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hen journalist Hedrick Smith left Moscow in 1974 after nearly three years as the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, he walked away with a foreboding sense that the Soviet Union would be around for decades to come and that the Russian people were immune to any kind of change. Having lived under the orthodoxy of Leonid Brezhnev, Smith had come to feel that authoritarian rule was firmly ingrained into the Russian psyche. Their many leaders, from Peter The Great to Ivan The Terrible, Vladimir Lenin to Joseph Stalin, had left them submissive to the iron fist of the man or woman in charge. From time to time, democratic groups – most of them grassroots – had sprung up, but few of their ideas ever took hold in the Russian public. It was, to some extent, too dangerous to do so. Even during the so-called thaw during the reign of Khrushchev, no one dared step out of line and they seemed at the very least okay with that. They would, as Smith was told many times during his years in Moscow, choose “stability over chaos, order over freedom.” However, Smith and all those who thought like him were wrong.

No one was initiating the rapidly advancing changes in the Soviet Union that were beginning to happen after the death of Brezhnev than the emerging Mikhail Gorbachev to his place of General Secretary. In a nation where so few of the leaders were warm and open, Gorbachev had a personality that gave off pure, youthful enthusiasm. His smile, one journalist said at the time, was like a breath of fresh air. Of course, some of that did indeed have to do with his age. He was just 54 in 1985 when he was appointed. But some of that also had to do with his strong intellectual understanding of the communist system. In some way, he seemed to understand its purpose better than those who had been in charge before him. By the time of his rise to General Secretary, the Soviet economy, society and to a great degree, its leaders, had become decrepit. To those outside the Soviet Union, one could never be quite sure about the rumors. But, they were all true. The streets of even a major city like Moscow were often empty because very few people could afford the abysmal cars that the Soviet Union provided. Both the big, multi-floored stores and the little shops had almost nothing in them. The milk that Soviet citizens bought was often grey, tinged with an unknown substance in a factory somewhere. The bread was also grey, this the result of a combination of half wheat and half stale bread that had been gathered from bakers elsewhere.

The three old men that had preceded him, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov (once the head of the KGB) and Konstantin Chernenko were barely an appropriate representation of what a president of a major nation was supposed to look like. As Brezhnev neared his death, he often stumbled over lines in his speeches. Andropov, in his old age, walked with a limp. Chernenko’s condition was even worse than that. He had been a smoker since the age of nine, and in his old age, had developed emphysema and heart failure. Slowly but surely, he began to back away from his duties as General Secretary, simply handing down decisions to his associates. His illness, which became terminal in 1984, was kept a secret from the Soviet people until February 24, 1985 when the General Secretary, now almost ghostly, appeared on television to cast his vote in the next election. It was a shocking moment for the whole nation. After Chernenko died, even to those on the outside who were always left guessing what exactly was happening in the Soviet Union, there was a firm belief that the upper echelons of the Soviet Politburo were scared of something.

The Changes Begin

They had reason to be. Gorbachev was a bug in a system that was designed to get rid of such things. He represented values that were seemingly totally different from that of most hard-line communists. Right from the very start of his time as General Secretary, Gorbachev established a pattern of humility, kindness and openness that was highly unusual. One of the first things he ever said to the general public was that the Soviet system needed to be changed, to be restructured in order to survive. The fact that the nation was hearing such things from their senior leader was shocking and unexpected—up until Gorbachev took over the party line had been “further perfectioning.” Within a year, previously banned literature and movies were being released by the party. The Soviet Union had always had a very prominent underground culture of samizdat, but now for the first time in their history, people were not pointing to some publishing house but to the General Secretary himself. Almost overnight, Gorbachev completely transformed the societal experience of the Soviet Union. And just as fast, it seemed, he became a global celebrity.

12/8/1987 President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Gorbachev’s arrival on the brightest stage seemed to parallel the increasing desperation brought on by the true state of the economy in the nation. Yes, they were a global superpower, but mostly on the basis that they had more nuclear missiles than any country aside from the United States. In fact, most of the nation’s funds went into this category. To Gorbachev, that was an unnecessary ill that needed to be fixed. It instilled fear in his own citizen’s hearts, a fear that reached into every nation of the world. Why couldn’t the world live in peace, without the fear of someday becoming the victims of a nuclear war between the two global superpowers? Gorbachev couldn’t see any reason why not. And so, just two years into his time as General Secretary, he and President Ronald Reagan of the US signed a treaty to halt production of nuclear weapons in their respective nations. It was, to many in the western world, a major step in the right direction. But, to those still loyal to the communist system, those hardliners who had come before the changing of the guard, it felt like the beginning of a betrayal. And, although those who disliked him tried to have him overthrown – in a highly pathetic military coup – the deed had already been done. Just seven years after he had become General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev had dismantled the Soviet Union.

To those who got the chance to know Gorbachev personally over his 91 years on earth, he seemed to be a walking contradiction. On the one hand, he stood for good, moral western democratic values. He supported change and freedom of thought and speech. He didn’t, as far as we can tell, ever use force to get his own way. He loved to sing and at one point before he went to Moscow State University to study law, thought about being an actor either on screen or on the stage. He was married and loyal to his wife Raisa for more than thirty years. His values were the kind that it is hard to believe anyone would openly oppose. And yet, on the other hand, Gorbachev was a man steeped in communist tradition, a man who understood many of the party’s core values better than almost anyone. And although he helped dismantle it, most seemed to believe that in his heart he truly felt he could reform the Soviet system and still keep the republic alive.

Twenty-one years after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russian flag was silently raised above the Kremlin on a cold, dreary December night, I got the chance to see Gorbachev in person. He came to my hometown for a youth event at our local arena to inspire change and encourage us that we, too, could do something great. And although I understood the significance of the moment, I am constantly reminded of just how sad elements of his life had become. Here he was, the former General Secretary of one of the most powerful and important nations on earth, and most of the audience neither knew who he was nor even cared. He had gone from being loved by the western world and known by people of all ages, to being a shadow of his former self in the west and hated by many in his own nation.

When he died on August 30 at the age of 91, many good things were said about him but perhaps the best thing I saw was actually a quote by the man himself. It summed up what he stood for perfectly. “I thought to myself, if the state cannot control a nuclear power plant of this significance, then the state is no longer functioning as a state. The state is kaput … When we see the devastation that splitting an atom can cause, then this is untenable; this cannot ever be acceptable. The Soviet Union was no longer viable; it has to find a new path—a path that must include rapprochement with the West.”

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