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Mikhail Gorbachev: I’m bashed for Glasnost, but it was key for change

The USSR’s first and last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, turns 90 on Tuesday. In an interview with TASS, he revealed what he believes was his greatest achievement in life, the prospects of reviving the Soviet Union, the need for change and his favorite books
Mikhail Gorbachev Yuri Lizunov/TASS
Mikhail Gorbachev
© Yuri Lizunov/TASS

- What is your biggest achievement in life?

- Perestroika, of course, and everything that goes with it. It is my profound conviction that perestroika was necessary, and that we were moving in the right direction. Our greatest achievement inside the country was that people gained freedom and put an end to the totalitarian system. This explains why the attempt to push the country back into the past – the coup attempt [in August 1991] – ended in failure. And in foreign policy the main achievement was the end of the Cold War and drastic nuclear arms cuts.

- Would you like to change something in your life and some of the decisions that you made, if it were possible?

- I did make some fundamental decisions in my own life and in politics. I would not change any of them. In politics many things look clearer now, of course: there were some missteps. I know I am criticized for being “too trusting”. But if I had had no trust in the people, perestroika would have never begun. I am also scolded for glasnost. But without glasnost nothing would have changed in the country.

- Margaret Thatcher was nicknamed the Iron Lady and Andrei Gromyko, Mr. No. What would you like to be called?

- These labels are not very accurate ones, I think. It is best to do without nicknames.

- How do you account for the fact that at a very dramatic moment the head of government, the KGB chief, the defense minister and others came out against you, but not in an open political confrontation? Why did they prefer to create what they called the State Committee on the State of Emergency?

- The reactionaries always lost in an open political struggle. The people you have mentioned had every opportunity to fight and to criticize openly. By attempting a coup d’état they committed a crime. This is precisely what was stated in the bill of indictment, approved by the Prosecutor General’s Office. But there was no trial, because the authorities made a deal with them.

- Some historians argue that perestroika failed to achieve its aims due to the lack of coordination between the economic and political reforms. Do you agree with their viewpoint?

- Without a political reform any attempts at reforming the economy would have sunk in the quicksand of bureaucracy. It had happened that way in our history and it would have happened again. Very often China is pointed to as a model. But it took years for them to chart a course that ultimately worked well. Our country needed a gradual market reform, not shock therapy. But, in the 1990s, the radicals gained the upper hand. Russia and its citizens paid dearly for this.

- Does Russia need another perestroika? Can it happen? If yes, is the country ready for it?

- Changes are necessary, of course. It does not matter what they will be called. Reforms, perestroika, are a process of steering the country towards a normal, decent life for all people. The reforms are never easy. The more so amid the complications the pandemic has brought about. But I believe that the people look forward to change.

- The past few years saw several major projects telling the story of your life – the documentaries by Werner Herzog and Vitaly Mansky and also the Theater of Nations’ stage production called Gorbachev. Have you seen them? How does it feel to be in focus as a literary or film character? Is it rather a manifestation of interest towards you as a politician or a certain period in history? In Mansky’s film you cited Alexander Pushkin quite often. A few words, please, about your preferences in poetry, literature in general and the cinema? Could you mention some of our favorite books?

- Yes, I saw both the films and the stage production. I am aware of the vast public interest they aroused. Possibly, this is a sign of interest both towards perestroika and towards me. If so, I am glad. People should understand what perestroika was all about. This is the title I chose for a book that was published several years ago: Understanding Perestroika. Another book – a collection of letters to me from across the nation and from abroad - is due to be released soon. It is called Understanding Gorbachev.

Regrettably, visits to theaters or the cinema are not on my schedule now. In our younger days my wife Raisa and I never missed a chance to see new stage productions and films or to read and discuss a new book. But what I learned as a boy is always with me. Folk songs, both Russian and Ukrainian. Russian classical literature. Pushkin, Lermontov. “I go out on the road alone…” I still admire Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered. And I keep recalling people of my generation – Chingiz Aitmatov, Oleg Yefremov, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, other authors, actors and theater directors…

- Is there any chance of restoring the Soviet Union in some shape today and would such an attempt be worth the effort?

- I have said it many times: the Union could have been preserved – provided it was modernized and reformed and the republics were granted broad rights and real sovereignty. Now, it’s been thirty years since independent states emerged. There is the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. These organizations should be strengthened, and every effort must be exerted to mend relations with the republics we are now at odds with. Such a program is vitally needed.