Main Image Credit Fateful visit: Mikhail Gorbachev in East Berlin in 1989. Image: Sueddeutsche Zeitung / Alamy
A senior journalist reflects on the personality and presence of the former Soviet leader.
My reflection on Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is not seated in picking over the entrails of political manoeuvring and Kremlinology behind firmly closed doors. That is for the legions of what used to be called Sovietologists. They made their careers and reputations dissecting the media messages from the TASS news agency, the Vremya evening TV newscast, or editions of Pravda that were read maybe 10 days or two weeks after being airmailed from Moscow and cleared through customs.
Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party (CCCP) in 1985. This was many years before social media threw open the windows to provide the 24/7 matrix of 20/20 information and accountability. In Gorbachev’s USSR there were no commercial mobile phones and there was no internet. Just heavily bugged landlines from homes, offices or kiosks, plus the revolution of analogue telex and fax machines.
Overall, Kremlin messaging and ‘propaganda’ dictated and dominated what Russians were allowed to know and think. The public rarely saw those at the top or got close to them. The apparatchiks who ran the party machinery were rarely seen, let alone heard from – except in bland, usually obtuse communiques.
Gorbachev would change much of that when he took over at the top, so a few quick comparisons with his predecessors are important.
The reputation and survival of the ailing Leonid Brezhnev as president had been ensured by a leaden propaganda machine for 18 years before he died of a heart attack in November 1982. Even the Kremlin gravediggers were corrupted. I remember well how they were so drunk that they dropped his coffin into its resting place.
His successor Yuri Andropov was a former head of the KGB. Based on ‘informed sources’ and deduction from the crumbs known about him, he was variously described publicly as decisive and brutal. Andropov was rarely seen, but for me his image was defined by the incredible pebble-shaped lenses of his spectacles. He died in office after just 15 months.
Then came Konstantin Chernenko. He had emphysema, so he struggled to even breathe, walk and talk. The pretence of all being normal was heightened by video coverage of the comrade president ‘voting’ in a booth erected in his apartment. He died after just 13 months.
So, the CCCP faced an enormous credibility problem. Despite his reputation, Andropov realised this. Before his death he had manoeuvred and manipulated to ensure the CCCP would be led by a vibrant party figure for the next generation.
That was why Andropov chose Gorbachev. He was little known publicly, but had made a radical impact confronting the failures of agriculture in the Stavropol region.
All of this is relevant to understanding and appreciating why Gorbachev made such a compelling impact. He was a safe anointee of the party, and had even been a pallbearer at Brezhnev’s funeral. But unlike all his predecessors, from the get-go he made sure his image was human, visible and accessible.
My contribution to remembering Gorbachev and defining his impact is via snapshots of what I witnessed in person as Diplomatic Editor for Channel 4 News.
Gorbachev had not meant to catalyse the end of the DDR. Far from it, according to party documents and transcripts subsequently seen by historians
The most vivid memory is from Berlin in early October 1989. I had been in East Berlin and the DDR for many weeks, evading the Stasi to report the tens of thousands of East Germans who were humiliating Erich Honecker’s leadership by fleeing to Hungary, Poland (with new freedoms achieved by the Solidarity movement) and what was then Czechoslovakia.
Gorbachev flew in, ostensibly to lend support to the commemoration of 40 years of the DDR and to bolster the regime of the 77-year-old neo-Stalinist. His hugs of Honecker and his official remarks and attendances at various enormous gatherings reinforced this with language and messages that went as planned.
Challenges were unhinging much of the eastern bloc of communist regimes, Gorbachev conceded. The DDR had problems that ‘demanded solutions’, but Moscow would not interfere.
For me there are two remarkable memories.
Firstly, Gorbachev and Honecker did not travel in the same limousine, which I took as a sign that the Soviet leader wanted to be seen to distance himself.
Secondly, as one would expect, Gorbachev visited the tomb of the unknown soldier on Unter den Linden. Many thousands of Frei Jugend were lined up with their flags across the boulevard. A small number of TV teams and I were isolated at a suitable distance in a tightly guarded pen.
To Honecker’s visible horror, Gorbachev headed for the pen and started addressing us. He stood barely two metres from me, with no intervening security.
With the characteristic stabbing of his right hand and index finger, the Soviet president let down his guard. He urged new approaches from the East German leadership, but also emphasised Moscow’s fullest and continuing support, and he warned the West to keep out. They must not try to capitalise on the social instability that had been unfolding.
To this day, and each time I visit the location, I still hold the image of the increasingly pale-faced DDR leader being marginalised in his own country by a smiling Gorbachev’s flowing monologue. Within five weeks, I was at the first breaches of the Berlin Wall after a member of Honecker’s politburo unexpectedly read a note at a media briefing saying that East Germans could leave immediately. And so many of them did.
Gorbachev had not meant to catalyse the end of the DDR. Far from it, according to party documents and transcripts subsequently seen by historians. He had not acceded to Ronald Reagan’s demand to ‘tear down this wall’, which the US president made when he visited West Berlin two years earlier. But that was the unplanned consequence of Gorbachev’s visit to East Berlin and what I had witnessed on Unter den Linden.
It was the reality which to this day has so infuriated Vladimir Putin. As a KGB colonel he was monitoring all of this from his posting in Dresden. Gorbachev’s Moscow would not even take his calls when he sought new orders.
At one stage, Gorbachev’s heady mix of pressure and encouragement seemed to be persuading Reagan to agree to abandon the nuclear arms race there and then
I witnessed Gorbachev having the same impact everywhere. There was always a certain freshness and inspiration, but laced with a steely determination. Often, he did himself no favours by talking spontaneously for too long.
On a state visit to Bonn four months earlier in June 1989, I recall the warmth of his image on the town hall balcony. It matched the determination of his message that ‘we are drawing the line under the post-war period’. He insisted that ‘today we can already declare that we have begun to turn the first leaves in the “new chapter” of our mutual relations’.
These thoughts from the Soviet president encouraged the West to start venturing in new directions with Moscow. Gorbachev’s visit had generated a remarkable 90% approval rating among Germans. Suddenly, there was a belief that significant reductions in weapons were possible, especially in conventional forces.
This was just six years after the acute tensions relating to the US deployments of cruise missiles in Germany and the UK in response to the Soviet SS-20s. But they are thoughts that infuriate Putin today.
Yet Gorbachev’s determination to achieve progress had been unquenchable. From the get-go as Russian president, he was a leader in a hurry.
Within months, he had managed to persuade Reagan to join him in Geneva in November 1985 for what was optimistically labelled a ‘post-Cold War Summit’. There was little substantive progress. But the pictures and what I witnessed in the downtown conference centre showed smiles and a new can-do, must-do approach from Gorbachev.
The same mood was achieved at the summit in Reykjavik a year later. In the intimacy of the tiny Hofdi house, Gorbachev underscored the Soviet Union’s urgent need for radical economic reforms. To achieve that, the ideological confrontation with the West had to end.
At one stage, Gorbachev’s heady mix of pressure and encouragement seemed to be persuading Reagan to agree to abandon the nuclear arms race there and then. Reagan’s staff were unnerved. Swiftly, they had to persuade him otherwise. The tension created was evident on the two leaders’ faces as they parted outside on the steps.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev had experienced first-hand the deceit and lack of honesty of the system. In the days of evasion and silence after the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl on 26 April 1986, even he as Soviet president was lied to. We now know his public statements of reassurance were not based on accurate assessments of the health and safety situation. Quite the opposite: they were driven by the communist system’s imperative and instinct to protect itself rather than the Soviet people.
But great minds eventually go into decline. To fund the work of his institute, he took on speaking engagements. I remember seeing him on a platform in the UAE 10 years ago. He still commanded with his presence, but he had neither the energy nor the sharpness of thought of prior years. He rambled and slurred. He did himself no favours.
That is why my sharpest memory of Gorbachev will always be watching him let rip a couple of metres from me on Unter den Linden in Berlin in early October 1989. A month later, the wall was breached. The new geopolitical realities that Putin so resents had been created.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Nik Gowing