Mikhail Gorbachev

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In 1985, when the first rumblings of Gorbachev's thunder disturbed the moldy Soviet silence, the holy fools on the street--the people who always gather at flea markets and around churches--predicted that the new Czar would rule seven years. They assured anyone interested in listening that Gorbachev was "foretold in the Bible," that he was an apocalyptic figure: he had a mark on his forehead. Everyone had searched for signs in previous leaders as well, but Lenin's speech defect, Stalin's mustache, Brezhnev's eyebrows and Khrushchev's vast baldness were utterly human manifestations. The unusual birthmark on the new General Secretary's forehead, combined with his inexplicably radical actions, gave him a mystical aura. Writing about Gorbachev--who he was, where he came from, what he was after, and what his personal stake was (there had to be one) became just as intriguing as trying to figure out what Russia's future would be.

After he stepped down from his position as head of state, many people of course stopped thinking about him, and in Russian history, that in itself is extraordinary. How Gorbachev left power and what he has done since are unique episodes in Russian history, but he could have foreseen his own resignation: he prepared the ground and the atmosphere that made that resignation possible. Gorbachev is such an entirely political creature, and yet so charismatic, that it's hard to come to any conclusions about him as a person. Every attempt I know of has failed miserably. The phenomenon of Gorbachev has not yet been explained, and most of what I've read on the subject reminds me of how a biologist, psychologist, lawyer or statistician might describe an angel.

Gorbachev has been discussed in human terms, the usual investigations have been made, his family tree has been studied, a former girlfriend has been unearthed (so what?), the spotlight has been turned on his wife. His completely ordinary education, colleagues, friends and past have all been gone over with a fine-tooth comb. By all accounts, Gorbachev shouldn't have been Gorbachev. Then the pundits study the politics of the Soviet Union, evoke the shadow of Ronald Reagan and Star Wars, drag out tables and graphs to show that the Soviet economy was doomed to self-destruct, that it already had, that the country couldn't have gone on that way any longer. But what was Reagan to us, when we had managed to overcome Hitler, all while living in the inhuman conditions of Stalinism? No single approach--and there have been many--can explain Gorbachev. Perhaps the holy fools with their metaphysical scenario were right when they whispered that he was marked and that seven years were given to him to transform Russia in the name of her as yet invisible but inevitable salvation and renaissance.

After the August 1991 coup, Gorbachev was deprived of power, cast out, laughed at and reproached with all the misfortunes, tragedies and lesser and greater catastrophes that took place during his rule. Society always reacts more painfully to individual deaths than it does to mass annihilation. The crackdowns in Georgia and Lithuania--the Gorbachev regime's clumsy attempts to preclude the country's collapse--led to the death of several dozen people. Their names are known, their photographs were published in the press, and one feels terribly sorry for them and their families. Yeltsin's carnage in Chechnya, the bloody events in Tadjikistan, the establishment of feudal orders in the central Asian republics and the massive eradication of all human rights throughout the territory of the former Soviet Union are, however, regarded indifferently, as if they were in the order of things, as if they were not a direct consequence of the current regime's irresponsible policies.

Corruption did exist under Gorbachev; after Gorbachev it blossomed with new fervor. Oppressive poverty did exist under Gorbachev; after Gorbachev it reached the level of starvation. Under Gorbachev the system of residence permits did fetter the population; after Gorbachev hundreds upon hundreds of thousands lost their property and the roofs over their heads and set off across the country seeking refuge from people as angry and hungry as they were.

No doubt Gorbachev made mistakes. No doubt his maneuvering between the Scylla of a totalitarian regime and the Charybdis of democratic ideas was far from irreproachable. No doubt he listened to and trusted the wrong people, no doubt his hearing and sight were dulled by the enormous pressure and he made many crude, irreversible mistakes. But maybe not. In a country accustomed to the ruler's answering for everything, even burned stew and spilled milk are held against the Czar and are never forgiven. Similarly, shamanism has always been a trait of the Russian national character: we cough and infect everyone around us, but when we all get sick, we throw stones at the shaman because his spells didn't work.

When Gorbachev was overthrown, for some reason everyone thought it was a good thing. The conservatives were pleased because in their eyes he was the cause of the regime's demise (they were absolutely right). The radicals were happy because in their opinion he was an obstacle to the republics' independence and too cautious in enacting economic reforms. (They too were correct.) This man with the stain on his forehead attempted simultaneously to contain and transform the country, to destroy and reconstruct, right on the spot. One can be Hercules and clean the Augean stable. One can be Atlas and hold up the heavenly vault. But no one has ever succeeded in combining the two roles. Surgery was demanded of Gorbachev, but angry shouts broke out whenever he reached for the scalpel. He wasn't a Philippine healer who could remove a tumor without blood or incisions.

Strangely enough, no one ever thought Gorbachev particularly honest, fair or noble. But after he was gone, the country was overwhelmed by a flood of dishonesty, corruption, lies and outright banditry that no one expected. Those who reproached him for petty indulgences at government expense--for instance, every room of his government dacha had a television set--themselves stole billions; those who were indignant that he sought advice from his wife managed to set up their closest relatives with high-level, well-paid state jobs. All the pygmies of previous years, afraid to squeak in the pre-Gorbachev era, now, with no risk of response, feel justified in insulting him.

The pettiness of the accusations speaks for itself. Gorbachev's Pizza Hut ads provoke particular ridicule, and while the idea is indeed amusing, they pay his rent. The scorn reminds me of how the Russian upper crust once castigated Peter the Great for being unafraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. Amazingly, in our huge, multinational country, where the residents of St. Petersburg speak with a different accent from those of Moscow, Gorbachev's southern speech is held against him.

After his resignation, Gorbachev suddenly became very popular in an unexpected quarter: among young people. He became an element of pop culture, a decorative curlicue of the apolitical, singing, dancing, quasi-bohemians. It was fashionable to weave his sayings into songs: in one popular composition Raisa Gorbachev's voice says thoughtfully, "Happiness exists; it can't be otherwise," and Gorbachev answers, "I found it."

In the 1996 election, 1.5% of the electorate voted for him. That's about 1.5 million people. I think about those people, I wonder who they are. But I'll never know. The press hysteria before the election was extraordinary. Ordinary people no longer trusted or respected the moribund Yeltsin, but many were afraid of the communists and Gennadi Zyuganov, so the campaign was carried out under the slogan THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS or BETTER DEAD THAN RED. All my friends either voted for Yeltsin, sighing and chanting the sacred phrases, or, overcome by apathy or revulsion, didn't vote at all. I asked everyone, "Why not vote for Gorbachev?" "He doesn't have a chance," was the answer. "I would, but others won't, and Zyuganov will be elected as a result," some said. This, at least, was a pragmatic approach. But it turns out that there were 1.5 million dreamers, people who hadn't forgotten that bright if short period of time when the chains fell one after another, when every day brought greater freedom and hope, when life acquired meaning and prospects, when, it even seemed, people loved one another and felt that a general reconciliation was possible.

Russian novelist Tatyana Tolstaya's most recent book is Sleepwalker in the Fog