The German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger labelled him “the hero of retreat”. But does retreat produce heroes? A lost man haunted by the death of his beloved wife and torn apart by a sense of guilt and anger for the tragic death of his beloved country. This is how Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s first and final president, vividly appears in Vitaly Mansky’s documentary Gorbachev. Heaven. This was also my experience several years ago when I visited Gorbachev in his foundation’s empty offices. This stark, poignant impression of Mikhail Sergeevich, who died last week at 91, will forever stay with me.
I recall two other Gorbachevs. The first I saw on TV in my native Bulgaria in 1985. I was a 20-year-old studying philosophy at Sofia University and Gorbachev had just been elected general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. His arrival to power, not to mention his opening policy gambits, was as surprising as snow in July. The very fact that the Soviet nomenklatura elected somebody who was younger than 70 and able to finish a sentence was a miracle. Even more supernatural was the sense of an opening that he brought – an infectious feeling that something impossible only yesterday was possible today and that even more might happen tomorrow.
He freed us from the psychological abyss that tomorrow is nothing more than the day after today. My entire political maturation took place in the shadow of this Gorbachev phenomenon. He did not free us, but he gave us a chance to taste freedom. He made the world interested to learn Russian and to imagine a different Russia. There are groaning shelves of volumes written by political scientists, dissecting what constitutes open and closed societies. Far less is written about the striking difference between coming of age in a society that is opening its shutters and coming of age in a society, even a relatively open society, in which the air smells of fear and stagnation. This first Gorbachev was not the hero of retreat, he was the angel of opening. [Continue reading…]