Confronting Gorbachev on the Fate of Russia

Not long ago, I lucked out: I argued for an entire half-hour with Mikhail Gorbachev himself! I tried to convince him that I was right, but I couldn't. Gorbachev didn't change his mind. What good fortune though, to be standing next to a historic figure and observing, for example, that he didn't drink anything at the luncheon -- not the Georgian wine, Khvanchkara, nor the Moldavan cognac, Bely Aist -- and only ate a sturgeon sandwich. I admit I followed Gorbachev on the sly: What sandwich would he eat for the main course? Aha! He chose a small sturgeon sandwich. And didn't eat anything else.

But I am getting ahead of my story. The luncheon was at the end of the meeting, and at first we -- about 30 Muscovite writers -- gathered for a conference in a room at the Gorbachev Foundation, on the third floor of the famously beautiful building on Leningradsky Prospekt. Gorbachev owns only a few rooms in this palace. And all this took place a month ago during one of the pre-election meetings of the presidential candidate with intellectuals.

Before this time, I had only seen Gorbachev on television and in newspapers. When he discreetly entered the room, I felt -- should I say it? -- a strange sense of surprise that he was ... alive! The television had turned him into something of a figure out of virtual reality and now he was within arm's reach. And his smile was marvelous. And the birthmark on his forehead was not as frightening as it appeared in photographs -- it is a likable mark of the color of coffee with cream.

What was my argument with Gorbachev over?

Mikhail Sergeyevich, who opened the meeting with the writers and put forward the main points of his pre-election program, talked in part about how the natural wealth of Russia was being stolen away by Western monopolies and how we have become a raw materials appendage to developed countries.

Stop! I have to admit right away that I have always been very suspicious of such thinking. Not everything is as simple here as it seems at first sight. And when it was my turn to speak, I told the ex-president something like: "Mikhail Sergeyevich, Russia has long been part of the European system, and naturally it plays a historical role as a source of raw materials. Let's think calmly and without preconceptions about Russia's motherly function, of the role its milk has played in Europe. In the middle ages, Moscovy supplied the West with animal skins, honey, furs, lard. Then, the meaning of raw materials became wider: We started to export bread, arms, and then ... At the end of the 19th century, we began to export our great literature, which played an important role in the spiritual and moral development of civilization. At the beginning of the 20th century, along with wheat and literature was added the intensive export of the artistic ideas of the avant-garde, in the form of abstractionism and constructivism, in the works of Kandinsky and Malevich. What about the brilliant system of Stalinist art? It is still the most influential theatrical doctrine in the world! In a word, Mikhail Sergeyevich, we have been called on by history to be a raw materials market. We have deepened the very understanding of raw materials. The only thing that remains is for such raw materials to receive a good price. Russia occupies a large part of the earth. We are not Holland or the grand duchy of Luxembourg and therefore must enter the world community like a raw materials empire, as an oil country and marketplace of great ideas. The ideas of science, of art and finally social ideas as well. We should learn how to think well and share our ideas with the world. Let the Japanese toil along. In any case, we'll never manage to work in such a way."

Gorbachev smiled and said something to the effect that the drain on national natural wealth has already gone too far. The minerals that have been taken from us are irreplaceable resources and therefore we are robbing our children and grandchildren. There will be nothing left for them to sell. In the second place, if you want to think clearly, you have to eat. The mind does not work on an empty stomach. Gorbachev spoke about the fact that not long ago he met a young scientist from St. Petersburg in Turkey. The scientist could not find enough work in Russia to feed his family. But in Turkey, he became a rich man and now heads an atomic research center there. His intellect is being used not for the good of his country but for the Turks. Finally Gorbachev said that my idea of a marketplace of ideas was too exotic for the simple voter to understand and that he would not change his pre-election program along these lines.

Well, yes. Gorbachev's objections are worth serious consideration. But I still couldn't agree with him in the end. The future of Russia depends precisely on a deeper understanding of its raw materials and resources and on spreading this idea as far as possible.

But it's time to give an example of what I'm getting at. An acquaintance of mine, a journalist from Germany, complains about life in Moscow. We are sitting in his seven-room apartment, which is paid for by the television station he works for. It is 3 o'clock in the morning. The view from the ninth floor is simply remarkable. There are extravagant hors-d'oeuvres on the table and an excellent bottle of wine. "I left a beautiful sports car behind in Germany," he said. "Very expensive. You can't drive such a car in Moscow. It would be stolen right away." "But what an apartment," I countered. "Two bathrooms. Seven rooms." "Yes, but I have to change the plumbing. The toilets and the faucets make too much noise," he responded. "Why on earth then, dear friend, do you live in Moscow? You could live comfortably in Paris or New York?"

Pause. My acquaintance considered the question and answered: "Moscow has drawn the elite of world journalism. Of course, it is difficult to live here, but then the work is interesting. When I say that I work in Moscow, everyone responds: 'Oh, Moscow -- the source of excellent reporting. I am making the most of my life as a professional here."

Such people have only made me more convinced of my principle of Russia as a source of raw materials. I can say without false modesty that the country is a source of life and of deep feelings and sensations. Yes, to be here is horrible, but life here is an entirely authentic experience. This means that we export not only oil, literature, artistic movements and exotic ideas to the West but a special way of living. Moscow has become a short-cut to an interesting life.

This is what I was thinking about at the luncheon at the Gorbachev foundation, watching Mikhail Sergeyevich choose the smallest and most modest sandwich. By the way, the luncheon was in itself a very modest affair, which took place in a cramped office. The hors-d'oeuvres and wine were laid right out on the desks, among the telephones.

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose best known work, "Eron," has just been published in French translation. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.