I was sad to learn the news of Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing last week. He was 91 years old. What a monumental life he lived. Many think he will go down in history as one of the most important figures of the 20th century. I agree.
Many in the West see him as a hero. While leader of the Soviet Union (1985-91) he believed significant reform had to happen, especially after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. He wanted better relationships with the West and participated in talks with President Reagan to limit nuclear weapons and to end the Cold War. At home he was determined to reinvigorate the stagnant Soviet economy and is well-known for his policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”). Gorbachev was credited for the tumbling of the Berlin Wall and for ending the Cold War and received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
I was fortunate to see Gorbachev in 1992 when he spoke at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where I was working at the Institute of Politics. The event was held at the Forum where we hosted many events and speeches for a variety of public leaders including the 1992 democratic presidential candidates, governors, senators, mayors, and a variety of others. Some of my favorites were Tip O’Neil, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jesse Jackson and Marian Wright Edelman. During the school year we probably held at least one or two events weekly. But when Mikhail Gorbachev visited it was an event like no other. There was such a buzz around this event that the electricity in the air was palpable.
There were about 600 tickets for this grand event and about half were distributed in a lottery open to all Harvard students. Apparently hundreds were turned away. The other tickets were given to faculty and staff and local scholars and political figures such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Teddy Kennedy and his wife Vicki. There was more security at this event than any other during my time there. Secret service were everywhere. I remember there being protestors outside too and large signs being displayed although I honestly don’t remember what they said or the details of that.
A funny personal story about that day was that I had a friend from high school visiting Boston with a friend of his for the weekend. We planned for me to meet them at Fenway Park for a baseball game after my Gorby event. I knew the routine of these events – they started on time and ended 90 minutes later, at which point I would hop on the “T” and meet them in Kenmore Square. I hadn’t anticipated the outlier this event would prove to be. First of all it started close to an hour later than scheduled, you couldn’t leave the building once you were inside due to all the security, and it was in the days before cell phones so I couldn’t call him to let him know I wouldn’t be there as he was at the game sans cell-phone. I’m someone who’s almost always on time and I never no-show if I’ve committed to something. I felt so guilty about not meeting him but I knew there wasn’t anything I could do. And he was with a friend so I felt some comfort knowing he wasn’t alone. Later that night he called me and I told him what happened. He wasn’t upset at all and instead found it funny. I heard that for some time after, when people asked him about his trip to Boston, he told them, “Donna stood me up for Gorbachev.”
A couple of years ago, a really cool theatre in my area, Zoetropolis, showed a documentary called “Meeting Gorbachev” directed by Werner Herzog and Andre Singer. The movie affected me deeply. I remember leaving the theatre with so much respect for Gorbachev. He was a true leader doing things that were not always popular but that he thought were best not only for his country, but for the world. He stressed the dangers of nuclear weapons and the importance of having leaders who understood the dangers and who would stop building and stockpiling them. He presented as highly intelligent and thoughtful…and profoundly sad. His wife and life partner, Raisa, died in 1999 after nearly 46 years of marriage. She was with him that day at the Kennedy School. She was beautiful and well-loved and was known to have been his rock. I once read, “they shared the world stage.” In the documentary he admitted to being lost without her. You sensed that he was somewhat isolated and I was reminded that he wasn’t necessarily a hero there as he is seen in many Western countries.
It must have been sad for him to see what is happening in his country today. He envisioned a prosperous Russia at peace with its neighbors and he worked hard towards that goal. Most of that work has been overturned. I was warmed to see the flocks of Russians who showed up for his funeral, paying tribute to the warm and generous leader he was. What a striking contrast to their current leader who was apparently too busy to attend the funeral and was a no-show. Rest in peace Mikhail Gorbachev.