Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Mikhail Gorbachev: A tragic figure


NEW YORK— My parents were Russian immigrants who came with their families to New York in the mid 1920s. I grew up with their stories about living in the Soviet Union as children. There were my mother's memories of sleeping by a wood-burning stove in winter, boiling water in a samovar for tea, sitting under birch and flowering cherry and apple trees near their summer dacha, and watching her father preside over a large synagogue. Her recollections were rich with nostalgia, sometimes sounding like fairy tales from an enchanted world.

However, my father's memories were much darker. He lived in a house with an earth floor in an impoverished shtetl, was a member of a Zionist group who met secretly in the woods to avoid being broken up by the Bolsheviks, and most painful of all survived to come to New York while most of his many siblings — except one sister — died from a variety of illnesses.

Both my parents could speak Russian fluently and though not particularly well read or passionate about literature, always mentioned with great reverence writers like Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Their invoking these masters prompted me to read a great deal of Russian literature, from Lermontov and Goncharovto Babel and Solzhenitsyn, always feeling some special affinity to the world portrayed.

In addition, my working class Bronx neighborhood was inhabited by a number of Communist Party members and fellow travelers (e.g., members of the IWO — an insurance organization loosely connected to the party) some of whose children were friends and classmates, and whose homes maintained a sentimental or in some cases a rigid ideological attachment to the Soviet Union. So Stalin, Molotov, and Vyshinsky were not obscure names to me. And I could hear variations on the party line when my friends' parents talked about the Rosenberg trial.


As a result, I not only read Russian novels, but I became interested in Russian history and contemporary politics, though always with a critical, unsentimental take on the regime's brutality and repression. The words of the great poet Osip Mandelstam, whom Stalin had killed in the 1930s, resonated with me in my teens:

"But around him a crowd of thin-necked henchmen,

And he plays with the services of these half-men.

Some are whistling, some meowing, some sniffing,

He's alone booming, poking and whiffing.

He is forging his rules and decrees like horseshoes

Into groins, into foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows.

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Every killing for him is delight ."

But radical change was in the offing. After years of economic stagnation, and rule by an incompetent and authoritarian bureaucracy, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985. And at the 27th Party Congress he delivered a speech outlining plans for economic and political restructuring, which become known as perestroika. He also initiated glasnost (openness) by allowing articles in the Soviet press that cautiously exposed Stalin's crimes, and by permitting films critical of Stalin to be screened. One felt hope during those years that the long Soviet nightmare would be over, and the society would be transformed into a democratic one.

A new documentary "Meeting Gorbachev," directed by the prolific, imaginative and at times megalomaniacal German filmmaker Werner Herzog (co-directed by Andre Singer), opened at New York City's Film Forum on May 3. The film consists mostly of archival footage and talking-head interviews with a frail Gorbachev and people like Lech Walesa and George Schultz, who dealt with him and is much less visual than Herzog's other works like "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Grizzly Man."

A subdued Herzog, who has never been much concerned with politics in his films, is able to establish an easy rapport with the warm Gorbachev. Gorbachev becomes even more sympathetic in the footage depicting his grief over the death of his beloved wife Raisa, whom he saw as his most trusted confidante.

The interview discusses a number of positive changes Gorbachev wrought. One may not remember that Gorbachev, moved by the devastation caused by Chernobyl in 1985, played a key role, with the cooperation of Ronald Reagan, in slashing the Russians' stockpile of nuclear weapons. The major treaties he negotiated on nuclear weapon reduction essentially brought on the end of the Cold War.

It was also Gorbachev who helped bring about the end of the Iron Curtain and the birth of democratic movements (often adulterated) to Eastern Europe. This involved free movement and open borders, and for the German-born Herzog the most significant event, the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.


The film provides footage of the failed 1991 putsch against Gorbachev by Communist Party hard-liners, which led to the alcoholic, corrupt Boris Yeltsin's seizing power from Gorbachev. Under Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, the country may have been relatively progressive but it collapsed economically, leading to the Russia now led by the authoritarian, nationalistic Putin, who ruthlessly swept aside most of Gorbachev's democratic legacy.

Herzog doesn't query Gorbachev about his view of Putin, or about the relations between Trump and Russia. His questioning is gentle and somewhat superficial. He avoids pushing Gorbachev to go deeper. Some of Gorbachev's accomplishments have held up over time — but little of his vision of a transformed Russia has been sustained.

Gorbachev is in many ways a tragic figure, a thoughtful Russian politician respected in the West who wanted to turn the nation into a social democracy. Given the lack of a Russian democratic tradition, and the inability of Gorbachev to improve the Russian standard of living, he was doomed to failure.

Gorbachev has no illusions about what he achieved. He feels what best sums up his public life is an inscription on a tombstone — "We Tried."

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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