Who sacked you? The Kremlin Personnel Department?
Nobody ever sacked me. There is not even an entry in my work record to the effect. I have not been dismissed from my post as General Secretary of the CC CPSU. I just stopped working. I made it known. I had to sever my relations with the CPSU elite.
The majority of regional Party Committee secretaries backed the August 1991 GKChP coup. Because of the GKChP, many honest Communist Party members from amongst the 18 million faced a difficult moral dilemma. Yeltsin once reproached me: look what your people have done, they have created the GKChP. In retrospect, I think everybody understands that I was trying to restrain these forces until the new laws kicked in and free elections were held. But, I repeat, I broke off my relations with the Party elite. And come to think of it, you can’t do business with the present-day Communist Party. Present-day “Communists” raise sharp questions but these are never followed up with decisive actions. The authorities obviously benefit from their loyal behaviour.
But the Communists, for their part, would hardly welcome you back to their fold. I remember Yegor Ligachev’s words: “At some point, we lost him (Gorbachev). He supports the social-democratic platform.” Was it anathema for the Communists?
First things first. We need a socialist democratic party or movement very badly, just like all European countries, in order to protect people even under “digital” capitalism.
Is the CPRF performing that function?
The CPRF does not make up for the absence of a social-democratic party, it merely muddies history.
What about you? Why don’t you set up your own party? Have you been forbidden to? By whom?
Yes, many of my friends and I intend to set up a party. When Surkov got wind of it, he asked me: “What is in it for you? We won’t register your party anyway.”
What was your answer?
I replied: we will create a movement. And we have. But a movement is not a party. It does not take part in elections… We should have a social-democratic party independent of the authorities. The ruling class is demonstrating the depravity of its soul to all of us. They are rich and dissipated. Their ideal is something like Abramovich. I despise that ideal. I feel ashamed of these filthy rich. I feel ashamed of my country.
Ashamed? Isn’t it the case that the nation simply doesn’t care? The rich are getting richer and the poor keep silent.
Their patience will run out some day. A merger between the crooks and those who cover up for them is becoming impossible. The people will soon make Dubinushka their anthem….
Venediktov1 (aside): And Baskov will be singing.
You can well, Alexei… On top of tariffs, they want people to start paying for their education. Education was free after the war. It was financed to the tune of 7% of the GDP. The people are not just cheap labour. The people have realised this.
About Yeltsin and personal matters
Two jubilees within the space of one month. Boris Yeltsin would have been eighty in February. You will be eighty on 2 March. Your relationship was extremely complicated.
It is not about relationships; relationships don’t matter, and I harbour no hatred. I went to bid Yeltsin farewell when he died. I know that many interpreted the CIS as a “way to make mischief for Gorbachev”. Believe me, I have no regrets regarding my own fate. They have coped with Gorbachev, but not with the CIS… They haven’t created anything. This is what matters. The rest, after so many years, is just trifles.
So you have no complaints about the monument?
Could be five metres taller for all I care.
Here is a key, general question: why did people support perestroika enthusiastically in 1985 but, when they found the shop shelves empty, most of them cursed all the values that were not backed up by availability of sausages? Some are still cursing them…
That’s a lie. A stock lie on state-controlled television. Ten years ago, opinion surveys showed that 40% of the people believed that Perestroika should have been launched and 45% thought it shouldn’t have.
Today, more than 50% believe it was necessary. Coherent questions should be asked correctly. For example, should we have pulled out of Afghanistan?
I know, I have been there, we should have left. And what do people say?
90% say it was right for us to leave. And 90% speak about freedom of religion and say it was worth it.
Venediktov: If I had my way, I would have decorated you with the Labour Red Banner Order for your Law On the Media.
Thank you, Alexei. And 90% today support the introduction of free foreign travel.
Don’t you know? Free elections were introduced under Perestroika; the whole nation is looking forward and is fully supportive of what they first tasted during the Perestroika era. This was real. We managed it. Attempts are made to make people forget what was accomplished. Perestroika is only thought of in terms of our woes and the empty shelves, but that was when everything people now enjoy when they go to church, buy foreign visas, surf the Internet and buy newspapers was produced.
And reading Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, Rybakov and Dombrovsky, Brodsky, Dovlatov, Genis and Pomerants and Mamardashvili…
Enough, you can’t list everything. The films and books and faith. We gave Russia back to the world and gave the world back to Russia. And I forgot to add: we averted a nuclear war. As I said, people tend to forget this today. Now history has made what we strove for something that people take for granted.
Are you sorry about that?
Not a bit. On one occasion, when Margaret Thatcher and I were to speak at a forum alongside five other presidents and there was some delay, Margaret was visibly nervous and I remarked on it. She replied: “President Gorbachev, I have known for a long time that you are a man without nerves.” So it doesn’t make me nervous.
I would beg to disbelieve you. Putin and Medvedev do not touch you and thus demonstrate their goodwill (with, I think, different degrees of sincerity) but the state-controlled television is silent and it “attacks” you almost every Saturday and Sunday.
Almost every day.
How do you account for the attention you get from them?
It’s because of the domestic situation.
Because Gorbachev is all about freedom, democracy, a system that includes an effective parliament, pluralism of opinions and pluralism of forms of ownership. These are institutions, instruments. Was Putin’s platform a sound one? Yes. Is Medvedev saying the right things about modernisation? Yes. But how to do it? Where are the resources? Why aren’t things moving ahead? Why have the national projects stalled? They are excellent projects. But they have come to a standstill.
Capital investments and money, this is all true. But without human capital, without investing in motivating intellectuals, without developing a system that ensures equal participation by people in the life of society, all this is bound to fail. So, again, free and fair elections are on the agenda. Fair elections and not the kind that make people’s hair stand on end because of falsifications. The worst of it is that society loses the habit of honest electoral contest; it knows that it will be cheated anyway; society has had its spirit crushed; it tolerates falsehood. But I know this can’t last long.
Dmitry Medvedev recently criticised glasnost, but I don’t want to take him up on that. Yet there is a difference over the principles of relations with society. Without freedom of expression, we will creep towards democracy at a snail’s pace. People should understand that the good life is associated with democracy, when there is control over power and not authoritarianism controlling people and their freedoms.
You speak about “creeping towards democracy”. I can assure you that not everyone will get there. Or let us put it this way: not everyone will get there or wants to get there. Why suffer humiliation? 1,250,000 people (or even more) have left Russia. They are not the worst people. They are the middle class. They went not in search of sausages or jeans, but in search of the air of freedom, security and because they wanted to live without corruption. That is comparable to the number of people who left in 1917-1918…
Yes. And those who leave are not the “dissipated elite” (to use your expression) but members of a responsible middle class. A second edition of the play “Flight”… How to stop it? And should it be stopped? Perhaps they should be speeded on their way?
I will not leave. To paraphrase a joke, “you will never live to see me leave”. Seriously, I think that a person who has left his own country… especially together with his family… is finished. He will never be really happy. He will be tormented till the end because he has left everything behind. And I also think that, if we revive the democratic project, people will stop leaving and will start coming back.
Under what conditions?
If people realise that staking on a tsar, a Prime Minister, and manual control of the economy are unacceptable. The active part of society is not tame. The country is not just its rulers but all the people and it should be developed.
Venediktov: And what about manual control by a General Secretary? Didn’t you resort to manual control? Even the democrats pinned their hopes on the General Secretary personally.
Don’t tell me they didn’t. Yes they did.
Venediktov: It was like this: the General Secretary’s decision was law (for example, he could decide whether or not there would be democracy). And things could have remained that way for an indefinite time.
That was the dictatorship of the Party and its cadre. I could not tolerate it any longer… The policy that is proposed today is impossible: to commit everything to shoring up personal power and keeping it in one’s own hands.
Venediktov: You are not thinking like the Communists. The Communists never relinquish power. By the way, Medvedev was never a Communist Party member.
He wasn’t? And what about Putin?
M.S: On a serious note. Power must not and has no right to commit the resources of the people and the country to keeping in power. The main issue is the country’s internal life. That is the prime task. It’s all about how the country lives. Thank God, there is growing understanding of this in society, among the intelligentsia, the business community and the press. I see that the President and Vladimir Putin are both trying hard but all this increasingly reeks of imitation. What is needed are real steps, real acts, creative approaches, and instead we have tampered with electoral laws to the point of absurdity. It’s like in a primary school: a boy saws off the legs of a chair to make it more stable and the chair collapses.
“Sorry, I was a bit mistaken.” The result was that they thought of one thing and in the end got something very different. And what about the country? The worst of it is that what they have “sawn off” is elections. Elections alone bring renewal, conserve the good things and create new ones. Everything has been eliminated: elections of regional leaders, elections in single-mandate constituencies. Is that what you call stability? Or is it about preserving personal power?
What do you think?
… And what do they do with parties? They produce them out of their pockets. But that leaves aside huge masses of people, human resources. They are being sidelined and pushed out of politics, out of social life. In order to survive, the “pocket parties” make friends with one another and express their anger in public. In a serious article in Novaya Gazeta, Leonid Mlechin wrote that the Communists flirted with the Nazis in their bid for power in order to sideline the Social Democrats. So they paved the way for Hitler. And today, some people are flirting with the nationalists, trying to win them over to their side.
First they made it so that there were some who were “Ours”, and the rest did not belong to any side. And now they are recruiting supporters on ethnic grounds.
But we have always evolved as a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country with an equal playing field for all. Over hundreds of years, we have been a country for everyone and not “Moscow for Muscovites” or “Russia for Russians”.
In general, I am proud of belonging to the Slavic, Russian part of our people. But that also implies colossal responsibility for the others. One should not shirk responsibility, but take it on. I am seriously worried that we are being pushed towards nationalism. It is possible and it is high time to take historical stock of all those who flirted with nationalists. They all came to an ignominious end. As Mlechin put it, the Communists in Germany in the 1930s joined the Nazis to fight the Social Democrats. And where are the Communists now? In what furnaces?
About patriotism, the jubilee and the Internet
The marking of Gorbachev’s jubilee at London’s Albert Hall would be a godsend for the nationalists.
On 2 March, we will mark the jubilee in Moscow and, in London, on March 30, there will be a charitable action to support the Raisa Gorbachev Centre for Treatment of Child Leukaemia.
I often see you working on the Internet. Do you share the view that, on the Web, people break free of the state, build their own communities and, if the number of Internet users in Russia reaches 70 million, dictatorship will become impossible?
Just grab the provider by his beard, give it a tug and that is it, there is no Internet. Of course, there are already attempts to control the Web: all sorts of “trolls” are trying to muddy every issue. Even so, state television has lost out to the Internet in terms of quick response and the volume of information available. (The conversation took place before the terrorist attack at Domodedovo Airport when all the state TV channels were running soap operas and talk shows and only the Internet fed information from the airport).
How did you spend your Nobel Prize? Contributed to the Foundation?
I haven’t even seen it.
They told me that I had been awarded the Prize. I asked for a decision to be made on how to distribute the money. Six clinics were built in the areas affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Some money was transferred to Kazakhstan in aid of the Aral Sea, which is drying up. So much for the prize.
How do you earn money for your foundation now?
By giving lectures.
They speak about the top six prime ministers and presidents who get the highest fees for their lectures.
That is true. There are lecturers who are in high demand.
Bush Senior… Gorbachev… Clinton, Thatcher?
And Helmut. Helmut Kohl. And now also Tony Blair.
How does that happen?
There are centres that organise such meetings. The audiences are between 5,000 and 15,000. Besides, they invite major corporations. I lecture constantly; the Foundation must survive and develop its programmes. And I pay the taxes, of course.
Yes, of course. Only in Russia.
On very personal and not very joyous matters
Did Raisa your wife burn your letters? Is that true?
All of them?
Yes, fifty two letters. She had kept them carefully all her life. The letters were of our youth. I wrote them when I was on business trips.
Why did she burn them?
She was simply shaken by Foros. After Foros, when we were confined to our residence and the coup-makers decided to send a mission to confirm that I was seriously ill, she realised that they were coming to make short shrift of us.
In general, she felt that our life had become unendurable.
Pay attention, because few people know about it: after Foros she had a massive fit, or rather a micro stroke. When they came to collect us at Foros, she was already bedridden. She was lying down on the plane; we were not sitting in chairs, but on the floor. We were drinking. We didn’t care about health at the moment. And then it all started… I did not go to Ploshchad Svobody where they were waiting for me. They still hold it against me after twenty years. I accompanied her. Then she had a haemorrhage in both eyes. Her eyesight deteriorated dramatically. And the incredible stress continued…
She spent most of the time on the verandah reading newspapers. On one such day, she said: we can’t have other people poking their noses in our life. And she threw the letters into the fire. She was crying and throwing them in the fire. I was also tempted, you know. I burned 25 of my notebooks. Not my personal diaries, but my working notes, with all the nuances, characteristics and plans. I burned them thinking I was somehow helping her by doing this… Well, it’s time to wind up. Let us close that topic.
He is silent for a while. Then picks up sheets from his unfinished article and reads aloud in order to calm himself:
“It was a difficult and tragic age. But I would take issue with those who claim that history teaches no lessons, that humanity tends to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Suffice it to compare the first and second half of the XX century. The two world wars that devastated Europe and inflicted deep wounds on other countries were among the greatest catastrophes in human history. Then nuclear weapons were invented. If history had followed the same logic, a new war could have destroyed our civilisation. But that did not happen. Although the Cold War put the world to another severe test and exposed it to a colossal risk, it did not develop into a real full-scale war. A world conflagration did not happen. The generation of leaders of the time (that was in the 1980s – D.M.) rose to the challenge and managed to put an end to the Cold War. The whole world breathed a sigh of relief, thinking it would never be forgotten. Those who say that the lessons of history are useless are mistaken and those who stand at the helm of political and economic life have no right to ignore these lessons. Perhaps, current political leaders simply are short of time? <…>
“When I became General Secretary of the CC in 1985, the country and the world were ripe for major change. Otherwise, we had enough resources to continue drifting for another 10–15 years. To quote a poet, I could have ‘reigned to my heart’s content’, as many politicians did before me and are doing now, today. I consider it to be a feather in our cap that the Soviet leadership of the time did not follow that path. That said, we were taking risks and we realised this, although things did not go exactly as we had planned.
“We were aware of a tremendous and urgent need for change in society, of a sense that we couldn’t go on living as we were. There was a keen awareness in society. ‘We demand change’ was the slogan voiced by people of different persuasions and different walks of life.”
Looks up from the text:
Yes, that was exactly the case.
And he adds:
We had to make up our minds. And we did.
1Editor-in-Chief of Ekho Moskvy Radio Station Alexei Venediktov took part in the conversation.