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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Godfather of Democracy

I only ever met Mikhail Gorbachev once. It was after his fall from power and grace and Zil limousine; at a reception for the film made in the last year of his rule by Oleg Uralov -- a film, which with typical spite, was refused a showing by his successor's "presidential" TV channel.


After the showing, he, my wife and I talked for a minute or two; and I asked him why on earth he hadn't allowed cameras access to him long before this; why he hadn't used television from the beginning in the way John Kennedy had done: reaching out through press conferences and cinema-verit? documentaries directly to his natural audience and true constituency: the people.


"Because," he said, "I didn't want my family to be involved and compromised. My home is my castle."


This was not, I'll agree, a moment of either great intimacy or great insight. (It was to be followed, a couple of years later, by an abortive attempt of mine to make a further documentary with him, which fell down on precisely the same issue of unlimited access.) But what struck me at the time was the man's considerable physical presence. He concentrated and leveled his eyes; he paid attention -- as if there were nobody else there but the person he was addressing. He was a star, but he was also an extraordinarily good pol, in the Western sense: he worked the room. It's no wonder that Margaret Thatcher described him, after their first meeting, as "a man we can do business with."


But that was part of his tragedy, I think. He was essentially a Western-style figure. He was popular in the West; and the more popular he became there, the more hated he was in his own country. The historian Natan Eidelman once told me that there were three convictions ("heresies," he called them) deeply rooted in Russian history and the Russian psyche: "the egalitarian heresy, that it's better to be equal and poor than for anyone to be rich at the expense of others; the totalitarian heresy, that the best and most efficient kind of rule is that of Big Brother; and the xenophobic heresy, that anything that comes from anywhere but Russia is a poisoned chalice: it comes from the devil."


He added -- and this was at the height of glasnost and perestroika: "So you see, when the West cheers on democracy and Gorbachev here, it could be very dangerous. There are many people who would gladly get rid of Gorbachev now, if they could. The only truly popular leader in Russia since the War has been Stalin."


Well, it's now 10 years -- more or less to the day -- since Gorbachev came to power as the general secretary of the party's central committee. And now he's back on the road again, starting his campaign for the elections in June 1996 with meetings in places like Novosibirsk. They say that these meetings are packed. But I suspect that they're only packed with the morbidly curious, rather like the audience for a freak-show. For in his way Gorbachev is a historical freak. He's only the third Russian ruler this century to have escaped power with his life; and he's certainly the first to believe -- against all odds -- that he can somehow get it back again.


I'd like to say to him: "Don't bother. The game's not worth the candle." But against all the evidence -- of his obstinacy, for example -- I have to say I have an enduringly soft spot for the man.


For when I first came to Russia at the beginning of that annus mirabilis 1988, the KGB was still operant against foreigners and greatly feared. Censorship was still in place; rock concerts took place underground. But behind the scenes a great battle for the future was being fought. Gorbachev was beginning to use the word "democracy" in his speeches for the first time. He was fighting for official acknowledgment of Stalin's crimes; he was grappling with last-ditch right-wingers like Ligachev.


It was a battle that he eventually won, of course. And less than two years later I was able to marry my Russian wife and move into my little village: the first Englishman, as far as I know, to have stayed here, outside the limit still at that time imposed on foreigners, since the 1920s.


In a sense, then, Gorbachev is our daughter Katya's true godfather. (Her real one was assassinated in the chaos that followed his successor's so-called liberalization.) Or -- put another way -- all we Westerners who are now able to live (and love) in and around this city are Gorbachev's children. Happy 10th anniversary, then, Mikhail Sergeyevich! The family, in however small a way, has got to be on your side.