Mikhail Gorbachev, RIP

 

The first time I met Mikhail Gorbachev he ignored me for a couple of minutes, devoting himself instead to my wife. 

 This was in the early two thousands. Communism had collapsed so completely that even the last leader of the Soviet Union had become a capitalist, visiting the United States on a paid speaking tour. My wife and I met him backstage before one of these events. Chatting with Edita, Gorbachev asked where she was from, how she liked California, and if she had ever visited Russia. As they spoke, I realized he was good. Really good. He had the touch. Unlike Brezhnev, Andropov, Kosygin, and the other aging tyrants he had succeeded, Gorbachev proved human, even, heaven help me–he had lead a country officially pledged to the destruction of our own country, after all–likeable. He may have risen to power in a Communist system, but he’d have done just fine in a democracy, too. When at last Gorbachev turned from my wife to me, his translator explained that I had composed President Reagan’s Berlin Wall address. Gorbachev smiled. “Ah,” he said, “dramaturg!”

A couple of years later I met Gorbachev before another of his speaking gigs. When I asked him to sign a baseball—somehow I liked the idea of a Russian autograph on the symbol of our national pastime—he complied good-naturedly. Afterwards I listened from the front row as Michael Reagan, the fromer president’s son, interviewed the former general secretary. 

Mike asked Gorbachev a question that I had suggested. In 1956, Mike explained, the Soviets had put down the Hungarian Revolution by force, and then in 1968 they had crushed the Prague Spring by force. Yet in 1989, as revolutions swept across all of Eastern Europe, Mikhail Gorbachev had kept the Red Army in its barracks, permitting one Communist regime after another to fall. “Why?” Mike asked. “Why didn’t you resort to force?”

“Because,” Gorbachev replied, speaking through his interpreter, “I shared your father’s values. We both believed in Christian ethics.”

In the town in the Urals which he had grown up, Corbachev explained, his grandfather had been the leading Communist–but his grandmother had always remained a Christian believer. When the town Communists held a meeting in their house, his grandfather would put up pictures of Lenin and Stalin. When they left, his grandmother would replace those pictures with icons of St. Andrew, the patron of Russia, and St. Michael, after whom Gorbachev himself had been named. Years later, when Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, lived in Moscow, his grandmother lived with them. She attended church every day. “She would always say, ‘I’m going to pray for you atheists.'”

Although a Communist himself, Gorbachev insisted, he had always respected basic Christian values. “I could never have permitted the Red Army to fire on civilians. Never.”

 

Gorbachev as some sort of humanitarian? The notion can be overdone. The KGB, the gulag, cities devoted to internal exile—he kept the whole brutal security apparat largely intact. When Lithuania made a bid for independence, Gorbachev sent in the tanks, refusing to permit rebellion in a country the Soviets still claimed as part of the USSR itself. He earned his place in history all the same. Thirty-three years ago, as risings coalesced from Poland to the Czech Republic, the world held its breath, waiting to see whether the leader of the Soviet Union resort to violence. Instead Mikhail Gorbachev behaved like a decent human being.

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member
    MWD B612 "Dawg"
    @danok1

    Peter Robinson: Although a Communist himself, Gorbachev insisted, he had always respected basic Christian values. “I could never have permitted the Red Army to fire on civilians. Never.”

    The Lithuanians killed on January 13, 1991 would beg to differ. If troops of the Red Army hadn’t shot them or crushed them with tanks, that is.

    • #1
  2. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Gorbachev > Biden 

    • #2
  3. Nanocelt TheContrarian Member
    Nanocelt TheContrarian
    @NanoceltTheContrarian

    A priceless anecdote of the writer of Reagan’s Brandenberg speech meeting the former leader of the Soviet Union. Dramaturg indeed! More than worth the Ricochet subscription fee.  Thank you, Peter. 
    There are reports that Gorbachev may have been a believing Christian…

    • #3
  4. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    “Years later, when Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, lived in Moscow, his grandmother lived with them. She attended church every day. “She would always say, ‘I’m going to pray for you atheists.’”

    There is something very powerful in the experience of daily Mass. Try it, you might like it.

    • #4
  5. Eugene Kriegsmann Member
    Eugene Kriegsmann
    @EugeneKriegsmann

    I am not surprised that he was taken with your wife. Powerful men always seem to need the reassurance of their ability to charm beautiful women, no matter how self -assured they are. It is the ultimate test of their power. Though I have never met or seen photos of your wife, I have no doubt that she is a beauty and exceptional in all the various ways women can be exceptional. How else could she be, married to you. Mr. Robinson, you are a remarkable man. I feel as though I have known you for a very long time, having followed Uncommon Knowledge for many years and never missed a Ricochet podcast. You possess attributes of an exceptional nature which I will always admire, though I may not always agree with your expressed views. It never surprises me that you are able to elicit remarkable truths from all whom you interview. 

    I suppose that I should not make this a fan-boy attribution to you since you are eulogizing Mr. Gorbchev, but its seemed the time and place, and at 77, I understand that time is not infinite, and I am unconvinced of the possibility of meeting in a place beyond time, so carpe diem.

    • #5
  6. Peter Robinson Contributor
    Peter Robinson
    @PeterRobinson

    MWD B612 "Dawg" (View Comment):

    Peter Robinson: Although a Communist himself, Gorbachev insisted, he had always respected basic Christian values. “I could never have permitted the Red Army to fire on civilians. Never.”

    The Lithuanians killed on January 13, 1991 would beg to differ. If troops of the Red Army hadn’t shot them or crushed them with tanks, that is.

    A completely fair point–it’s easy to overdo Gorbachev as some kind of humanitarian. Even at that, though, he permitted the revolutions of 1989 to take place in peace.

    • #6
  7. Misthiocracy has never Member
    Misthiocracy has never
    @Misthiocracy

    Peter Robinson:

    In 1956, Mike explained, the Soviets had put down the Hungarian Revolution by force, and then in 1968, they had crushed the Prague Spring by force. Yet in 1989, as revolutions swept across all of Eastern Europe, Mikhail Gorbachev had kept the Red Army in its barracks, permitting one Communist regime after another to fall. “Why?” Mike asked. “Why didn’t you resort to force?”

    “Because,” Gorbachev replied, speaking through his interpreter, “I shared your father’s values. We both believed in Christian ethics.”

    Seriously?

     

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    He was a politician, not an honest man.

    • #8
  9. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Arahant (View Comment):

    He was a politician, not an honest man.

    Right. And if that wasn’t enough; an “atheist.” 

    • #9
  10. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Arahant (View Comment):

    He was a politician, not an honest man.

    And loathed in Russia for his failure to his own people.  Not that he allowed the Soviet Union to collapse, but that he didn’t do anything to ensure that the economic system didn’t collapse along with it.  People really suffered.

    • #10
  11. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    He was a politician, not an honest man.

    And loathed in Russia for his failure to his own people. Not that he allowed the Soviet Union to collapse, but that he didn’t do anything to ensure that the economic system didn’t collapse along with it. People really suffered.

    Gorby > Biden 

    • #11
  12. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    He was a politician, not an honest man.

    And loathed in Russia for his failure to his own people. Not that he allowed the Soviet Union to collapse, but that he didn’t do anything to ensure that the economic system didn’t collapse along with it. People really suffered.

    That was the only way.  If it were painless, they would have never changed anything.

    • #12
  13. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Jimmy Carter (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    He was a politician, not an honest man.

    Right. And if that wasn’t enough; an “atheist.”

    The point of the essay was that he was not entirely atheist.  

    • #13
  14. Joseph Eagar Member
    Joseph Eagar
    @JosephEagar

    Gorbachev was a former true believer in socialism who probably converted to (likely a left-wing variant of) social democracy in the late 80s before the revolutions took place.  He wanted the Soviet Union to become a democratic state akin to France or the Nordic countries (albeit a bit more left-wing), but he made the mistake of starting the process of democratization without removing that pesky exit clause in the Soviet constitution.  Once the rule of law began to emerge there was no way to prevent the soviet republics from leaving one by one and the whole thing collapsed.

     

    • #14
  15. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Joseph Eagar (View Comment):

    Gorbachev was a former true believer in socialism who probably converted to (likely a left-wing variant of) social democracy in the late 80s before the revolutions took place. He wanted the Soviet Union to become a democratic state akin to France or the Nordic countries (albeit a bit more left-wing), but he made the mistake of starting the process of democratization without removing that pesky exit clause in the Soviet constitution. Once the rule of law began to emerge there was no way to prevent the soviet republics from leaving one by one and the whole thing collapsed.

     

    Interestingly:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1991_Soviet_Union_referendum

    But then there was the attempted coup and complete disorder and local elites captures what they could and exited.  With mixed results.

    • #15
  16. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    Ever read Viktor Sebastyen’s “1989”? I’m curious about your opinion of his characterizations of Reagan and Gorbachev.

    • #16
  17. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Thanks for the in-person historical, Peter.  

    • #17
  18. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    Gorbachev > Biden

    Probably true. That’s a low bar to clear.

    • #18
  19. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member
    MWD B612 "Dawg"
    @danok1

    Peter Robinson (View Comment):

    MWD B612 "Dawg" (View Comment):

    Peter Robinson: Although a Communist himself, Gorbachev insisted, he had always respected basic Christian values. “I could never have permitted the Red Army to fire on civilians. Never.”

    The Lithuanians killed on January 13, 1991 would beg to differ. If troops of the Red Army hadn’t shot them or crushed them with tanks, that is.

    A completely fair point–it’s easy to overdo Gorbachev as some kind of humanitarian. Even at that, though, he permitted the revolutions of 1989 to take place in peace.

    That’s fair as well. Though I suppose one could argue that Gorbachev held back the Red Army when it would have mattered in terms of keeping the empire together, but let the Army loose when it couldn’t possibly have mattered.

    • #19
  20. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    It usually takes a certain amount of charm and charisma to be the leader of anywhere, and I’m not surprised that Peter noted that.  It is certain that adversarial world leaders cannot all agree on much, but most know that if they can find a bit of mutual humanity in an adversary, a connection can be made.  And when that happens, ideology can give way to practicality, and from that, understanding and if not peace, then detante.  Tyrants hold up their enemies in effigy, demonize them, and never allow that connection.  The result is usually war.  Gorby knew that somewhere in his commie heart, there was an idea of peace.  Call it what you will, but he felt it, and thus the USSR dropped its hammer and sickle.

    • #20
  21. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    Why am I not surprised?  Putin doesn’t have the time to attend Gorby’s funeral.  I would love for the U.S. to send Biden or Harris.  Or maybe Mitch and Schumer.

    • #21
  22. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member
    MWD B612 "Dawg"
    @danok1

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    Why am I not surprised? Putin doesn’t have the time to attend Gorby’s funeral. I would love for the U.S. to send Biden or Harris. Or maybe Mitch and Schumer.

    I assume Gorby will be buried in Russia, a nation we are actively working against and arming its opponent in a war. Do you actually think it’s a good idea to send any official representative there, never mind POTUS/VP?

    • #22
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    MWD B612 "Dawg" (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    Why am I not surprised? Putin doesn’t have the time to attend Gorby’s funeral. I would love for the U.S. to send Biden or Harris. Or maybe Mitch and Schumer.

    I assume Gorby will be buried in Russia, a nation we are actively working against and arming its opponent in a war. Do you actually think it’s a good idea to send any official representative there, never mind POTUS/VP?

    Maybe we could send Biden, Harris, Schumer, and Pelosi? 🤔

    • #23
  24. Carlotta Member
    Carlotta
    @Charlotte

    Thanks for the anecdotes.

    (Dramaturg is a funny word.)

    • #24
  25. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    Why am I not surprised? Putin doesn’t have the time to attend Gorby’s funeral. I would love for the U.S. to send Biden or Harris. Or maybe Mitch and Schumer.

    Ideally, they would all be sent to the funeral. With any luck, they wouldn’t return. These United States would be improved without them.

    • #25
  26. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    What a great post, Peter.  Thank you.

    I do question the conclusion that Gorbachev drew about Christian ethics.  Is it always wrong to put down a rebellion by force?  Was Washington wrong to put down the Whiskey Rebellion?  Was Lincoln wrong to oppose the Confederacy’s declaration of independence?

    Even on the narrower point of not firing on civilians: is this never permitted?  What about a rioting mob?  For that matter, what about Al Qaeda terrorists?

    • #26
  27. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    @peterrobinson  I read @claire Berlinski’s fantastic biography of Margaret Thatcher.  I have to tell you – I stumbled on Claire by pure accident.  My sister in an obscure little mountain town in Maryland (one of those fly-over areas that the current liberal progressives write off) found her book Menace in Europe in a bin at a thrift shop somewhere in Amish country – I kid you not.  My sister said OMG – you have to read this book!  She sent it to me and I was hooked – I found Ricochet through her and her books – I also ordered and read the rest of her books – including Thatcher.

    I came late to the Republican Party.  I tell people I went into political rehab in 2000 and came out a “conservative”.  I’ll leave it at that.  Turning in my liberal card was easy and only had a little to do with Clinton’s antics with Monica.  Anyway, Claire wrote a fascinating story about how “Gorbie” was in love with Margaret Thatcher -she seemed to charm all her political friends and foes.  I had no idea!  Enter Reagan!  This trio saved civilization (ok please add Blessed Pope John Paul II to that – a foursome) …..for a time!

    My friend’s sister is a US Astronaut.  She spent much time training in Russia and managed a 7 month long stint on the space station.  She named her pooch Gorbie.  Gorbie’s pictures were pasted on the Space Station.  He was named after Gorbechev.   He was so loved that when he passed at a ripe old doggie age, there was a party for him by all those that loved him – including some in NASA.

    Claire opened my eyes with her Thatcher biography – including on Gorbechev.  Thank you for this tribute and your amazing link to Reagan – one of our greatest presidents I am happy to say after turning in my DNC card!

    • #27
  28. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    Joseph Eagar (View Comment):
    Once the rule of law began to emerge there was no way to prevent the soviet republics from leaving one by one and the whole thing collapsed.

    Revolutions happen not when things are at their worst, but when things start to improve. Gorbachev learned there’s no such thing as “a little freedom.” When people have been kept down, any breath of free air makes them go too far too fast. The most dangerous time is when the tyrant tries to relax control.

    • #28
  29. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    He was a politician, not an honest man.

    And loathed in Russia for his failure to his own people. Not that he allowed the Soviet Union to collapse, but that he didn’t do anything to ensure that the economic system didn’t collapse along with it. People really suffered.

    That was the only way. If it were painless, they would have never changed anything.

    It was more painful than it had to be.  The 1990s were their lost decade, they’re only just coming back from it.

    https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/Russia/gdp_per_capita_ppp/

     

    The point is, Russia had everything it needed to succeed – educated people, resources, energy – letting it just crash and burn was just irresponsible given the impact on people’s lives.

     

    • #29
  30. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Is it always wrong to put down a rebellion by force? 

    No.

    Was Washington wrong to put down the Whiskey Rebellion? 

    Yes.  It was a very quick reminder that government, even by as benevolent a government as ours, is fundamentally evil, even though necessary.  The Whiskey Rebellion was as prinicipled, or more, than the pro-smuggling movement that started New England to foment rebellion.  

    Was Lincoln wrong to oppose the Confederacy’s declaration of independence?

    Absolutely yes.  But even answering that question is going to start arguments that probably don’t belong here.

    Even on the narrower point of not firing on civilians: is this never permitted?  What about a rioting mob? 

    It is always right to fire on rioting mobs.  

    For that matter, what about Al Qaeda terrorists?

    That’s an insulting comparison, but I suppose that was your intent to shock.

     

    • #30
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