms at home.
In 1985, the hard line party leader Leonid Brezhnev died. He had built up an enormous military at the expense of consumer welfare. It appeared that little would change with his successors. Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB, followed Brezhnev but he died a year later. His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was another hard liner but he also died after one year in office. The party then passed its General Assembly leadership to Mikhail Gorbachev. He was the youngest member of the Politburo at 54 years old, and he had little experience at the national level. He had previously been an agricultural specialist. Gorbachev was seen by the west as just a “stop gap” leader while another was selected.
To the surprise of everyone, within weeks this young Gorbachev fellow initiated two sets of programs that would change the Soviet Union forever; two ideas that he must have carried inside himself for years. The first came to be known as “glasnost.” It would be the liberalization of the political process in the Soviet Union. He initiated reforms that brought about a broader freedom of the press, of assembly, of religion, and of travel. He convinced the old, hard line party leaders to open up the avenues to power to those not members of the party. He cultivated the country’s first real legislature; one that wasn’t just rubber stamping decisions made by a few. He allowed the first countywide elections that were competitive. Maybe most significantly, Gorbachev ordered the release of hundreds of political prisoners. But these changes were not instantaneous; they took much work and four years to begin to be realized.
His second vision was known as “perestroika.” Perestroika was a set of initiatives to address the slumping Soviet economy and improve the life of the average citizens. Gorbachev eased the laws prohibiting land ownership. He allowed small private businesses to operate under capitalist principles, and he permitted foreign investment in the Soviet Union.
And, even though his experience in international matters was meager, he reformed the Soviet Union’s relationships with other countries. Starting with the eastern European satellites, he supported their desire for less central control from Moscow. He reduced the Soviet defense budget, withdrew troops from Afghanistan, and consented to bring down the Berlin wall. Later, he did not oppose German reunification.
The western world was astonished that Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader in three generations to actually welcome a thawing of the Cold War. The reaction in the west was optimistic, but suspicious at first. As time passed, Gorbachev formed a genuine working relationship with Prime Minister Thatcher and President Reagan. “I like Mr. Gorbachev; we can do business together,” said Thatcher. To Americans, his most significant action was to agree to the joint destruction of short and medium range nuclear weapons. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and he was Time Magazine’s Man of the Decade.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Both he and the party leaders were not prepared for the speed at which the eastern European landscape was changing. Communist parties were being swept from power in several countries. In others there were stronger, more radical, demands for independence than ever before. The Party leaders insisted that Gorbachev contain this new trend. He faced fervent political opposition from all sides. No one seemed satisfied that enough had been done. In 1991, a majority of the Soviet republics agreed to a new treaty giving greater autonomy to the individual members. Before it could be ratified, hard liners in Moscow attempted to overthrow Gorbachev. Boris Yeltsin, of the Russian Republic, prevailed over the Communist Party leaders, and Mikhail Gorbachev was removed from power.
The Soviet Union ceased to exist in December of 1991. It had lasted 74 years after the Communist Revolution. The Cold War ended. Mikhail Gorbachev went into retirement. He attempted to do things in the Soviet Union that no one else had dared to do, and he paid the price for his vision.