Limiting MG to just Russia would be narrow and unwise. Genius is universal. Marx was born in Germany, wrote in England and his doctrine was practiced in Russia where his proletariat hardly existed. Even MG always referred to Europe as his basic concern. Also, glasnost and perestroika are not goals or targets to be set for particular societies at particular times. They are processes to be lived by all societies at all times. Like Mao insisted that every generation must have some experience of revolution, MG was reviving the permanent value of freedom and restructuring for the world: though Russia needed them critically when he emerged as her Premier. The historic moment was there waiting for him and he grabbed it- both with hands and heart!
He was lonely both as a widower and politician. He was suffering not from illness alone but from having to watch the travesty of his glasnost and perestroika. He had some roots in Ukraine from his parents and had to witness the Cold War-though differently- fought over that rich country. He wanted security and peace for Europe-in that order- but Europe was once again thrown into anxieties-military, political, economic and environmental.
Is History having its revenge on Mikhail Gorbachev (MG) for daring to set her on a different course three decades back?
Recall the sincere apprehension of all who valued freedom and democracy in August 1991 when the whereabouts of MG were unknown and it was announced by the coup leaders-last of the conspirators behind the steel curtain- that he was physically unfit to continue in the top office of USSR. Recall the speculation that he might have been already done away with. Bring to mind the battle-ready tanks surrounded by thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the Red Square. Also recall the universal relief when a slightly weather(?) beaten MG emerged from confinement and soldiers and citizens sang and embraced in the Red Square.
That was the path MG was setting for History!
My generation came of age under the dark shadows of man-made divisions of culturally united people. Partition of India, Israel and Palestine, North and South Korea and Vietnam formed our troubled legacy. But these four man-made divides somehow felt distant until the Berlin Wall: here all artificial divides were symbolized concretely for the first time. I still remember the anguish and awe when I first saw the picture of a German shot dead on the barbed wire fence while he was trying to jump from east to west. Here was a visual for man’s irrepressible freedom instinct and its most reprehensible, cruel suppression. Many must have wondered, like me, if and when this arrogant blot on civilization would be reduced to pieces.
We were fortunate to see the Wall of Shame come down. Peacefully. Not a shot was fired. Germans sang and danced and we in our homes joined them in the euphoria. History is made through blood, sweat, tears and toil Churchill had warned 40 years back and exhorted his people to suffer because civilization had to be saved. Here civilization was saved again in sheer delight. All knew why the Wall of Shame had been built: nobody knew how and when it would vanish. MG’s glasnost and perestroika may have lagged in the USSR but had worked in Europe as maps were restored to the original. No head of state would now have to proclaim in anguish- I am a Berliner.
The infamous Cold War (cold-blooded for the US and USSR and bloody for the countries where it was actually fought?) became irrelevant overnight. Gone were the spies and moles. Gone were the true and imagined, ill-intentioned dare-devil stories and fantasies of crossings and coming backs from GDR and FRG. Times changed and changes in idiom had to be initiated. Talk of one world had fallen on stubbornly deaf ears before; now it seemed real and poignant as globalization and liberalization became the new watch words. Their adherents were forced to be apologetic during The Cold War; now they spoke with fresh confidence.
Well begun yet still half done. Ironically, man-made unions too were part of our legacy: the USSR being the foremost, if not first in history. Since Mother Russia was poor in natural resources -as those were understood and needed for development then- it forced, under Stalin, unwilling culturally separate satellite countries to remain under her thumb through blatant oppression. Thus, the Soviet empire was created artificially by ideologically blind Russian leaders. If man made divisions fell into the dustbin of history man made unions too would have to go. MG achieved that at the risk of political unpopularity and total oblivion in his own country: by end of 1991the USSR was history. Here was a statesman who cut his own state to its natural size and withdrew without regrets. To this day analysts are busy understanding his bold recognition of the much-quoted Marxist doctrine of ‘historical necessity’. History is made by the likes of Lincoln, Lenin, Mandela and MG who understand ‘historical necessity’ without aspirations of personal power.
My generation and the generations following me stand in eternal debt to MG for these two history-making decisions.
Did MG fall between two stools in his own motherland as one analyst/commentator after another is busy pointing out? If we limit our perspective to Yel(L)tsin and Putin, it would seem so. Some would be tempted to conclude that MG, like the uncouth mid-wife threw away the baby, bath water and the tub too! The question has to be viewed locally and globally. Like Lenin remarked that 1905 was a bourgeois revolution which had to be converted into a communist revolution, MG’s glasnost and perestroika were still under the yoke of a rigid totalitarian past and would need their due time to germinate: no short cuts in history!
But limiting MG to just Russia would be narrow and unwise. Genius is universal. Marx was born in Germany, wrote in England and his doctrine was practiced in Russia where his proletariat hardly existed. Even MG always referred to Europe as his basic concern. Also, glasnost and perestroika are not goals or targets to be set for particular societies at particular times. They are processes to be lived by all societies at all times. Like Mao insisted that every generation must have some experience of revolution, MG was reviving the permanent value of freedom and restructuring for the world: though Russia needed them critically when he emerged as her Premier. The historic moment was there waiting for him and he grabbed it- both with hands and heart!
MG remained a Russian Communist to the end. He was no Solzhenitsyn. The Capitalist block had high hopes of him but he kept them at a long distance. He wanted to reform Russia, Europe and the world - in that order. He boldly conceded that Communism had led the USSR into a blind alley of no return. The USSR had to take a 'U' turn. But he also warned the West that Capitalism had led them down a worse blind alley which was equally, if not more harmful. The West responded with typical impotent cunning: it highlighted his Russian failure ad nauseum.
And MG was fully aware of the turmoil that would follow in Russia and the world in the 21st century. On the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall heads of state of European countries had spoken at a symposium and MG’s speech was an exercise in balancing hope of the future with tensions and dark portents of the present. (I tried unsuccessfully to get the text of this speech and request my readers-if any-to get it for all of us!). Modestly, he had suggested that the path of freedom and prosperity for all would not be a morning walk in the garden or a ready-made jogging track. (My words). Glasnost would not come just by official decree. Ironically, at about the same time he had observed in an interview that ‘Putin’s eyes are very cold’: Vladimir has lived up to that description!
Some universal truths emerge from what MG revived through glasnost and perestroika.
Survival, happiness and freedom are mankind’s basic instincts: in that order.
Civillisation is older than the politics of nationalism.
Culturally connected people cannot be divided for political ambitions. Nor can culturally separate people be forced to live together.
Ideology remains relevant only till it ensures and respects happiness and freedom.
The issues before mankind tend to get complex by the day and military solutions need to be done away with. Wars produce only losers-on both sides.
Happiness is rooted in security but is ensured by development.
Allow people to meet, talk, interact and learn from one another. Let leaders talk after people have talked.
Cooperation and not confrontation is the path to the future.
This list is not complete; It looks almost banal. Just try living by it…….
Lastly and on a lighter note, here was a statesman who looked like one! Recall faces of major politicians of the 20th century and compare them with MG’s round head, big forehead with that beauty spot, warm but firm eyes, soft but determined mouth, prominent nose and impressive but unimposing build. He was the only Soviet leader whose face was not a punishment to the cameramen. Most US presidents with possible exceptions of a Kennedy or a Roosevelt paled before him. Better not talk about the British and other European leaders of last century.
Mikhail Gorbachev is dead: Long live glasnost and perestroika.
PS - I have dedicated my recent Marathi book to MG along with Lincoln, Lenin and Mandela.
- Vinay Hardikar
(The writer has been working in the public sphere of Maharashtra for the last five decades. His versatile personality has several dimensions, but the primary ones remain to be that of an established writer, journalist, editor, critic, activist, and teacher.)