This story originally ran in the December 11, 1995 issue of In These Times. Mikhail Gorbachev passed away on August 30, 2022 at the age of 91.
To consider the peculiar and sadly anticlimactic career of Mikhail Gorbachev is to marvel at one man’s will to carry on. Having almost single-handedly dissolved the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War, Gorbachev is now a pariah in his own country.
But even if Gorbachev does not despair of his earthly trials, he must have been sorely tempted in late September, when he was subjected to the plaintive whine of pop singer John Denver. Invited to open the four-day “State of the World Forum” sponsored by the San Francisco-based Gorbachev Foundation, the normally chirpy Denver summoned the appropriate gravitas to eulogize Gorbachev with a chorus of: “All this joy, all this sorrow, all this promise, all this pain/ Such is life, such is being, such is spirit, such is love.”
Denver wisely left Gorbachev’s summit straight away, flying to Japan for a first-class gig. Gorbachev wasn’t so lucky.
Ostensibly a convocation of a “global braintrust” that might chart a “third way” between the excesses of capitalist and communist economic models, the forum more likely left its participants fearing there was no way out. The forum’s list of speakers, while it sported a few worthies, was top-heavy with washed-up politicians, seminar-circuit charlatans and best-selling blowhards. And, unfortunately, Denver’s bland existentialism set the tone. Gorbachev himself, bemused, rambling and absurdly out of place as the figurehead of a small foundation, was left only to wonder at his personal eclipse, both in Russian politics and the New World Order.
If the conclave lacked cohesion, it was not for lack of ambition. In fact, in their zeal to be inclusive, organizers ended up being scattershot. Among those invited were renowned scientists Jane Goodall and Richard Leakey, but also popularizers Carl Sagan and John Naisbitt; Nobel Peace laureates Oscar Arias Sanchez and Rigoberta Menchu were joined by arch-feminist Susan Griffin and men’s movement leader Sam Keen. An Onondoga Indian chief from New York, a best-selling Zen Buddhist author from Vietnam and the spiritual head of India’s Sikhs added color to the proceedings but were largely ignored when they opened their mouths. And there was never any doubt as to who called the shots. “I doubt any big thinkers of the next century are here,” groused social critic Jeremy Rifkin. “We’re just window-dressing for a few big names espousing Establishment views.”
Theodore Roszak, author of The Making of the CounterCulture, chose to withdraw from the gathering at the last moment, calling the pomposity of the assembled notables “an invitation to satire.” In that respect, if in no other, the forum did not fail to satisfy. Few of the big names seemed equal to Gorbachev’s open-ended challenge to come up with fresh ideas about globalization and development. Seasoned Cold Warrior Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, perhaps rueing his own redundancy, shot down the prospect of post-Cold war optimism. “We have to face the fact that global philosophical emptiness will become pervasive,” he announced, pausing a moment for effect before adding a grim non sequitur. “Does anyone in this room,” he asked, “know a poor person who has had cosmetic surgery?” No one raised a hand.
If Brzezinski disseminated his world-weary wisdom in inscrutable riddles, media mogul Ted Turner chose the more accessible style of the high school football coach to convey his kinder, gentler brand of social Darwinism. “There’s no excuse for us to be doing the dumb things any more,” Turner reasoned. “It’s just a simple matter of doing smart things and continuing to live, or to keep on doing dumb things and die.”
Carl Sagan picked up on the theme of the planet’s possible doom. Ignoring terrestrial sideshows such as the growing gulf between haves and have-nots, the rising tide of ethnic violence and the prospects of environmental calamity, Sagan warned of a more insidious threat to human existence: asteroids. “This is a problem for the whole species,” he intoned, adding darkly that global leaders might just as well forget about enlisting the succor of space aliens to avoid astral bombardment. “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” he concluded. “The prospect of help coming from the outside is very small.”
The only enveloping darkness in evidence, however, was surrounding Gorbachev’s mind. He talked vaguely of forging a grand “fusion” between socialism and free-market economics, without so much as a hint of how he might tame the capitalist juggernaut. Instead, he repeatedly launched into tendentious discourses that left some listeners thinking he had slipped back into an all-night Politburo meeting. Of Gorbachev’s penchant for verbal excess, Vladimir Nadeine, a U.S. correspondent for Izvestia, quipped, “He uses a dozen words when one will do.”
Despite his high talk of globalism during the conference, Gorbachev’s heart seemed to be in Russia. Avowing feelings of “moral responsibility for the future of reform and democracy in Russia,” he even held out the possibility that he might run in next year’s Russian presidential election — a prospect he knows is absurd, because he remains deeply unpopular among ordinary Russians. Communist Party members feel betrayed by him, while critics of the party identify him with the discredited regime. “He’s one of the most controversial figures in Russia,” said Nadeine of Izvestia. “While everyone knows his contribution to the end of Communism, he lost our country’s great heritage in a few years.”
Of course, he is hardly the first political leader to have given birth to a new world in which he had no place. Yet he is unwilling to go quietly; he remains deeply disturbed by Russia’s uncertain future. Describing the December 17 parliamentary elections as “indispensable,” he said, “People in the West should know we are working very hard to ensure that the elections take place and that they are fair, honest and democratic.”
Gorbachev’s sharpest criticisms were reserved for the government of Boris Yeltsin, whom he accuses of “conducting reforms recklessly.” He compared the zeal with which Yeltsin’s government privatized the Soviet economy to that of the Bolsheviks. “This is similar to the forced industrialization and collectivization [of the ’20s and ’30s], which took place without regard for the people,” he said.
In such moments, Gorbachev seemed a bit hypocritical. Beyond mouthing liberal democratic pieties and fretting about the spiritual crisis dogging civilization, he showed little grasp of how a truly democratic political culture might arise. Ever cautious, he spoke as if he had just discovered such familiar notions as rule by law and civil society, observing with great enthusiasm, for instance, that “a strong government is only possible where there’s a strong executive, a strong parliament, an effective judiciary and a free press.”
Similarly, when he railed against the global havoc wreaked by unchecked science and technology, he conveniently overlooked his own role in the Chernobyl disaster and the Soviet Union’s awful record of industrial pollution.
Still, Gorbachev could be taken at his word when he said: “We should not try to build a new Utopia; that would be too dangerous. But we must have a new vision, a new politics.” What isn’t clear, however, is how Gorbachev’s “new” politics will address what is probably the world’s central issue: the rising influence of multinational corporations and their growing capacity to undermine national sovereignty.
Strangely, Gorbachev’s gab-fest was subsidized almost entirely by big corporations and wealthy executives. Notorious influence-peddler Archer Daniels Midland, currently facing messy charges of price-fixing, donated $250,000, making it the biggest patron. HarperCollins, which has published a book of Gorbachev’s imponderable statements on world affairs, chipped in $50,000. United Airlines, Prodigy and billionaire industrialist David Packard kicked in $25,000 each. Gorbachev’s corporate patrons have promised to pay for four more summits before the end of the century, which perhaps explains Gorbachev’s reticence on the subject of global corporate rule.
The general lack of specifics, however, left many participants uncomfortable. Richard Leakey, who traveled from Nairobi to attend the meeting despite losing both legs in a recent airplane crash, worried that the whole notion of a Gorbachev braintrust was “too ambitious.” As a practical matter, “What does this beast we’ve created do?” he asked.
There was only one possible answer: to launch Gorbachev’s new career as a global pundit. Bereft of political influence in the new Russia, going global is Gorbachev’s only option. Among the prospects mentioned for Gorbachev was a role in the United Nations. “In the West, he is still a hero for many of us who never thought they’d see the Berlin Wall come down,” gushed Jane Goodall.
Despite his failings, Gorbachev deserves better. More than any other Russian politician, he has shown generosity, sacrifice, compassion and a sense of justice. But as he admitted in an interview, he had a big hand in his own political demise. He was too cautious, too “evolutionary” in his move away from Marxism-Leninism, Gorbachev said. “We acted too slowly in reforming the Communist Party. And those who act late, they lose in politics.”