The Times September 5, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Mikhail Gorbachev is still a man who strides the global stage – and maintains a keen interest in domestic politics. He talks to Ginny Dougary about power, presidents, Putin and life after Raisa

mikhail gorbachev
Photo: Graham Wood

Mikhail Gorbachev may be pushing 80 but when he talks, people still listen, particularly (or, perhaps, exclusively) outside his own country, and that includes the 44th president of the United States. The first and last President of the former Soviet Union is telling me about his meeting with Barack Obama, during the latter’s extended honeymoon period, not so long ago, when he said: “‘I congratulate you because two months after the election your popularity was growing and your popularity is still growing.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Just you wait, it’ll go down.’” A gusty blast of a laugh. “And I liked him saying that.”

The man who was determined to modernise the USSR through glasnost and perestroika (the last time Russian words tripped off the tongue), which led to its collapse and transformed the world beyond, is now greatly in demand as a speaker in the United States. He remembers one particular lecture, three years ago during the Bush administration, when he was faced with the following question: “What would you recommend for America now that we are in a very difficult situation?” “I said, ‘Well, to give advice to other countries, particularly to Americans, would be wrong. It’s for you to sort out what you need to do.’ But nevertheless, they said, ‘What’s your advice?’

“And I said, ‘When we were putting an end to the Cold War, we said that the world needs to rethink old problems. We need to understand where we are. We need to start thinking about the fact that half the population of the world lives on one or two dollars a day. Sixty per cent of the ecosystems have been broken. The atmosphere has been polluted. Oceans and rivers have been polluted. If we just leave it as it is, if we just continue down this path, then this will end very badly. We were saying that every country needs to change.’

“I said to those Americans who were asking my advice, ‘You had this euphoria of victory, of the West winning the Cold War. You thought that you did not need any changes because everything was going so well for the West. But after the euphoria will come disappointment and you’re already seeing that it was a mistake to glory in that victory. So if you insist on me giving advice, I will certainly not give you a kind of menu or a timetable for change, but I do believe that what America needs is its own perestroika.’”

So are you saying that Obama is the new you? “Let me finish. Both me and my translator [Pavel Palazchenko, who has worked with Gorbachev for years, and attended the US-Soviet summit talks that led to the end of the Cold War] were amazed when that huge audience, about 10,000 people, gave me a standing ovation and I said to my translator, ‘There is something happening in America. Change will come to America.’ And the most important thing is that Obama identified that need for change. It’s the challenge that he felt and I really give him a lot of credit for that. I like him also because he’s very intelligent and very democratically minded – which, of course, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have firmness, because he does. He also has the will.”

Gorbachev may be our favourite Russian export but our desire to transform him into a cuddly international treasure – how stern can a man be, one might think, who tolerates his universal nickname “Gorby”? – are wide of the mark. He talks in a series of speeches, brooking no interruptions, which means our interview is peppered with impatient slap-downs: “I have not yet finished,” and “Let me say something first and then I’ll reply.”

It’s hard to know whether it is Gorbachev or his interpreter who is responsible for the occasional brusqueness of tone. At one point, when I am saying that if he wants to criticise the British as well as the Americans, go ahead, I have broad shoulders, his answer sounds quite rude: “So what? I’m sure you would find things to say to Russia so I am very frank to you…”

I ask him what has been his proudest moment and he says, “Pride is not really my feeling,” and then goes on at such length, taking in what seems to be the whole history of the 20th century, that I must have conveyed my feeling of despair. (Burying my head in my hands may have been the giveaway.) What is so frustrating is that, of all the notable figures I have interviewed, Gorbachev is the one who has done most to change the map of the world. I have so many questions but only a scant hour in which to put them. An attempt to sway him by saying he is a historical figure fails – “Don’t consign me to history” – but it does make him smile. Living history, I mean. “OK, if it’s living history, I accept that.” Later, he says: “You know, Chekhov said that one has to speak very briefly but…” You are, perhaps, more like Tolstoy, is my attempt at a Russian joke, which falls flat.

What is startling, from someone whose name is synonymous with attempting to effect far-reaching change in his own country, and who is still outspoken (although not enough for some) about its failings under Medvedev and Putin, is how angry Gorbachev feels about outsiders’ criticism. “The British, the Americans want us to be like them,” he says. “First of all, that shouldn’t be the demand, I guess, we never demanded others be like us. There should be competition and exchanges between different countries, but there are certainly certain universal values and that is freedom and democracy. We still have a way to go towards implementing those values and we can be quite critical in our own country about many things.

“We are seeing ourselves that there is still a lot to be done by us to achieve democracy. And so I say to Americans: ‘You want us to be like you but I can tell you, it took you 200 years to build your democracy yet you want us to do the same thing in 200 days.’ And I say, ‘Well, I know we are more talented than you are, but not as much as that.’ And they understand, they react to this.”

He says that Russians continue to be misunderstood, maybe wilfully so. “My first book as General Secretary was called Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, and its first sentence was, ‘We want to be understood.’ Even now, we want to be understood. And there are quite a few people for whom Russia is a hindrance, a problem, which is crazy.”

Can you be more specific? “Let me give you some facts because you may think it’s just words. During Yeltsin’s time, when he abandoned the evolutionary path of reform and used cowboy methods, shock therapy that ruined the country’s economy… Many people lost their jobs, and many people were not paid their wages or salary for months, sometimes years. During this time we had all those delegations of visitors coming to Russia and everyone applauded Yeltsin. I was watching this and I thought, ‘Well, how can that be?’ And I finally concluded that it was a kind of political activism at that time on the part of the people who actually enjoyed the fact that Russia was down.

“But you cannot put Russia down on its knees” – a thump on the table – “and hold it there because Russia will ultimately pull out. And it was that kind of attitude of the West towards Russia in the Nineties that changed the attitude of many Russians. The euphoria in favour of Europe and America disappeared when people saw that attitude, and it ruined the trust that existed. I think that was the most important thing.”

In late 1992, I travelled through Russia with a British businessman who had lost his own empire in controversial circumstances and was attempting to restore his millions in the new frontier. What was most striking was the sense of a country in transition, hungry to embrace change and enjoy the free-market benefits speculative Westerners seemed eager to offer – naturally, since there were profits to be made.

One of the business meetings took place in Brezhnev’s old shooting lodge, and in the guest book was an inscription in a babyish, perhaps drunken, scrawl to the host: “Thank you very much. You are a good man. This is me. Yeltsin. November 1991.” (The year he was elected President.) In 1993, a year after my trip, Yeltsin was impeached after relations between the President and parliament had collapsed. There was a ten-day conflict with the deadliest street fights in Moscow since 1917. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, Yeltsin offered a surprise resignation and announced Putin as his successor.

Gorbachev initially supported Putin, and still does apparently (he backed Russia’s role in last year’s war with Georgia, for instance), but this has not stopped his candid criticism at various points. In 2005, Pravda reported him commenting on a controversial reform (abolishing communist-era entitlements to benefits) that enraged pensioners: “Law-makers did not think about people, when they were discussing the law. Public organisations, science – everything has been left aside. In my opinion, such an approach to elderly people can evoke only indignation for normal people.”

Yet in 2007, he endorsed Putin as President in the parliamentary elections: “It is a fact that within Russia, Putin is supported by up to 80 per cent of the population. [When Gorbachev last ran for President in 1996, he won only 0.5 per cent of the vote.] For me that is a more persuasive argument as I live in Russia. He has brought stabilisation to Russia. Not everyone would have been able to cope with the kind of legacy that he inherited from Boris Yeltsin.”

This was the year that Gordon Brown expelled four Russian diplomats in response to Moscow’s refusal to allow the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy, the man suspected of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko – the former KGB officer who had accused the Russian secret services of staging various terrorism acts in order to bring Putin to power. The Russian foreign ministry described the action as “immoral” and “provocative”. Brown said he wouldn’t allow “lawlessness” to take a grip in London. It was the first time in 11 years that Russian officials had been thrown out of Britain and marked the biggest chill in relations since the end of the Cold War. Lugovoy, a businessman and politician who has always denied any involvement in the murder, remains in Russia where he enjoys immunity from prosecution.

In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and human rights activist, was shot dead in the lift of her apartment block. She had made her name reporting from Chechnya, and was a well-known critic of the conflict and Putin’s role in it. In January this year, her lawyer was assassinated. No one has been convicted of either murder.

Earlier this year, in a stinging rebuke, Gorbachev denounced Putin and his United Russia Party as “the party of bureaucrats and the worst version of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”. But why was he not more damning of Putin two years earlier? Was he, perhaps, fearful of what might happen to him or his family?

“Why should I be afraid? No. I can say that I understand how difficult things are for the President because I was President myself. I was in his shoes, in his skin and therefore I understand the situation better. And that’s why I supported Putin and still support him. On the other hand, on certain issues, I speak out very openly and directly. For example, I’ve been saying for some time that the election system needs to be changed. I have also been saying that there’s been a lot of talk about fighting corruption but there is no real fight against corruption.

“There are things for which the government should be criticised because we have seen these terrible tragedies when journalists have been killed, so we are entitled to speak openly and recently, yes, indeed, we have been speaking very strongly to the Government. Sometimes I feel that the Government itself is pained to understand that it cannot guarantee people’s safety and security. Many crimes of this kind have not been solved, and I have been saying that it is wrong that the killers have not been found. And many other people have been saying critical things as well.”

But nothing happens. “I wouldn’t say nothing – but it is certainly true that some of the highest profile crimes have not been solved. And I say that I doubt that everything possible has been done to solve those crimes.”

Change begins with ideas, he says, which are initially heresies: “What about Jesus Christ? I say that he was a precursor of idealists; a precursor of socialists.” Does he believe in Christianity? “As an idea, yes. The ideals of communism are similar to the ideals of Christianity.” He calls himself a social democrat who is “still committed to the ideas of socialism”.

What is curious is that in all Gorbachev’s speechifying, he neglects to take the opportunity to make one for his own party – the Independent Democratic Party of Russia – founded by himself and his billionaire friend, Alexander Lebedev (the new owner of London’s Evening Standard), in late September last year. The two Russians, between them, own 49 per cent of Novaya Gazeta, the independent (read anti-Putin) newspaper which employed the late Politkovskaya, one of four of the paper’s investigative journalists who have been killed. (Lebedev has offered $1 million – £600,000 – for information which would lead to the conviction of her assassins.) According to reports, the party had planned to register this summer and hold its founding congress this month.

Gorbachev attacks what he calls “the winners’ complex… the disease of the ruling classes, particularly the beneficiaries of the previous system, who I think are the most responsible for the global economic crisis”. At the summit in Paris marking the end of the Cold War, “We said that Europe should re-emphasise such issues as fighting poverty, such as the environment. We said that society should not be based on hyper-consumption. You know, all those yachts of rich people that fill the seas and the bays…”

Oligarchs? “Naturally,” he laughs. “They became so rich because they violated certain norms of morality and certain values. They often stopped at nothing and that’s why many of them find themselves in jail.”

His friend Lebedev, a former KGB spy who fell in love with London on a posting to the Russian Embassy, where he worked undercover until 1992, is certainly wealthy and influential enough to qualify as an oligarch. He bought the National Reserve Bank, which became one of the largest banks in Russia, and his company owns a third of Aeroflot. His estimated fortune (pre-crash) was $3.1 billion (£1.8 billion) and he maintains that it’s still around $2.5 billion (£1.5 billion). He is scathing about his fellow Russian oligarchs, saying: “They don’t read books. They don’t go to exhibitions. They think the only way to impress anyone is to buy a yacht.” (Something, he is proud to say, he has never owned.)

What Lebedev certainly knows how to do well is throw a swell party. He and his almost theatrically handsome 28-year-old London-based son, Evgeny, run the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation named after Gorbachev’s wife who died of leukaemia in 1999. The charity was set up in Britain in 2006 and has since raised almost £4 million to support children with cancer. In 2008, the foundation – as part of a decision to extend its programme beyond Russia – formed an agreement with Marie Curie Cancer Care in the UK.

Every year, the Lebedevs throw a fundraising gala with a decidedly A* guest list. The first bash was at Althorp House, Earl Spencer’s family pile. This year’s do was at Lebedev’s home, Stud House – where Lord Byron once lived – in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace.

The fourth annual Russian Midsummer Fantasy gala is an extravaganza of positively Tsarist splendour. The women all seem to be toweringly tall and stick-thin, and although Sophie Dahl (with fiancé Jamie Cullum) and Yasmin Le Bon attend, not all of them are supermodels. Sarah Brown and Tina Brown are there, David Walliams, Alex James, J. K. Rowling, David Hockney, Boris Johnson and Evening Standard editor Geordie Greig. It is one of Vanessa Redgrave’s first public appearances after the tragic death of her daughter, Natasha, but then her younger daughter, Joely, 44, is currently dating Evgeny Lebedev. Away from the house and the exotic Thirties spiegeltent, Ukrainian synchronised swimmers in retro red swimsuits and petal caps perform complicated patterns for hours in a natural pond, while deer graze in the grounds beyond.

Gorbachev, the guest of honour, seems totally at ease in this wham-glam company, walking slightly stiffly, supported by his pretty granddaughter, Anastasia. He smiles when we meet again and delights in greeting me, on more than one occasion, as his “torturer”. My American friend, a big Gorby fan, says that he has the charmer’s knack of making you feel totally special, if only for a few brief moments.

We don’t stay for the dinner (it costs £15,000 a table), but read about it in the social columns afterwards: J. K. Rowling and Peter Kay bopping, while DJ Mark Ronson spins; Chrissie Hynde’s acoustic set; Cossacks hoofing it to Run DMC, and the amusing detail that among the items in the silent auction is the Louis Vuitton bag “as modelled by Gorbachev” in that famous advertising campaign. The former Soviet leader is impervious to suggestions that the ads may have cheapened his legacy, pointing out that he also appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial because his foundation needed money, and would welcome more work in that line. The surprise highlight of the evening was Gorbachev taking to the stage to perform a song he used to sing to his late wife, dedicating it to Raisa on the tenth anniversary of her death.

A few days earlier, in the conference room of a discreetly luxurious West End hotel, where we conducted the interview, I had asked Gorbachev if he found his bereavement any easier to cope with as the years went by. “Well, time, of course, is doing its work… But still this was the most difficult, the hardest thing in my life and particularly because Raisa’s death came so unexpectedly.

“When a wife whom one loves so much passes away, this is irreplaceable. But I’m not totally lonely. I still have a daughter and two granddaughters and now a great-granddaughter, Sasha, so…” Perhaps it is the thought of being such a substantial paterfamilias that makes him laugh so violently.

Would Raisa have wanted him to marry again? He tells a story which is not immediately to the point, but charming nonetheless. “She liked that little joke about the different ages of a woman. You know, there is a little girl, a young girl, a young lady, a young woman… a young woman, a young woman… and then the old woman is dead.

“So when she would say, ‘I don’t want to be an old woman,’ I would say, ‘You will never be an old woman.’ She was so lively; her character was so lively. She had something in her of the nature of a princess. A princess from the countryside.” A long pause. “Sometimes it’s better to speak without thinking. So of course what happened was irreparable, and I have a feeling of guilt for her.”

It haunts you? “There is still some of that feeling because it was the drama of perestroika and of our life then… That was something ultimately that she was not able to bear. She was a very vulnerable person.”

When I express surprise, he corrects himself: “She was strong but she had to endure a great deal.” The coup in 1991, when hardliners placed Gorbachev and his family under house arrest in their dasha in Crimea, must have been horribly traumatic. As were the events which led to his forced resignation on Christmas Day, followed by the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union the next day.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to die,’ and then, ‘You know, of the two of us, it would be better if I die first.’ She said, ‘You’d marry,’ and I said, ‘How can you talk to me like this!’” More laughter. “‘What’s on your mind?’ And she said, ‘Well, I just mention it.’ And when I recall that, I feel that perhaps she had a premonition.”

When Raisa was in hospital, he continues, she received thousands of letters from people, “and that was a great consolation to her. But she said something that I have included in the book I am writing now, ‘Do I have to die in order for people to believe me?’”

What did she mean by that? “She meant that quite a few people were not happy about her and had been very critical of her and the position she took because she was different. I had always said to her, right from the beginning, ‘You should behave as yourself. Just as yourself.’” When I press him to explain more fully, Gorbachev says: “For that, you will have to read my book.”

When we started the interview, Gorbachev had remarked – almost as though it surprised himself – that he is older now than Brezhnev was when he died. So does he feel his age? “Yes, yes,” he sighs. And yet he continues to submit himself, aged 78, to a punishing schedule, flying around the globe, on his mission to right the wrongs of the world. “One feels the age and, yes, sometimes one doesn’t feel too well… The body actually ages faster than the soul.” How about the mind? “I think I’m in good shape there, no problems with that.”

It’s interesting that, as an atheist, he believes in the concept of a soul: “Only 7 per cent of the human being has been studied by science. I think it has been medically established that there is a soul, but this is something that science still doesn’t understand.”

I ask whether he also believes, in that case, that he is a spiritual person, and Palazchenko’s translation takes so long that I comment on it. “Spiritual has a different meaning in Russian,” he says. “So I had to explain [to Gorbachev] what you meant by ‘spiritual’.”

The Gorbachevs met when they were fellow students at Moscow State University – Raisa was studying philosophy; Mikhail, law. His family were peasants, working the land in the village of Privolnoye in the south of the Russian republic. He helped his father operate a combine harvester and in his CV boasts: “I am particularly proud of my ability to detect a fault in the combine instantly, just by the sound of it.” It was at university that he joined the Communist Party and, soon after, started his rise through its ranks. In 1985, he was elected General Secretary of the Party Central Committee, the top job, and began the process of democratisation.

When he talks about the couple’s early days together, it becomes clear both how unusual Raisa was and also the part she played – which was news to me – in shaping her husband’s desire for reform. “Let me tell you the history [of the rise of charity initiatives in Russia]. When Raisa first got involved in this, it was still in Soviet times. She visited a cancer section of a hospital for children, and young mothers rushed to her, some begged at her feet, and she came home really shocked. She was a very impressionable person and she said, ‘What can I do? I am a teacher, a professor, and I know very little about this.’ So she said, ‘You must help me. We cannot leave such pain and such pleas without an answer.’ And I think this is a test, by the way, of the spirituality that you asked about.

“If a person is indifferent to the problems of his fellow people, to children, to older people, then there is definitely a flaw in that person’s spirituality. But let’s not make this a seminar in sophistry. When Raisa took this initiative, to get involved in charity, to support hospitals and to support some cultural projects, the initial reaction in our society was that people didn’t understand. Now people understand that the state [alone cannot provide all the help] and that we need to help poorer families, and it is actually welcomed when such help is given.”

Gorbachev says that even though Stalin had been dead for a long time when he came to power, “much of the atmosphere that Stalin created still existed and people were afraid of talking to the Government”. Glasnost (transparency) came first, then perestroika (restructuring). “We said very directly, ‘Our people are free to speak their minds, free to write, free to assemble and discuss.’ We said, ‘This is the people’s right, this is in the constitution and this will be fulfilled.’ And what glasnost meant was that the entire society was set in motion. I really wanted to make people feel that they can actually achieve something, and they can get the Government’s attention – and as a result of protests [about pollution], we closed down more than 1,000 factories.”

What I want him to explain is what made him so unique. Where did his vision come from, and what gave him the strength of character to act on and implement it? But Gorbachev is unable to shed any light, other than to say that even as a young boy, he was always a leader, and that his greatest influences were his maternal grandfather (a veteran communist who narrowly escaped Stalin’s death squad when he was accused of Trotskyism), his father and, above all, Russian literature.

I had heard that Russians tend to be hyper-critical of the British, not helped by the Brown-Putin stand-off. Is that so? “I think in our society there is still the view that Britain is an open country and the land of opportunity. So I wouldn’t say that Russians rush to judgment about Britain. But you know what Bismarck once said, ‘It takes time for Russians to saddle their horses, but when they do, they move very fast.’”

He has been a visitor here, he says, maybe 20 or 30 times over the years. So which British Prime Minister has he most admired? “Well, in terms of the outcome of the results, certainly it was Margaret Thatcher. [Who, famously, said she liked him, adding: “We can do business together.”] But I also have a very high opinion of Tony Blair.”

And Gordon Brown? “I like him very much. He is very intelligent, and it seems to me that he was the person who actually alerted the world to the financial problems. But that’s not all. You know, he acts in a certain environment… There is something up above that creates that environment and in that environment, he has to implement his plans and his strategies.”

What on earth does that mean, “something up above”? Gorbachev laughs: “I’m speaking about this crisis. I think that one day we will understand what are the sources of the crisis that has now engulfed the whole world.”

So one last question. Why does he feel that David Cameron is not ready to be Prime Minister? “I didn’t say that. See, that happens. Someone quoted me even though I didn’t say that.” Well, let me ask the question and you can respond. What does he think? “No, the interview is over,” and Gorbachev and his interpreter think this is the best joke of all.

This November, 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down, the most potent symbol of the collapse of communism. Gorbachev has always said that his aim had been to fix the regime, not to be the instrument of its downfall. “I am a resolute opponent of the break-up of the Union. Personally, as a politician, I lost,” he has said. “But the idea that I conveyed and the project that I carried out, it played a huge role in the world and the country.”

In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in allowing the mostly peaceful revolutions that took place across the Eastern Bloc. His fellow Russians were not so impressed, summed up by the view of one minister: “We must remember this certainly was not the prize for economics.” Another view, from his supporter Lebedev is that: “He gave our people freedom but we just can’t learn how to use it.”

I would have liked to ask Gorbachev whether he felt there was something inherently tragic in the dramatic success of his democratisation leading to the destruction of the Union, which he also believed in passionately, but it seemed too complicated to put to him via his interpreter.

Perhaps he answered it, in any case, without knowing the question. I had asked him whether he considered that he had a romantic soul. He laughed again, something he did a lot, considering that I was his torturer. “I have not said that about myself, but it is a view that is common in Russia, where they call me ‘the Last Romantic’. There, they call me an idealist. And my reply is that it is the idealists who move the world.”