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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iconoclastic Politics From the Last Soviet Icon

ST. PETERSBURG -- As Mikhail Gorbachev strode confidently down the labyrinthine corridors of this city's Financial/Economic Academy last week, students flocked around him by the hundreds, hollering, shoving and laughing.

"Miiiiishaaaaa!" the girls screeched, drawing out the cuddly diminutive of the name "Mikhail." "Gorba!" and "Wheeoooop!" the boys howled. Gorbachev, grinning and waving, and the school's rector, clearly panicking, were buffeted by the unruly crowd. "Stop it!" the rector cried.

Boys scaled the walls for a better view, clinging to radiator piping. Newspaper photographers disappeared in the scrum.

At one point, a student braced himself in the narrow doorway of a stairwell and furiously snapped photographs as Gorbachev -- driving young fans before him like metal shavings before a magnet -- approached. The crowd crashed into the young photographer and swept him through the door. But he managed to toss his camera back over the crowd to schoolmates. They caught it and ran up a back stairwell, meeting Gorbachev at the top and snapping a few more pictures. Then they, too, were swept away laughing.

Polls show that less than 1 percent of voters support Gorbachev's presidential candidacy, which he officially announced in St. Petersburg last week. But a man who commands such a rock-star's reception -- of a kind that no other Russian politician could dare to expect -- can perhaps be forgiven for entertaining hopes.

Gorbachev said he hopes to block both President Boris Yeltsin and Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov from the Kremlin. He sees a coalition between himself and second-string politicians like economist Grigory Yavlinsky, eye surgeon Svyatoslav Fyodorov and retired general Alexander Lebed as the best hope of doing that.

So far, all efforts at such a coalition have been crippled by the personal ambitions of each candidate. But all of Gorbachev's campaign efforts must raise the question of what he stands for now, more than four years after the Soviet collapse that made him, well, redundant. It is not an easy question to answer even after a few days with him on the campaign trail.

When the unsuspecting Gorbachev left on vacation in the summer of 1991, he was recognized as one of the world's greatest living leaders: a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the man who ended the Cold War, extricated the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and eased decades of government oppression by allowing new freedoms of expression and belief.

He returned from vacation to find himself irrelevant -- a conservative, a dinosaur. Pushed aside by President Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev left office in a fury, a dedicated defender of both the Soviet Union and of a kinder, gentler Communist Party that he argued ought nevertheless to remain in power.

Today, while he berates himself for letting others tear apart the Soviet Union, he says the Communist Party was doomed and he was mistaken to hold onto it for so long. "I began with the illusion that the system could be reformed. As life has shown, that system is not reformable," he said.

Gorbachev describes "having paved the road to democracy" as his life's greatest achievement. "I believed, and still believe, that Russians can become citizens of a free country, and not the obedient masses who are still driven in herds today," he said upon declaring his candidacy.

Since grudgingly leaving office, Gorbachev has written profusely. His latest memoirs, a two-volume set titled "Life and Reforms," are on sale in Moscow. He has also headed the Gorbachev Fund, an organization that is part political research institute, part campaign team. And he is president of the Green Cross, an environmental organization that was obscure until he joined it.

At 65, he is fit, rested and energetic. The contrast with Boris Yeltsin, who is just one month his senior, is telling: Yeltsin is plagued by heart troubles and by many accounts that has a drinking problem, and his public speeches often degenerate into Brezhnevian incoherence.

Gorbachev, meanwhile, looked cheerful and self-possessed even after a 16-hour day of campaigning among pressing crowds. He does calisthenics every morning. He and his wife, Raisa, have made a practice of taking long weekend walks. "We try for six, seven, sometimes 12 kilometers at a time," he said.

Mrs. Gorbachev accompanied him to St. Petersburg for his announcement. On several occasions, despite a self-confessed (and self-evident) fear of public speaking, she took the podium. She is not happy over her husband's return to big politics.

"I was very much against his running. Because I know -- not from books nor articles nor rumors and gossip, but from life experience -- what it means to be a reformer," she said. "Why should he do this? He has glory, he has financial security. What, from a feeling of responsibility? You understand the crisis this country is in, for any president this will be a great self-sacrifice."

Misgivings aside, Mrs. Gorbachev said she would support and vote for her husband. "He has made a difficult decision. It's his decision. And I'm his wife: I have been and will always be with him," she said.

The campaign promises to be difficult. Political analysts say the Kremlin is using its influence with the media to keep everyone other than Yeltsin and Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov from making headlines.

The Kremlin's strategy, said St. Petersburg sociologist Leonid Kesselman, is to convince voters of a two-way race: a choice between communism (Zyuganov) and democratic capitalism (Yeltsin).

"The Kremlin wants silence on all other third candidates," Kesselman said. Noting the legendary rivalry between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, he added, "With Gorbachev, there is probably also a personal element involved."

During his visit to St. Petersburg, Gorbachev was denied a meeting with Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. He was forbidden by a mayor's decree to stay at a city-run hotel and told to arrange his own transport. An invitation to visit the Kirov Works was also withdrawn, Gorbachev said, as were other meetings with workers at other factories. Gorbachev said he saw the hand of the Kremlin behind all these inconveniences.

At a press conference at the House of Journalists, the questions were openly hostile. One young critic repeatedly told Gorbachev his candidacy was foolish and a boon to Zyuganov. Finally shouted down, the man approached Raisa Gorbachev and began whispering insistently to her that her husband's campaign was ill-advised. After a few seconds, Gorbachev whirled in his chair and grabbed the man's arm. "Don't!" he barked, in his best general secretary's voice.

It had surprisingly little effect. The man only backed off when the entire room shouted at him, and he continued to sulk about and occasionally interrupt -- something that, like the rock star reception at the trip's beginning, would be difficult to imagine happening to Yeltsin or Zyuganov.

Yet such moments are bound to be common as Gorbachev continues with his first-ever run for democratic office. He is treated by Russians with an easy familiarity. He is fearlessly criticized and needled. People seem to delight in making use of the freedoms Gorbachev won for them at Gorbachev's own expense.

Once, such familiarity might have infuriated him. He was always emotional and animated, and was famous for his habit -- unprecedented for a Kremlin leader -- of spontaneously leaping from his car to shake hands with ordinary people, whether on a visit to Leningrad or to Washington.

Today, however, he appears calmer, more serene. Dima Zapolsky, an anchorman, commented on the change during a live interview on local St. Petersburg television with the Gorbachevs.

"Of course, Gorbachev is completely different," Gorbachev agreed. (Some things never change: Gorbachev still speaks of himself in the third person.) "My years are my wealth."

But when Zapolsky hinted that he could have done more to support dissident Andrei Sakharov, an irritated Gorbachev began defending himself. Zapolsky, unintimidated, cried, "Ah, there's the old Gorbachev!"

At the Financial/Economic Academy, Gorbachev took written questions from the auditorium, read them aloud and answered them. The students slipped in a question about a popular techno-pop song by a musician named Mr. Dadooda: The song intersperses Gorbachev's voice, speaking banal phrases such as "I understand your reaction," "In the village, cattle mortality rates are up," and so on, with a woman's orgasmic screams.

"What is your attitude toward Mr. Dadooda?" the unsuspecting Gorbachev read. The hall erupted in sophomoric ecstasy. The question came up another half-dozen times. "Again Dadooda," Gorbachev grunted.

Gorbachev admitted he neither enjoyed the song nor could pronounce "Dadooda." "When I read that question, the students were excited. They were on a high. But I don't get a high [when I hear it]," he said.

To Zapolsky's insistence that the video -- featuring a groovin' Gorby look-alike -- was "quite funny" and a sure vote-getter, a sour-faced Gorbachev answered flatly, "You think so, do you?"

Such are the indignities of the campaign trail, and Gorbachev rolls with them. Even if he is a bit bemused by questions about his favorite spectator sports, he answers them. (He is a fan of hockey, figure skating and "the wonderful Mohammed Ali.")

If Gorbachev were somehow to win the presidency, Russians and the West might be surprised at what he would stand for. Although he is seen as a champion of democracy and personal freedom, he is no friend of capitalism -- something few in the West remember or understand.

With the Kirov Works invitation withdrawn, the Gorbachev team improvised a tour of the Polyustrovo factory, bottlers of the famous mineral water of the same name. Polyustrovo has a contract with Pepsi Cola Co. to bottle Pepsi as well.

Money from Pepsi has helped support the factory's other offerings, such as kvas, a low-alcohol, beer-like drink, and "Baikal," a Soviet-era would-be root beer. "I used to love this drink," Gorbachev said, contemplating the cheerful brown-and-white label on a bottle of "Baikal."

Gorbachev praised Polyustrovo's wisdom in limiting cooperation with Pepsi to a contract-basis, instead of simply selling out to such a wealthy international company. He told workers to take what they could from Pepsi, to learn from them -- to use the West, but to avoid being used. "Is Pepsi teaching you how to advertise? You need to get a pretty girl on a poster, toasting with kvas," he told them.

He said he opposed privatization; his unused privatization voucher still lies in a drawer at home. Russians should have been allowed to accumulate experience at running an enterprise before being burdened with full ownership, he said.

Asked his opinion of Lenin, he said, "That's a great man, a great thinker. But I see great drama in Lenin in that he went down the path of dictatorship, and didn't pay attention to [those] ... who said we needed socialism and democracy. Lenin placed his bet on dictatorship."