Gorbachev at 75

Gorbachev turns 75 today. This world historical figure needs no introduction. He is celebrated in the West and reviled in Russia. Yet, he continues to speak out against censorship in Russia as well as sending warnings about the re-emergence of authoritarianism. He spoke on similar themes in an interview with Radio Free Europe. Whatever one may think of his views, he remains one of the most important figures of the 20th century. Gorbachev recently gave an interview to Rossiiskaya gazeta. Here are some of his more interesting comments. All translations, for better or for worse are mine.

Rossiiskaya gazeta: In your opinion, what must the leaders of Islam do to reduce the dangerous characteristics of the rising opposition?

Gorbachev: I would like to put the question differently: What must all the participants in the process of globalization do? The Islamic world—it demands understanding and respect. It has huge human, historical and cultural potential. In the span of a century and a half it has given much to the world, enriching its science and culture. An equal and mutually respectful dialogue with it is not completely impossible. This is the only correct path.

Gorbachev remains optimistic for the victory of moderation. He rejects the idea of the “clash of civilizations” and instead sees the possibility of a dialogue based on the common language of modernity which is present in both the West and the Islamic world. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, that the rhetoric of anti-modernity has taken center stage on both sides. In the last five years we’ve seen an increased polarization based on either religious fundamentalism, or the complete barbarization of one side by the other.

RG: Do you share the position of the Russian (Rossiiskii) delegation, which refuses to vote for the PACE (Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly) resolution? [Here the interviewer is referring to a resolution before PACE that called for the condemnation of the crimes of communist regimes. The text can be read here.—Sean]

G: This brings to mind Yeltsin’s team’s plan for coming to power. I have in mind the process in the Constitutional court where he attempted to put the KPSS (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) on trial. I didn’t go to this court. I then said that there is only one court possible—the court of history. The crimes of the regime must not be combined with the lives of several generations. People lived, selflessly labored, to elevate the country. All that was achieved in this period that was achieved by the people. By a mighty people. This needs to be remembered.

RG: But PACE’s resolution does not contain accusations of the people who lived in the Communist period. This resolution condemns communism as a political practice. Even communist ideology is not subjected to judgment. That said, what remains of your relation to its past?

G: I was and remain a supporter of the socialist idea. Its ideal. Its value. But I lead in the process of debunking the socialist model which renounced democracy and made a bet on dictatorship.

RG: Once a speech was given on this . . . In February the country will mark a historical date—50 years since the 20th Party Congress. You were a young man then. What kind of impression did Khrushchev’s speech which denounced Stalin’s personality cult make on you?

G: I remember how I came to these events. I arrived in Stavropol, and after seven day duty in the Procuracy they sent me to lead a department of propaganda in a Komsomol kraikom. This was August 1955. The 20th Party Congress was in February. That said, I was prepared to take some sort of role in it. After graduating MGU [Moscow State University] I was dispatched to the Procuracy of the USSR. Twelve people—eleven were war veterans and me. They probably took me as proletarian. Then they were beginning to reorganize the department in the Procuracy which controlled the passage of penal law in the State security organs. Up to that time the [Security organs] carried out investigations, judged and carried out executions without legal oversight. Then in the spring of 1955 this already became clear to me. After all, I joined the Party in school in the tenth grade. I believed in communism; I believed in Stalin. I wrote in an essay, “Stalin is our glorious fighter, Stalin is the iron of our youth (“Stalin – nasha slava boevaia, Stalin – nashei iunosti polet”). For me the speech on the cult of personality was a shock. Then came the red little books which had the speech printed in them. They sent us to the villages with these books to conduct expository work. I arrived in Novoaleksandrovskii district with my friend, Nikolai Vorotnikov a Party secretary of a district committee, as a relatively young man. [He said to me,] “Listen, Mikhail, I don’t know what you will say. There we will attempt to explain what the people don’t believe.” We collected the people together. We addressed and told them and it was quiet as a coffin. People didn’t believe. So today we see them walking with portraits of Stalin. Because under [Stalin] the prices were lower not like it is now. Ten years ago we had a conference in our foundation on the 20th Party Congress. There, voices also cried out that the 20th Congress was a betrayal. And that perestroika was a continuation of this betrayal. You understand that the problem is not in Stalin, that this was from a personality with a certain character, but in Stalinism which was the ideological foundation of a totalitarian regime. In recent years so many movies came out on this period, the best artists played the role of Stalin. And often the hero instead becomes the antihero – “the real” Iosif Vissarionovich. And all the rest of it remains so primitive. But I repeat the problem is not in Stalin, but in Stalinism. We still have not thoroughly debunked Stalinism.

I find this absolutely fascinating. I’ll let Gorbachev’s words speak for themselves.

I’ll leave it at that. Gorby said many more interesting things, but the labor of translation got the better of me. I encourage all who read Russian to check it out.