Mikhail Gorbachev: The World According to Gorby

Over lunch in Moscow, the ex-senator from California talks politics with the former head of the Soviet Union

Mikhail Gorbachev in Canada. Circa April 1993 Credit: Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty

Here he is, the man who changed the world, striding briskly and with supreme self-confidence into the small private banquet room in Moscow he has reserved for lunch.

Mikhail Gorbachev's self-confidence has been blamed and celebrated for his virtues and his flaws, all his triumphs and all his failures, his amazing rise to power and his abrupt loss of it. "Well," he says with a rueful smile when asked about it later, "so far as self-confidence, I would say that Gorbachev has always had enough of that!

"And also self-respect," Gorbachev adds quickly, Starting early in life, he says, he seemed to have leadership qualities. "I don't know where they came from. But those leadership qualities, they pushed me to try to be on the top of every situation. From my very young days and years, I was always leading some kind of team or some kind of organization or some kind of effort."

"You wanted to control everything?" he is asked.

Gorbachev pauses. "There was this, too." He smiles amiably as he greets his guests. More than two years out of power, he seems personally unchanged by his dramatic loss of the vast might once in his hands — nuclear weapons and the Red army for foreign foes, the Communist Party and KGB for domestic threats. It was his refusal — inexplicable not just to hard-liners but to much of the West as well — to use that power as his predecessors had done that made him such an extraordinary figure. Had he been willing to do so, he might still be in power today, and there might still be a Soviet Union over which to reign.

Nor, when he became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, was there anything to prevent him from simply living a life of luxury and power. He didn't need to take on the bureaucracy, the nomenklatura, the military-industrial complex. But he did.

"Well, no," he says, "this I think would be someone other than Gorbachev if I did not take them on. Over the years, I became angry! I became unhappy about what was happening in the country."

His refusal to use raw force was driven by a fundamental belief in nonviolence. "I was there when the great decisions were made," says longtime Gorbachev intimate and adviser Aleksandr N. Yakovlev, described by The Economist as "one of the few reformers of unassailable moral stature." Gorbachev "wanted power," Yakovlev says. "He likes power. He now suffers without it. But he was against blood! He always said, 'OK. Let us think about every option, every measure — except bloodshed.'"

"I wanted radical change without blood, without bloodshed," Gorbachev says. "We were not able to avoid bloodshed totally. But it was never a policy. It was never a policy. Force is not constructive. Its essence is destructive. The use of force did violence to our people and to human nature, human freedom."

It's a wonder that Gorbachev, outspoken even as a young man, was able to get away with retaining his inner self in the midst of the Communist hierarchy of his time. "Gorbachev cannot be understood," writes Robert Kaiser in his superb book Why Gorbacher Happened, "without an appreciation of his great gifts as a political tactician. His deftness at moments of crisis has sometimes been breathtaking."

"In this country, the process of change could only begin as a revolution from above," says Gorbachev. "There was a machine. I needed to get into that machine in order to take the controls. There was no other way. If I tried to do it from the outside, the machine would have run over any opponent. It was a long road."

At 63, Gorbachev gives no indication that he intends to stop making history. Attired immaculately in his customary dark blue world-leader's suit, he also sports a maroon sweater underneath his jacket today, along with a bright red tie. He appears as fit and dynamic as when he was at the height of his power.

Close by Gorbachev stands his ever-present interpreter, Pavel R. Palazchenko. Also joining us is Georgi Shakhnazarov, a diminutive, twinkle-eyed adviser to Gorbachev in the Kremlin. There are introductory pleasantries and small talk for a moment as everyone stands near a spotless white-linen-draped luncheon table sitting square in the center of acres of empty surrounding floor space in a room barren of other tables. The table has been elegantly set. Waiters and waitresses hover discreetly at the ready.

"This was a short trip," Gorbachev is saying, "but I think it was really a very substantive trip. It went very well."

Gorbachev just came back a few days ago from Washington, where he had a bad bout with the flu. On the way, he'd also stopped in Germany, Scotland and England, where he met with Prime Minister John Major and Margaret Thatcher, a partner in ending the Cold War.

Now, Gorbachev looks fully recovered and rested. The amenities over, he motions us to the table. Palazchenko sits on Gorbachev's left, Shakhnazarov on his right. "First, a toast!" Gorbachev says, lifting a small snifter of vodka. "To our cooperation!"

We are lunching inside a monstrous Stalinesque complex of old and new buildings, all connected by miles of corridors, known as the Financial Academy of the Government of the Russian Federation. Before resigning as president of the already-vanished Soviet Union, Gorbachev worked out an arrangement with his archnemesis, Boris Yeltsin, that gave Gorbachev ample office space at the academy for himself and the staff of his newly created Gorbachev Foundation. The arrangement didn't last long. Gorbachev's continuing criticism of Yeltsin so piqued the new president that he suddenly barred Gorbachev for a short time from entering the building or leaving the country.

Eventually, grudgingly, Yeltsin relented. But he also shrank Gorbachev's offices to a few cramped rooms in a corner of one of the buildings. Workdays now have to be staggered because there's no room for the staff to all sit down at the same time.

The money that Gorbachev earns from lecturing abroad goes into the foundation and is used for its work in advancing nuclear disarmament and building new structures for world peace. The foundation also engages in various humanitarian projects. One is Moscow's first bone-marrow-transplant center for children with leukemia — a passionate interest of Gorbachev's ever since the disaster of Chernobyl. Though he had no direct responsibility for it, he feels responsible because it happened on his watch. Another project is a major health program to provide mass immunizations for the children in the former Soviet state of Georgia.

The foundation's reduced office space is space that Yeltsin could still take away, along with Gorbachev's state-owned dacha in the country, where he lives, and a state-owned three-room apartment in Moscow he's allowed to use.

But the risk of offending Yeltsin the landlord, however, has not deterred Gorbachev from stepping up his public criticism of the Russian president. Gorbachev recently suggested that Yeltsin "lacked the courage" to admit his policies were a failure and suggested that it would be "wise" for Yeltsin to step down.

"You cannot change Gorbachev — I will say what I think." Gorbachev smiles good-naturedly when he says this, but somehow it's understood that it's not really a joke. I'm reminded of a remark made by someone who knew Gorbachev — that though he has a "charming smile," behind it are "teeth of iron."

We have begun to work our way through a luncheon spread that includes two kinds of caviar, cucumbers, tomatoes, wine, mushrooms and mutton, coffee and brandy.

"It's tough now," says Gorbachev, "and I think that throughout the nation the people have a lot of hardships, even many of those who used to live well. But still, I would say that among all generations, there are very few people who would like just a return to the past."

What Gorbachev had in mind when he launched the reform process, he says, were gradual changes that would minimize economic dislocations and hardships — not the "shock therapy" adopted by Yeltsin at the urgings of Western economic advisers and the insistence of international lending agencies.

Gorbachev subsides for a moment as he continues eating. It seems a good time to explain to him what Rolling Stone is.

"Wait! Let us drink!" Gorbachev says jokingly. "I'm not yet drunk!" Smiling, he raises his glass and takes a sip, adding, "It's only a small dose."

I tell him that Rolling Stone particularly appeals to a younger generation of readers. "Here in this country," Gorbachev says, "the generation of below 30 are really the proponents of Gorbachev.

"Up to 95 percent of the younger people say that perestroika was imperative," Gorbachev says. "It's a little more complicated among the older generation. But yes, indeed, there are supporters of Gorbachev among the older generation.

"You see, there is this stereotyped view — because the leftist radicals are promoting the stereotype — that Gorbachev is not a decisive leader, that he was not moving fast enough. But there were also the right-wing hard-liners who say, 'Well, Gorbachev sold out the Soviet Union to the imperialists.'"

But, Gorbachev says with a shrug, "No reformer can expect an easy life. You should understand that."

What does Gorbachev say to Russian youth cynical about politics and democracy? "I tell them," he says, "that today the groundwork is being prepared for them to be able to really show what they are worth in the future! Today is their time, their time. A lot will depend on what they do today on their own initiative."

Gorbachev notes that many young Russians are now going to business schools and that many of the new companies are run by young people. "The new generation has the possibility," he continues, "has this opportunity of realizing their full potential. Those who are cynical and apathetic and disappointed, they have a point, because the cost of change over the past couple of years has been too high, and that is why so many people are disillusioned.

"But I still think this is a time that will pass. And if only we're able to preserve the democratic atmosphere, glasnost, and we're able to protect human freedoms and rights, I believe that this environment will be conducive for the young people to really show what they can do."

Gorbachev grows more relaxed and expansive as the luncheon progresses. "My schedule is an extremely full one," he says. But he does find time for exercise and leisure to balance his workaholism.

"First of all," Gorbachev says, "I have a stupid habit. I go to bed always past midnight. It could be 1:30 a.m., 2 a.m. I love to work at night! Because of this, I try to find an hour in the afternoon or in the evening — both Raisa [his wife] and I have been doing this for many years — one hour of walking a day at a fast pace, six kilometers an hour, in a jogging suit and shoes."

Then, Gorbachev says: "We also like to go to the theater. Everyone knows that Gorbachev is a theater buff and also a movie fan. I've also developed a liking to go to a symphony-music concert.

"It's wonderful to have a chance to listen to good music. I believe that the greatest achievement of humankind, other than growing grain, is symphonies, classical music. This is a sphere where there is no need for words but where the human feelings are expressed in the highest philosophical way."

I ask him if he ever sees any American movies. "I would guess that perhaps I've seen more American movies than you have!" Gorbachev says.

"The good thing about American crime films is that sometimes 20 people die during that film, and you're not sorry. You're not sorry for any one of them!" But Gorbachev adds: "This is the kind of commercial cinema that I don't appreciate. But when I saw, for example, The Deer Hunter, a film about those who went through the war in Vietnam, and when the hunting season opens, the three friends go out and begin to feel as though they are in Vietnam [again] and ..."

As he warms to his subject and recalls the plot, Gorbachev's deep voice grows louder, he leans forward in his chair, and he begins animating his description. "So," he concludes, "this is a film about how war really distorts and maims individuals."

Then there are the "good" police dramas that Gorbachev likes, the kind "that really give a good cross-section of the society. I like, American films that give a kind of social cross-section."

Suddenly, Gorbachev remembers another movie. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest!" he says. "This is an amazing film! An amazing film!

"So! American movies are technically very strong, and there are some great films. But of course, because of the commercialization, many of the films have suffered."

Gorbachev looks at his watch and stands. The lunch has gone on for two hours, and he's late for his next appointment. There are handshakes all around. Then he and Palazchenko hurry out.

It's fashionable now to write Gorbachev off, both in his own homeland and as an international ally. But commentators forget that Gorbachev is still Gorbachev. And as rapidly as Russia is changing, the future is impossible to forecast. After 70 years of communism and centuries more of totalitarianism, its people are only now just emerging. "History," one of James Joyce's characters says, "is a nightinare from which I am trying to awake."

It's beginning to dawn on sane and moderate Russian politicians that in the absence of a viable opponent, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the wild-eyed supernationalist whose party led all others in parliamentary elections last December, might well command the largest share of the vote in the 1996 presidential election. The chilling prospect of Zhirinovsky in the Kremlin could be enough to unite reformers and moderate conservatives alike behind a strong centrist reform candidate.

It may not seem at all likely now, but it's at least conceivable that Gorbachev could reemerge in 1996. Whatever his political future in Russia, Gorbachev will still continue his role as a world leader promoting peace. Some think Gorbachev would be ideal as the next secretary general of the United Nations when Boutros Boutros-Ghali's term expires in December 1996.

One thing is certain: Gorbachev is not going to disappear for a long time to come. As he keeps reminding us: "You cannot change Gorbachev. I will say what I think."