All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity, (1) and from this point of view Gorbachev’s life is no different. Especially when equally remembering that all the world is a stage and all men and women merely players (2).
However, men who visibly walked on the stage of history offer great opportunities for experts, pundits, historians, biographers, chroniclers, storytellers, blabbers and certified politicians to pass certified judgments and certified sentences on the life of the men in question.
But even common men – who do not ride the tide of pomp that beats upon the high shores of the world (3) – can form their own judgment.
Many, unconscious slaves of power, slavishly believe the tales that power tells them through the telly.
Others form their conclusions through perceptions and judgments cast on specific episodes, singled-out and rated as telling and significant – perceptions often linked to personal emotions. And we know that one’s emotional reaction to an event varies inversely with one’s knowledge of the facts involved. Or, more simply, the less we know the more wrong may be our related reaction.
Often they/we are unaware of the immediate or associated context and background surrounding an event – which, if considered, may cast a different light on the whole story that the event is part of. Furthermore and inevitably we see others through the glasses of our own experience.
The question then arises whether, by setting aside our first impressions, our judgment may change. To such strain of common men he who writes here belongs.
The issue has puzzled many throughout history. Pascal, for example, with convincing reasoning, concluded that, “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner.” (To understand everything is to forgive everything.) Even Tolstoi inserts this Pascalian maxim in ‘War and Peace.’
Pascal’s conclusion, however, while true may not be practical. For example, it has led advocates of extreme neo-liberalism to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty. Principles summarized as follows: the fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.
Whereas advocates of the opposite side maintain – for example – that all current social problems of America are the result of slavery. Leading to defunding the police, turning many cities into veritable war zones or, quite recently in California, to reforming the teaching of mathematics. An interesting and extant video is titled, “Dismantling racism in mathematic instructions.” Meaning in practice, lowering the standards by which students are graded.
With Gorbachev, if we examine his life in the context of Russian history and perhaps, in the context of the Russian soul at large, our judgment may change.
To claim ‘knowledge of the Russian soul’ without being Russian smacks of hilarious bragging. For inevitably, it will come to pass that every braggart shall be found an ass.(4)
However, while precise knowledge of the soul of a people (of any country) is inherently impossible, approximations and limited generalizations are (I think) acceptable, if accompanied by a genuine interest at large in that country’s history, literature and art.
To this extent, readers may verify my interest, and limited claim to limited knowledge of Russia’s history and culture, by referring to the videos (each about 30m long) I produced on the subject. Specifically,
History of Ukraine in 6 episodes
Life of Stalin in 5 episodes
The Schism of 1054 AD in 2 episodes
Essence of Marxism in 4 episodes
Historical Roots of Russian Communism in 3 episodes.
Even so, I can only claim interest, not expertise. And what I attempt here is not a biographical summary but a perception of Mr. Gorbachev and some of his actions as observed by an outsider, sometimes referred to as the ‘common man’, poetically described as the “… rude mechanical who works for bread upon the Athenian walls.”
Furthermore, besides the interest that led to producing the videos, I will add a few notes about my very limited but still direct experience of Soviet Russia. Which occurred at the end of my teens, during my first life as a country singing-guitarist, in Crimea. It took place during a kind of little-known pre-Gorbachev’s glasnost.
Knowing then extremely little of Russian history, my feelings were similar to Wordsworth’s, the English poet who visited France during the pre-guillotinian beginning of the French Revolution. With few minor changes I could apply to Crimea what Wordsworth said of France,
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
… when everything… took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!”
Of course I had only a scant knowledge of the Bolshevik Revolution, the famines, the Holomodor, the Gulags, Soljenitsin, the horrors of World War II… and of Russian history al large.
My next experience was in Moscow, which I visited a few times while employed by a US Company as their International Marketing Manager. My task was to demonstrate equipment at an International Exhibition, leading to contracts with the Russian government organization that supervised, structured and managed foreign trade.
By that time I had begun to read in earnest some of the Russian classics and, however randomly, I tried to find, in personal transactions, some of the spirit or descriptions found in the novels.
For example, my colleagues and I were lodged at the Ukraina Hotel, a classical example of Russian Stalinesque architecture – imposing but (in my view) elegant in its massiveness.
My room was on the 8th floor and metal gates blocked-off all stairs. Therefore in the morning, when all guests tried simultaneously to descend, the waiting was long for a free elevator.
On my 3rd day I took the liberty of approaching the hotel manager, naively suggesting that the stairs be opened and made available to the guests. He replied that it was impossible. “But what happens if there is a fire?” I asked. “We have no fires” – he replied.
While the reply was amusing, it was almost a transposition in real life of what some literary characters might have said in similar circumstances – as found in Turgenev, Dostoyevsky in his ‘Crocodile’ short story, or Gogol in his ‘Dead Souls’
Yet, the bureaucracy that the West accused Russia of, reflects, in my view, a historical need for structure, independently of the ideology behind the structure.
I also recorded in my diary what I perceived as an expression of instinctive satisfaction in the custom officers at the Moscow airport. When, after carefully examining my passport, they lifted their hand somewhat higher than the average and dropped it with a loud bang to apply the stamp of verification.
But I digress.
As we can glean from many reports and interpretations, Gorbachev attempted to unwind the intricate web of Soviet government infrastructure. An infrastructure linked to a Byzantine (more than Marxist in my view) perception of government. In fact, the main meaning of ‘byzantine’ has to do with administrative intricacy and bureaucracy.
Actually, some historians have determined that the first Bolshevik was the Emperor Peter the Great, inspirer and author – among other things – of the famous Table of Ranks in 1722, a long list of detailed structured military and government positions plus associated job descriptions.
Peter the Great even condemned his son to death. As a historical parallel, during WW2 Stalin’s son fell prisoner to the Germans. They wanted to exchange him with General Von Paulus, captured at Stalingrad. Stalin is said to have replied, “We do not exchange soldiers for generals.”
With ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ (succinctly translated as ‘openness’ and ‘reform’) Gorbachev attempted to change the Soviet machinery of government and, possibly, its inherently associated mode of thought, view of the world, or even perhaps philosophy al large.
His effort, in my view, compares with Diocletian’s plan to re-organize the Roman empire in 286 AD, splitting it into two sub-empires. Which then became four, the whole re-organization ending eventually with Byzantium (Constantinople) becoming the actual capital of one Roman empire in 395AD.
Often many causes are the parents of one event. With Diocletian one particular cause was the growing influence of the East – but equally, Rome had become increasingly difficult to govern. A process begun much earlier, with Emperor Caligula, famous for having made his horse a senator.
Chroniclers of the time (and many subsequent historians) said that Caligula was mad. According to others, however, he only wanted to show and emphasize that the Roman senate had become so corrupt and dysfunctional that even a horse as a senator would be a notable improvement.
A latter day Caligula would retire Biden and exchange some of his cabinet members with horses – leading to an improved economy, peace, restoring international standing and reclaiming common sense as a guideline of policy.
A process extendable at large to the European Union’s members of an unelected European junta, who believe themselves to be magnificently grandiose while actually being inelegantly little.
In this context it is regrettable that the US (and increasingly Western education at large) considers history and literature as idle pastimes of fools, stupid enough to apply their interest to anything else but making money. Because (I am translating and quoting Italian intellectual Salvatore Bravo, from a recent article titled “Russian Literature and Us”),
“Literature favors the disposition towards finding and understanding political and meaningful ties (in history). Its abandonment has countless consequences, and it is the spy of the identity crisis affecting Europe. One cannot cultivate bonds and establish relationships with the world without touching the dark depth of the human being. In the darkness of an inner conflict man finds his own light: he asks questions to find metaphysical foundations without which any existence is unbearable. Without a metaphysical foundation the human being lives the tragedy of an ego that thinks he can do anything and is apparently omnipotent. But in reality the ego unravels in the despair of its loneliness – reaching at time to extreme gestures. For murder and suicide are two faces of a despair that finds no meaning (in life) and no reasons to turn towards hope.”
Following this line of thought, the current banning of Russian classics, music and art by sundry European governments and educational institutions are platitudinous instances of ignorance with a capital ‘I’. An ignorance that is the night of the mind, but a night without moon or stars.
However, the general issue of “not understanding Russia” has a somewhat curious history of its won. It starts perhaps with Dostoyevsky, who in 1873 writes in his diary: “In days gone-by the words “I understand nothing” meant merely ignorance on the part of him who said them; yet, at present they bring great honor. One has only to declare it with an open air and snobbishly, “I do not understand religion; I understand nothing in Russia; I understand nothing in art” – and at once one is lifted to lofty heights. And this is all the more advantageous if one, in fact, understands nothing.”
Notorious is also Churchill’s sentence on the subject: “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
Nevertheless, one possible key to understanding is to read (or read again slowly) at least some Russian literature classics of the XIX century or even of the XXth century – for example Dr. Zhivago (the book not the Hollywood movie). Reading and re-reading them at least in part. And if, at the end of your reading, you may feel different in a way that you cannot even explain too well to yourself, you may have then acquired an inside inkling or realization of the difference between the collective Western and the collective Eastern mind, of which Russia is the archetype. And it does not matter, I think, if that feeling cannot be easily conveyed in words.
But returning to Mr. Gorbachev, one generally overlooked event in recent Russian history occurred in 1991 with the referendum. When the peoples of the republics were asked if they wanted to retain the geographical unity of the Soviet Union under a new and different regime.
The general elections were held on March 17, 1991 in the various republics that made up the USSR. The question to vote on was, “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any ethnicity will be fully guaranteed?”
Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova boycotted the referendum. In the other nine republics turnout was 80% and the referendum’s question was approved by the majority of those with the right to vote.
In Ukraine, out of 37 million with the right to vote, and with voter participation at 84% over 22 million voted to preserve the union, corresponding to 72% of the actual vote. Bielorussia had similar results, 87%. In Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan about 93% of voters voted to retain the union. In Azerbaijan the percentage in favor was 75%.
Nevertheless, in December 1991 Russia, Bielorussia and Ukraine signed a treaty of disintegration. Incidentally, the US did not recognize the results of the referendum.
The question arose then and is still unanswered. What about the will of the people, democracy, elections? In August 1991 on the eve of the approval of the referendum results, a coup d’etat occurred, organized by the “State Committee for the Emergency Situation.”
Following which, as we know, came Gorbachev’s resignation in December of the same year.
In the context of this compressed analysis, I think that the last section of his resignation speech is memorable. And not only for the impact of that (essentially forced) decision, but for its aftermath.
Here are Gorbachev’s last statements from the December 1991 proclamation:
…. we have become one of the key strongholds in terms of restructuring modern civilization on a peaceful democratic basis. The nations and peoples of this country have acquired the right to freely choose their format for self-determination. Their search for democratic reform of this multi-national state had led us to the point where we were about to sign a new union treaty.All this change had taken a lot of strain, and took place in the context of fierce struggle against the background of increasing resistance by the reactionary forces, both the party and state structures, and the economic elite, as well as our habits, ideological bias….
The change ran up against our intolerance, a low level of political culture and fear of change. … The old system fell apart even before the new system began to work. The crisis of society as a result aggravated even further.
I am aware that there is popular resentment as a result of today’s grave situation. I note that authority at all levels, and myself, are being subjected to harsh criticisms. I would like to stress once again, though, that the cardinal change in so vast a country, given its heritage, could not have been carried out without difficulties, shock and pain.
The August coup brought the overall crisis to the limit. The most dangerous thing about this crisis is the collapse of statehood. I am concerned about the fact that the people in this country are ceasing to become citizens of a great power and the consequences may be very difficult for all of us to deal with.
I consider it vitally important to preserve the democratic achievements that have been attained in the last few years…
… I am very much concerned as I am leaving this post. However, I also have feelings of hope and faith in you, your wisdom and force of spirit. We are heirs of a great civilization and it now depends on all and everyone whether or not this civilization will make a comeback to a new and decent living today. I would like, from the bottom of my heart, to thank everyone who has stood by me throughout these years, working for the righteous and good cause.
Of course, there were mistakes made that could have been avoided, and many of the things we did could have been done better. But I am positive that sooner or later, some day our common efforts will bear fruit and our nations will live in a prosperous, democratic society.
On balance we could perhaps say that Gorbachev, once engaged in a process logically simple in appearance, found it very difficult to effect that which it was easy to suppose effected – particularly with hungry and greedy wolves around, ready to jump on the political carcass of Bolshevism.
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the coup, Gorbachev declared that the event constituted the violation of the will of the whole people. And, according to Gorbachev himself, he had lost authority and too many who were Communist until the day before, fell into the grasp of greed and saw opportunities of enriching themselves in the ensuing turmoil.
Which explains, by the way, the surging of so many oligarchs almost overnight – not to count the massive inflow of ‘experts’ from sundry American universities and banks, who came to teach Russians the meaning of life, how to live and how to steal. And who aptly applied their large snout to the large trough left open after the August coup, with the dire consequences that we know of, for the Russian people at large.
In certain aspects of his political life, we may perhaps see in Gorbachev echoes of Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of one of Dostoyevsky’s famous novels. Especially in an apparent willingness to believe the sincerity of the American establishment and deep state. Whose policy, not to say perfidy, reached remarkable extremes worldwide, when freed – at least temporarily – from the fear of Russian military retaliation.
In the West, what helped create the impression of Gorbachev as a somewhat ambiguous individual, were his long intricate sentences (at least seemingly so when translated), to express simple ideas.
Considering that, as per the English Poet Alexander Pope,
“Words are like leaves and where they most abound,
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found”
Perhaps, with his long verbal elaborations, he was trying to convince his Western counterparts that Glasnost and Perestroika were the result of deep and elaborate thought. But the effect at large was probably marginal when not counterproductive.
In my view Gorbachev reached the proverbial bottom of the public-relations pit when he posed as an emblematic promoter of the Pizza Hut chain in Moscow. And, by inference, a promoter of all other US fast-food joints and franchises that jumped at the Russian opportunity. Establishments whose menu and fare many retain as great contributors to the epidemic of degenerative diseases in America. As if the only way to eat cheaply were to eat destructively.
Besides, that gesture could not fail but being interpreted (however unintentionally) as a symbolic wholesale endorsement of Western values and by inference, of neo-liberal rapacious capitalism. Of which the coup d’etat in Ukraine in 2014 ended up being but one later emblematic manifestation. With Victoria Nuland/Nudelman and her train – a despicable creature, not worth the dust that the rude wind blows in her face.
Finally and as we know, Gorbachev had a great bond, love, spiritual affinity and partnership with his wife Raisa, who also, by his admission, much influenced this thought and actions.
On the tenth anniversary of her death, in 2009, Gorbachev recorded and sang a song in her memory and honor. The title of the song was ‘Old Letters’, and the singing shows that he had a good ‘country’ voice.
At a charity in London he went on stage to sing ‘Old Letters,’ but half-way through the song he burst into tears, could not continue and left the stage, accompanied by an extended and spontaneous applause.
All in all I think we can perhaps salute him in the same way that Horatio said goodbye to Hamlet, “Good night, Mikhail Gorbachev, and fights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”(4)
2) All’s Well That Ends Well
3) Henry V
4) All’s Well That Ends Well