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Thirty-four years ago today, the revolving door that had become the entry point to leadership of the Soviet Union stopped when Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party. On that day, he became the fourth Soviet leader in under three years (Brezhnev died in November 1982, Andropov in February of 1984, Chernenko on March 10, 1985). There hadn’t been such drama on the world leadership front since, well, the dramatic and unexpected selection of KarolJózef Wojtyła as Pope in 1978, after the 33-day tenure of Albino Luciani.
A little over six-and-a-half years later, on Christmas Day 1991, and severely compromised as the result of a coup a few months earlier, Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, resigned and handed over what was left of his power to new Russian President Boris Yeltsin. On December 26, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved and its Republics were handed their self-governance.
From news reports (one from the BBC, and one from ABC), it appears that, thirty-four years ago today, no-one saw this coming. Well, except, maybe, Maggie (perhaps it was womanly intuition) who said shortly thereafter, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” By and large, a more perceptive and much more pragmatic observation than that George Bush the younger made years later about his sense of Vladimir Putin’s “soul.”
It’s a reminder to me of how fast things can change. And with what’s come after has been, of how fast things can change back. And it’s a reminder of what an exciting, hopeful, optimistic time that was, even if you were quite young, or didn’t follow world politics all that closely. Gorbachev. Reagan. Thatcher. John Paul II.
Whither Russia today? Do we know? And what about the rest of us?
Mikhail Gorbachev is 88 years old and a widower. He lives quietly outside Moscow and devotes most of his time to charitable causes. When asked recently about his “greatest weakness,” he responded that it lay in his democratic character:
“It lives inside me,” the former general secretary added. “I’m not just blabbering. During Perestroika, my credo was nonviolence. Respect for people. I can’t be rude.”
“I forgave a lot,” Gorbachev added in his more recent interview with Meduza when asked what he regrets in his life. Alexander Lebedev described his friend as follows: “He doesn’t change. He has the same marvelous sense of humor, he is just as self-critical, and he still believes that it’s possible to use ideology to change the world.”