More than four decades in the news business offer a chance to meet hundreds of noteworthy people — regular folks, brilliant scientists and artists, and a few true movers and shakers.
The man who died Tuesday in Moscow certainly belongs to that last category. There must be very few people around the world who have never heard the name of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last and only president of the Soviet Union. He changed the lives of millions — some of them, such as myself, are forever grateful; others are bitter and even hateful, vilifying Gorbachev and his legacy.
Here are my three recollections of meeting the former leader of a giant country that no longer exists.
MOSCOW, SPRING OF 1984
As a rookie reporter for the Novosti news agency in Moscow, I was assigned to cover the visit of a Canadian delegation led by, if I remember correctly, governor general (Parliament speaker) Jeanne Sauvé. The Canadians’ meetings with Soviet officials were expected to be polite, uneventful and rather dull, except for the fact that the Moscow side was represented by Gorbachev — a rising, dynamic and charismatic member of the ruling Politburo who, at the time, had a relatively minor role of supervising agriculture but already had created a bigger reputation for himself. He had traveled around the world, was young — 53 years old, a full quarter century younger than most Soviet leaders ranked ahead of him. He smiled a lot and spoke freely, without looking at his notes.
The man didn’t disappoint. His conversation with the Canadians quickly stretched beyond farming and harvesting to issues such as education, housing, international travel and personal freedoms. No, Gorbachev didn’t question the basic Communist Party line, and his answer to my single inquiry about the U.S.-Soviet arms race was basically a version of the Moscow refrain about a peaceful Soviet Union facing stubborn and aggressive Western policies. “We are ready for a dialogue,” he said, “but we can’t ignore the threat from NATO.”
Yet he obviously welcomed a discussion and was able to listen to his counterparts. And, in a few short years, after becoming the top leader in March 1985 — not yet as president but as general secretary of the ruling party — he overturned much of what for many years was thought to be inviolable. Among other things, he pulled Soviet troops from Afghanistan, allowed multiparty elections, removed (although reluctantly and slowly) censorship of news organizations, and let out previously banned movies and books.
In his first few years in power, Gorbachev was becoming popular among regular people, who would actually read his speeches published in newspapers and listen to him on the radio — an unheard-of phenomenon for the Soviets who for years had no interest in hearing what the geriatric, dogmatic Communist leaders had to say. In other words, he offered people hope that conditions can change for the better.
MOSCOW, SPRING OF 1989
In May of that year, another unthinkable development occurred in the Soviet Union: The Congress of People’s Deputies, a new, freely elected body of state authority opened as part of Gorbachev’s ambitious agenda. All of a sudden, delegates who were chosen by citizens were freely discussing crucial issues without the fear of being demoted or arrested. Many Communist Party candidates, including highly placed officials, failed to get elected, even, in some cases, when they ran unopposed.
My job then was to interview anyone willing to talk between sessions in the foyer of the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses.
And what a crowd that was: historians and authors whose books had been published for the first time after years of being barred, former political prisoners, rebellious economists and politicians formerly penalized for their questioning of the Communist Party. In those corridors, you could see the tall and slightly bent figure of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and key critic of the Soviet regime Andrei Sakharov, whom Gorbachev allowed to return from exile, and (still young and vigorous at the time but demoted from a top job — by Gorbachev himself) Boris Yeltsin.
And, of course, there was Gorbachev. Always in a hurry, with a serious, determined expression, this leader, who introduced glasnost and perestroika and helped engineer a peaceful end to the Cold War, was hard to catch for even a brief interview. “What are you asking me?” was his response to my question about what other changes we should expect next. “Will we abandon the socialist principles of economic justice and equality? The answer is no!”
Not everyone in those corridors was excited about Gorbachev’s reforms. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, one of the top Soviet military leaders, offered me an irritated lecture on the glorious and mighty Red Army that is always ready to defend the Soviet Union from Western aggressors. “Remember, all of us in the military, me included, will readily give our lives for our socialist motherland,” he said. In a few years, after the failure of the hard-line Communist coup attempt in August 1991, Akhromeyev took his own life.
SALT LAKE CITY, FALL OF 1996
In October 1996, Gorbachev, by then an ex-president for five years, was invited by Utah’s World Affairs Forum to speak at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall. Before his speech, he and his wife, Raisa, attended a reception. They were running late, and Utah dignitaries who gathered at the Little America Hotel were growing impatient. Yet when the couple, surrounded by their entourage, finally appeared, it was obvious that the man used to be a world leader for a reason.
The minute the Gorbachevs entered the room, the atmosphere changed. Everyone was relaxed, smiling, hoping to shake Gorbachev’s hand and strike at least a short conversation. He didn’t mind at all, patiently listening to countless introductions. Obviously, he didn’t remember me and our brief conversations from way back when, but he did ask a few polite questions about The Salt Lake Tribune.
Later on, during his speech at the U., he seemed a different person. Tense and angry, he blamed then-President Yeltsin for everything that went wrong with Russia — from the widespread poverty to the devastating war in Chechnya. Part of it most likely was that he was still smarting from his ill-advised run for president earlier that year. Gorbachev’s campaign was basically ignored by Russians and the Russian media. He received 0.5% of the overall vote.
In the following years, Gorbachev practically disappeared from public life. He remained in charge of the Gorbachev Foundation and regularly traveled around the world giving speeches. In 2004, he attended President Ronald Reagan’s funeral in Washington but otherwise slowed down considerably, especially after his wife’s 1999 death.
He did offer his opinions, but his voice had lost resonance, and the fact that he often went back and forth on key issues, such as his views on Vladimir Putin’s policies, didn’t help. He didn’t speak publicly about the war in Ukraine, even though his foundation on Feb. 26 called for a “speedy cessation of hostilities.”
His was a rich and tragic life, leaving a great if at times contradictory legacy.
“It’s hard to be a reformer,” Raisa Gorbachev told me at that reception in Utah some 26 years ago. It certainly is.
Michael Nakoryakov is The Salt Lake Tribune’s print director and copy desk chief. Before 1991, he worked as a journalist in Moscow.