It’s easier today to understand what Mikhail Gorbachev meant for Russia than it was six months ago. There’s much we can’t say today that we could yesterday. And under Gorbachev, you could say out loud what you couldn’t say the day before, and that was a moment of extraordinary happiness for many.
Today, everyone is convinced that the Soviet Union collapsed because there was no sausage or jeans. But Soviet people weren’t just deprived of decent food and clothing, they were also deprived of the chance to talk about that deficit out loud. And that was a source of mounting frustration, anger, and bitterness: perhaps even more so than the deficit of essential or sought-after items.
Those who are old enough to remember the Gorbachev era recall it as an endless chorus of people interrupting one another and being delighted to have the opportunity to do so. The country had been silenced for many decades, and now it needed to have its say.
It’s the fall of 1984, and a schoolmate and I stay behind to talk to our young history teacher after a lesson during which we were told that capitalist countries don’t have elections, unlike our country. Even at fourteen, I find it obvious that this just isn’t true. My classmate complains about the range of goods in the shops, though the official line is that they’re abundant. It’s just the three of us, but within a few days our homeroom periods are devoted to ensuring that we take the right line and we’re being sent to see the vice principal and the headmaster. Our young teacher has learned a key lesson: if she doesn’t report that the children have been asking inappropriate questions, the children themselves might reveal it by chance, so she betrays her students.
Now it’s the May 1 Labor Day demonstration at the beginning of the Gorbachev era. The older children have to carry portraits of members of the Politburo. I’ve been given Gorbachev, but it’s a warm May morning and nobody’s in a hurry to pick up their portraits on poles. When I finally do, our teacher is red in the face with anger. “Because of you, the leader of the state was in the shed waiting the longest,” he hisses.
Within a year, both these occurrences are impossible. You are free to ask why all our elections only have one candidate who always wins, while there are places on Earth where there are two or more. What could have got you expelled from school is now being discussed in the newspapers. You can go to the Shrovetide Fair in the city square because you’ve heard a rumor that in one of the little huts they’ll be selling a Beatles record released by the Melodiya record label. You can then take it to your teachers and triumphantly inform them that what they’d previously banned was now being provided by the state.
All of a sudden, in the liquor and grocery stores, there are lines of people shoving one another and cursing. Seen today through the prism of time and space, the semi-prohibition law looks strange, but it didn’t at the time. Back then, the country started drinking in the morning, drowning its silence in alcohol. With nothing else to spend them on, the country drank away its rubles. The state reclaimed its rubles from its inhabitants through vodka and early deaths. The bosses drank with one another, the workers among themselves, the intelligentsia within their own circles. Not drinking or even drinking less than everyone else was an act of treachery. From Wednesday, the normal sounds of the evening coming in from the street beneath your window were complemented by the ruckus of drunks arguing and singing. From Thursday onwards, and on Friday in particular if it was payday, there was a drunk lying on every street corner. Something had to be done about this, everyone understood that. Gorbachev tried to end the monetization of the population’s social degradation. Economically, it wasn’t a winner, but it was entirely understandable from a humanitarian point of view. Having a good opinion of people in general, he didn’t realize that there would soon be shortages of sugar, which people used to brew their own liquor, and dichlorvos, an insecticide that at a pinch could be used to give cocktails a punch.
Just as suddenly, politics—something we had thought only existed in the past or abroad—returned. When Gorbachev gave Boris Yeltsin a dressing down in the Politburo itself and demoted him, it was actually reported in the newspapers, previously devoid of news.
Language was something else that came back to life. Previously, the bosses had mumbled wooden words that nobody used in normal life. Even Gorbachev’s official speeches sounded much closer to normal human language, not to mention his unofficial speeches.
And then there was Raisa. Instead of being wedded to his homeland, like many autocrats, Gorbachev was married to a woman. He had a beloved wife and he wasn’t ashamed to show his love for her. It wasn’t just that the preceding nomenclature had been a closed men’s club with timid wives awkwardly wheeled out for state visits. Now the key official was having a public romance with his own wife, which humanized the authorities to the level of Western election campaigns.
At the state-owned factory (there are no private ones yet) where I work after school, there is an attempt in the spirit of perestroika to resuscitate relations between the workers and the administration. The administration sabotages it and forces the workers to elect the firm’s director as chairman of the Workers’ Collective Council. This is clearly cheating, and I vote against him. I even write about why I’m voting against him in the biggest newspaper of the time, Komsomolskaya Pravda. The party official gives me a bad reference for my application to university. A year earlier that would have meant he’d passed sentence on me. “You’ve got the worst reference of all,” says Yasen Zasursky, the dean of the journalism faculty at Moscow State University. “But that’s good,” he continues, “that’s the kind we need nowadays.” The course on party history for first-year students is canceled on the pretext that the subject is too complex for such young minds. It’s moved to the later years in the hope that it will never have to be taught. That hope came true. During my university years, the ruling party (and indeed, the only party) loses power. Some of my classmates are already in the army, relieved that they haven’t been sent to fight in Afghanistan, while others are preparing for conscription the following year and praying that they won’t be sent to Afghanistan. All of a sudden, Gorbachev abolishes conscription for students. And then he abolishes Afghanistan too.
It’s as if Russia’s eternal curse has been removed. For the first time in many decades, perhaps even centuries, Russia is freer than the majority of its neighbors in Europe. Like American presidents, Gorbachev changes regimes, and does so easily and spontaneously. A single visit is all that’s needed for people to start comparing him with their own venerated figures, and they come out into the streets to greet him. The Berlin Wall could have stood for another century if it hadn’t been for him. The protocols from the Politburo sessions are full of accounts of Gorbachev kicking the cozy armchairs out from under the leaders of the socialist bloc, demanding that they begin their own perestroikas, and speaking to ordinary people over the heads of their local rulers.
The entire country, abandoning work and domestic affairs, is glued to live broadcasts from party conferences and congresses of the people’s deputies from morning to evening. The broadcasts get viewing figures that no one can boast of nowadays: neither Putin nor even the World Cup can compete. Nobody forces them to watch it, they do it of their own accord.
Now, when Russian spokespeople and propaganda spinners threaten nuclear strikes, we have remembered how disconcerting it is to live with the threat of nuclear war. Just before Gorbachev came to power there had been a crisis over the deployment of Soviet and American nuclear missiles in Europe. The parties to the dispute required their own people to put up with this fear for the sake of the lofty ideals of communism—or the fight against it. Then Gorbachev came along and said that we didn’t have to put up with that, and managed to convince everyone else in the bargain.
In 1988, Russia marks the 1000th anniversary of the country’s conversion to Christianity. The Metropolitan Archbishop of Yaroslavl, dressed in his vestments, for the first time openly walks on Yaroslavl’s central square in the company of cardinals, rabbis, and Buddhist monks. On the outskirts of Moscow, the first new church in seven decades is being built, resurrecting an art that appeared to have been lost in ancient, prerevolutionary times. I sit by the Ilyinsky Church, under a blossoming lilac, and read foreign editions of books by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Nabokov, printed on thin sheets of paper and previously hidden by an associate professor at the local university.
Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the other proponents of the Enlightenment, Gorbachev operated on the principle that people, by nature, are good, and it is only society that makes them bad. If you give a person freedom, they will use it for good; if you improve society, people will become kinder. Every time people failed to use the freedom they were given for good, from Karabakh to Vladivostok, it was as though Gorbachev couldn’t believe it and he tried again. The root of his mistakes lay in this faith. But it is the only faith that we should share.
- Alexander Baunov