Sometimes they return – the heroes of yesterday who altered the course of history. It is so nice that heroes also have anniversary birthday celebrations and even the servile censored television stations have to respond as they suddenly remember that the world is not limited to a single Putin-Medvedev tandem. Following a long absence, Mikhail Gorbachev has returned to the television screens alive, witty and charming. The first and last president of the USSR turned 80 years old on 2 March.
Opening a series of commemorative programmes, television host and journalist Vladimir Pozner invited Gorbachev on his show Pozner. Of course, Gorbachev understood perfectly well that he was going on Channel One, a heavily state-controlled channel where it is customary to speak about the current authorities in the same way one would speak about the dead: if you do not have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Therefore, he was initially laconic and measured in his evaluations. In addition, the conversation mainly focused on his own presidency and own miscalculations and mistakes. But when Gorbachev said one of his biggest mistakes was not reforming the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) sooner, Pozner unexpectedly asked if Gorbachev thought the United Russia party needed to be reformed. Shedding his politesse, Gorbachev gave an honest reply: “I don’t have a high opinion of this party. It’s a poor copy of the CPSU.” Pozner smiled subtly, but didn’t take the subject any further. Where else could he go? He had already taken a swing at the sacred!
Soon enough, however, he took a swing at something even more sacred. The host reminded his guest that he had spoken about Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s positive role in the country’s development when he was on the Pozner show back in 2008. But Gorbachev told a story about a private conversation long ago with a former French prime minister, who noted that Putin couldn’t get by without authoritative measures, but then asked if he would be able to stop in time. Will it turn out that authoritarianism is destined to remain in Russia forever? “I am confident that it won’t,” Gorbachev said at the time. Today, however, he is having doubts about his former confidence.
Pozner then asked another forbidden question: Should Mikhail Khodorkovsky be released? Once again realising what channel he was on, Gorbachev tried to dance around the question diplomatically but ultimately said in no uncertain terms: he should be released! Pozner again smiled knowingly and changed the subject. But the host still had more in store for his patented farewell moment (proshchalka), where he dared to speculate on the harmfulness of power without term limits. “Power blinds you, deafens you and generally has an adverse impact on the brain. The longer a person remains in power, the more strikingly and blatantly obvious this becomes. Therefore, I believe that there should be term limits. It could be four, six or even twelve years. I think this would be very useful.” In terms of twelve years, Pozner obviously got carried away and instantly collected himself, but since his recently departed guest had limited his time in power and thus not damaged his brain, this revolutionary message presumably was not directed at him.
On the whole, this was downright terrible sedition for the politically sterile Channel One. But it was nevertheless put on the air and now Pozner can report to his viewers eagerly awaiting opposition leaders on his show about the first robin having flown to Channel One. And while it may not be spring, a fresh breeze blew through here for a little while.
Gorbachev’s controversial statements were clearly heard by those who hear and see everything. Therefore, in contrast to the recent celebrations of what would have been Boris Yeltsin’s 80th birthday, which was commemorated as an event of national importance (both Putin and Medvedev delivered solemn speeches, a memorial statue of him was unveiled in Yekaterinburg, his hometown, and a concert was broadcast on state-owned Channel One), Gorbachev’s birthday celebration was far more modest. It’s impossible not to recall Pushkin’s words here: “They only know how to love the dead.” Yeltsin is no longer here and can’t cause anybody any trouble. Therefore he and the perilous decade that was the 90s can both be loved and exalted. But Gorbachev is alive and well; as luck would have it, he’s even still giving speeches that act as a thorn in the authorities’ side. No official celebrations or concerts were held, however, except for the Russian president receiving the hero of the day at his suburban residence, where he awarded him the Order of St Andrew the First Called.
This protocol event was shown on all the news channels. It was a rather entertaining picture. The old comrade in his unbuttoned jacket, wearing a scarlet tie and slightly reclined in a gold-plated chair looking across at the younger man, jacket completely buttoned up with a happy look of surprise. The younger man, not at all grasping the comedy of the scene, explains the meaning of the award to the older man with a very important look on his face, “I believe this is a proper assessment of the great work you performed as head of state … I think it is important for two reasons: you certainly led our country during a very complicated and dramatic period. Secondly, I see this as a symbol of respect to the state you led.”
Gorbachev tried to joke, “Perhaps because this is all about me, I fully agree.”
“Well, that’s great,” the president replied dryly, making it clear that his audience had come to an end.
There was no warmth or cordiality at all. If I had been Medvedev, I would have probably thrown the protocol formalities out the window and said, “Could I ever have imagined, as an unseasoned student in 1985, that I would one day have the pleasure of presenting an award to Gorbachev HIMSELF? Could I have ever dreamed that a simple university professor like me would be given the chance to ascend to the heights of power thanks to perestroika? Not in a million years! Thank you for everything, dear Mr Gorbachev. And forgive us for going our own way.”
But, alas, the president failed to find the appropriate words and intonation for the situation. And there was no need for it. Gorbachev remains unpopular with the public and, with elections approaching, there was no point in rubbing people the wrong way with a public demonstration of goodwill to the one and only Soviet president whom it is so convenient to blame for many, many things, if not everything, when the need arises.
On the other hand, television broadcasters did not skimp on kind words for Gorbachev and tried to pay him the tribute he deserves. The creators of commemorative films and programmes, who got their big breaks during the Gorbachev era, now reminded the many forgetful people what exactly Gorbachev had done for them and why the whole world considers him a person of historic importance even while he is still alive.
Leonid Parfyonov’s film was called He Came to Give Us Freedom. Parfyonov is convinced that freedom was the key moment of perestroika. Eating sausage won’t fill you up, although sausage ultimately appeared as well thanks to freedom. Parfyonov provides a detailed description of the path Gorbachev travelled and what the country was like when he took over in the mid-1980s. And, of course, he is surprised by the atrocious ingratitude with which the public have returned the favour. He came and gave us freedom, only the majority of people didn’t give a damn. Nikolai Svanidze said pretty much the same thing in his Chronicles of History television programme. Everyone, including Leonid Mlechin who made his own film for the anniversary, warmly remembers the only woman in Gorbachev’s life, the woman whose loss he has never come to grips with. In the final scenes of Parfyonov’s film, Gorbachev has tears in his eyes as he sings a song dedicated to her. In reply to a question from Marcel Proust’s questionnaire on the Pozner show – “Of all the people that have ever lived, with whom would you like to talk the most?” – Gorbachev replied, “I feel extremely deprived of communicating with Raisa… I even want to believe that when we die, we can meet again in heaven.”
In the same conversation with Pozner, Gorbachev said his greatest virtue was humanity. Humane politicians traditionally are not popular with us because such exotic beasts didn’t exist in our northern forests before Gorbachev or after him and because humanity in a politician is a sign of weakness among the mass consciousness. And that means we have to live with the strong and the brutal, whispering in our kitchens, like we did in Soviet times, about how unbearable life is. But then again, we have only ourselves to blame. Indeed, we were so close to happiness.