The first scene is a thick cliché: former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is walking in the Red Square, under a heavy snowfall. In a surprising continuation of this ’97 commercial, he sits at a table in a Pizza Hut restaurant, and some Russians notice him. The controversy begins: “Because of him, we’re on the edge of economic ruin,” says a middle-aged man. “Because of him, we have freedom,” replies a younger one. “Because of him, we’re on the edge of chaos,” insists the first guy. An old woman has the final word: “Because of him, we’re even free… to go to the edge of our pizza”.
Gorbachev’s legacy to the Russians is complex, and pizza – with its capitalist flavor – is only part of it. As those people argue, it’s mainly about hope and chaos. These are not necesarilly opposite notions, explains Gorbachev in an interview for Russia Today in 2011. As he puts it, “chaos produces new forms of life”.
He admits failing in preserving the Soviet Union and leaving Russia in political instability in the early ’90s. The famous reforms he initiated, “perestroika” (“restructuring”) and “glasnost” (“openness”), were meant to rearrange the Communist system, to infiltrate discretely in the foundations built before him, in order to make them stronger. They ended by destroying the entire construction. It’s not a tragedy, Gorbachev argues, as long as this move reshaped the world for better.
His inheritance, as he sees it?
“The fact that the world is no longer divided, that it is free from ideological antagonism. That’s perhaps the most important thing.”
(Mikhail Gorbachev for Russia Today, 2011)
But what kind of man initiates radical reforms which lead his Empire to ruin, and manages to do that peacefully for most part? And what kind of man does commercials for pizza afterwards? Mikhail Gorbachev has the qualities and weaknesses for this complicated recipe.
The sequences of his political rise were natural, even if the ends – from agriculture to the highest position in Kremlin – don’t seem to fit. Born in 1931, the first son of a combine harvester, Mikhail was a quick learner, with an aptitude for mechanics. As a teenager, he drove tractors at the local machine station to complete the family’s income. At 17, he was the youngest ever to win the Order of the Red Banner of Labor for his hard work and role in bringing in bumper crop. While he was in high school, he joined the Young Communist League and, because he was dedicated and well organized, he became assistant director of propaganda for the territorial committee of his organization. During his academic studies, he perfected his speaking and debating skills.
“He was more of an adult than his peers, that’s the impression I had. He was somehow different from the others, he could lead them,” one of his teachers remembered.
When the Party realised that a new generation is needed to refresh its structures, Gorbachev followed the wave and rose to the top. Gorbachev was always one of the youngest, wherever he was. In 1985, when he took the highest position in the USSR, Gorbachev was 54, and he was still the youngest member of the Politburo.
“If not me, who? And if not now, when?”
He succeeded Konstantin Chernenko, his political mentor. The leaders in the Politburo felt the need of a young leader, after the previous ones died a few months after they were installed. Again, it was a natural move: because of Chernenko’s health issues, Gorbachev would often lead the meetings of the Politburo in his place. He did that without arrogance, always aware of his new and huge responsabilities.
“Always remember: when you’re number one, there’s great responsibility that comes with that. Actually, you cannot give a single politician credit for everything. There’s always a group of people who realizes the challenges of their times. They understand what is going on in the world. Sometimes, when there’s a new challenge, a new leader will emerge. Sometimes, he would emerge too late, after some damage was done. We have to avoid that, we have to act in time”.
(Mikhail Gorbachev for Russia Today, 2011)
Gorbachev had to cut deep into the system to bring it back to life, and the old body predictably reacted. Courage, patience and diplomacy were highly needed, as he had to fight the entire Politburo in order to decrease the power of the party over the executive and legislative, and apply his reforms.
In the same time, he had to deal with the Cold War started by his predecessors. Gorbachev added a smile to the handshake, and that mattered. Before meeting him, Ronald Reagan was distrustful. But when the two world leaders first met at a summit, Reagan was surprised to find that “there was warmth in [Gorbachev’s] face and style.” Reagan recognized “a moral dimension in Gorbachev.” The British prime-minister Margaret Thatcher said of the Soviet leader, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” (“Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 19 Sep. 2014)
At first, Gorbachev didn’t fully understand the full implications of his reforms, his vision was limited. The times were changing, and in the end he realised that when it was too late.
The Soviet army didn’t interfere when East Germany, Hungary, Poland or Czechoslovakia elected non-communist governments, and major bloodbaths were avoided. He also knew when to step out of the main political scene and insured a peaceful succession. Russia was entering a painful transition, but with room for hope, freedom and pizza. In this new world, Gorbachev’s place in Russia’s history is still disputed, and he is waiting the final decision with a smile.
Team members: Sepeedeh Hashemian, Mei Prang, Vlad Odobescu