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Gorbachev gave peace a chance — Putin put war on the agenda

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Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was popular abroad (Image by Dmitry Aleshkovskiy | Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Lee Duffield records impressions of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the late Russian statesman who changed history. As a news correspondent, he tracked Gorbachev's progress across Europe as the Soviet leader tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the Cold War.

STARTING A reporting tour in Europe in July 1987 was strategic, with at the time already a growing “imagination gap”, where you could not imagine that the momentous events being reported actually would be taking place.

Could you believe your own despatches? With Gorbachev at the centre, those events inexorably and very rapidly led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Eastern bloc, then of the Soviet Union itself.

Gorbachev’s ally and foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, had reported on their famous conversation in 1984, the year before taking power, where they agreed on the degraded state of the Soviet Union concluding“Everything’s rotten; it has to be changed.”

He’d seen the population as a “humiliated people”, the country impoverished, living on the “brink of catastrophe” — the system broken down long before Gorbachev’s proposal for reforms, glasnost for openness and perestroika for an overhaul and modernisation, leading even to a market economy.

On 11 March 1985, with hard economic times, dissent in the outlying republics of the USSR and distrust in every corner of society, the gerontocracy of the time elected Gorbachev (at 54 the youngest member of their inner circle), together with his ideas for change, as leader of the communist party — later to be also Soviet President.

An immediate test arrived on 26 April 1986 with the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. By his own telling, the reformers initially reacted in the “old way”, imposing a blanket of secrecy, but then determined to do it differently, informing Western leaders — asking for help, bringing in world media.

Up to that moment the new man in Moscow had not had much to do directly with Europe, as after all a leader of the overlord power was prone to send in tanks if people in the satellite states became restive. But he had already talked change with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984, who gave him a badge of approval when she declared, "We can do business together" — he called her the “Iron Lady”.

By mid-1987 Mikhail Gorbachev was then set to both tackle the system at home and fully make his splash on the world stage. He had shocked the Americans at his Reykjavík summit with President Ronald Reagan in April 1986 by suddenly proposing a drive to eliminate nuclear arms in 15 years.

Though the chance was passed up because of disagreements over the U.S. “Star Wars” anti-missiles program, the world was taking notice — and the Gorbachev story, at least for the outside world, shifted to Europe.

It would follow two tracks: pushing to settle the dangerous stand-off over intermediate-range nuclear weapons – sparking the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) – many of those on German territory, East and West, setting off serious war talk and frantic protest movements in the West from the early part of the decade; and secondly, as the Soviet Union stumbled towards chaos, a desperate one-man campaign by the Soviet leader to get help from Western Europe — help with money, commodities, diplomatic and moral support that might somehow save his project, and himself.

In that summer of 1987, following up on the progress at Reykjavík, Gorbachev signed the INF treaty with Reagan in Washington, which saw the destruction of 2,692 missiles — the treaty lasting until abrogated by President Donald Trump in 2017.  

The next step was START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks), negotiations on short-range missiles and on conventional forces.

It began a hectic routine of exchanges involving Shevardnadze and his American counterpart George Shulz and leaders of the NATO alliance, usually at Brussels, Geneva or Paris. Following it involved making sense of bamboozling numbers, of missiles, troops or tanks, having to recall each time that the subject matter was death and the other substance was hope.

We heard Schultz declare at an anxious meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) foreign ministers in Brussels in December 1987 that openness, information and good contacts would enable them to act on the opportunities of Russia’s glasnost and perestroika.

Citing his own progress report, Shulz said:

“Something different is going on; the change in the relationship with the Soviet Union was profound… Allied strength and cohesion would remain vital. But the prospects for a major breakthrough were there.”

All that work pushed up to a five-day summit at Moscow starting on 29 May 1988, where Gorbachev and Reagan formalised the INF accord and moved their conversation to human rights — never on the agenda with previous Soviet administrations.

An international media pack was building up in Europe and we mixed in at Moscow with hundreds of U.S. and Russian journalists. The event was valuable for symbolic acts, for exposing more of what was happening and would happen in the Soviet Union, and for seeing more of Gorbachev — soon to be a regular feature in cities in Western Europe.

At the U.S. media centre set up inside a new, Western-style hotel, with a video feed of all events, one of the Americans called out: “Reagan’s got out of the car.” The break in protocol saw an impromptu street meeting with a family group, where Gorbachev asked Reagan if he still thought of Russia as the “evil empire”. “No”, he crooned. “Do you mean that Mr President?” Gorbachev persisted. Reagan answered: “Yes.”

At a media conference given by Gorbachev and some generals – big, hard men – the sound system embarrassingly broke down in half the auditorium. The mercurial Gorbachev, as he was, got up all the Russian speakers and moved them to the dead zone, then marshalled the rest of us into seats where translation could still be heard. (This was a needed skill; on another occasion, his Zil limousine refused to start outside of the Federal Chancellery in Bonn; he had to himself organise a reallocation of seats to the remainder of the motorcade — in front of a giggling local crowd).

Nor did Mikhail Gorbachev bat an eyelid when told at that media conference his Party chief in Moscow Boris Yeltsin, had been publicly complaining about slow progress with reform.

Said Gorbachev:

“Let’s hear from him! Let him stand up and make his case!”

What would Joseph Stalin have done with him? (In his memoirs Gorbachev would say magnanimously that at the time, Yeltsin – the man who later displaced him and took up the Russian Presidency – since he was in the capital, had been bearing the brunt of pressure from hold-outs against change.)

The summit as a large media event was itself beyond the capacity of the Soviet Government to fully provide. There was no "taxi driver poll", as drivers at the wheel of over-heating old wrecks, rostered on a shuttle of summit venues shared the common anger of the community, not speaking or not turning up.

No after-hours bars, shops or restaurants were available for those working to foreign deadlines. In the palpable drought of consumer goods of any kind, whatever aid might be wanted, if at all available, could be got for a carton of American cigarettes.  

The attempts at economic restructuring were back-firing, causing higher prices. The Soviet Union had already been falling behind due to its inability to match the West in computing power and the rise in agility and productivity it brought.

Gorbachev would blame much of the failure on very low world oil prices at that time, spending on Chornobyl and ruinous events like the devastating earthquake in Armenia that December where – true to glasnost – he owned up to poor construction of buildings and was mobbed and jeered in the streets.

By 1990 he achieved his wish, that nobody should any longer be afraid — in response, getting cat-called by marchers in the May Day parade.

As said by a friend and colleague who saw it:

“When somebody comes along who is reasonable they throw it in his face.”

The habit of declaiming was the trademark of Gorbachev, as a certain kind of European politician prone to interrupt any function or interview and start delivering an unprepared speech.

Unsurprisingly he was under severe mental stress during the next phase, a series of visits to the capitals of Europe, appealing for help in building our "common European home”. If resented at home, the peacemaker had become highly popular abroad; it was still a time of “Gorbymania”. 

Yet a glance at the historical record shows that each time he was away, violent rebellion and armed counter-measures would break out in one of the Soviet republics; there would be ructions in the government or some fresh crisis for the economy.  

During 1989 and 1990 the man negotiated lines of credit – never enough – and support from governments, including from the then European Community, which dug into its celebrated food stocks, like the “butter mountain” put in store because of subsidised over-production on farms. Trainloads of that product, well past its use-by date, were sent to be used in food processing — in truth needed for dinner tables.

He would declaim at the new Paris Opera in the Place de la Bastille, where, on arrival to see the modern building, he instead strode off across the square, cordoned off from the usual traffic, officials and journalists scurrying behind, making for a crowd held at barricades, but then stopping mid-way at the monument to deliver an oration in Russian.

It also happened on the sweeping outdoor stairway at the entrance to the Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg: a sudden change of plan and a speech, defying any interpreters on the scene to try and catch up — lost for lack of translation.

The declaiming became important during his visit to East Berlin in early October 1989 for the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where Western journalists had been let in to cover the celebrations — also watching for something else.

“Gorby, save us!

Paying respects at the tomb of the unknown soldier, Gorbachev then worked the crowd and gave an unscheduled speech, making the famous declaration, “life punishes those who fall behind the times”. It was translated into German by a few journalists, then for others in French, then others into English. It meant he would not help the GDR, or other regimes like it, suppress a public revolt — no more Soviet tanks in the streets. The message was then reiterated at a large indoor rally put on by his hosts, disconcertingly for them.

Journalists who received an anonymous tip-off to be at the central Alexander Platz saw a pretend street fight shepherded by a protective mob, then more arrivals and a snowballing march to a reception centre where official guests were being entertained.

“Gorby, save us!” they shouted, police struggling to hold them back (one officer making to give me a kick if I did not get away). It became a world event. Gorbachev said he “heard them”. Astonishing to all, the Berlin Wall came down five weeks later.

A vignette from Gorbachev’s efforts to save himself and the USSR: At a very low point he had a "low-key" meeting with President François Mitterrand inside a chateau outside Paris, some of the news media finding out and passing it around so that in the end, maybe 20 were let in for an informal media conference, reporters gathered around the two men at a table.

Gorbachev came under pressure over the unravelling state of affairs in Russia: Were they travelling down the capitalist road? Could they even get there? And so on.

A little hollow, a man in trouble, Gorbachev declaimed:

“The Russian people will always support socialism.”

Mitterrand reached over and rested his palm on the back of the other man’s hand — a rare gesture of humanity at that level of political affairs.

The Soviet Union had turned out a bold experiment destroyed by criminals and madmen, some from outside driving tanks, others out of the ranks of the communist apparatus.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (21.3.1931 – 30.8.22), its last President, husband of the equally esteemed Raisa (5.1.32 – 20.9.99), tried to create reasonable solutions, offering peace, prosperity and human freedoms.

He was frustrated by the weight of bad circumstances that had built up; he was forced to try and do the impossible.

So, in 2022, we are back with a criminal state and madness in Russia — though perhaps with the chance that those trying to reform it another day will find useful inspiration in Gorbachev's example.

Amongst his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as the ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic.

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