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Mikhail Gorbachev, the man seen in the moment of defeat

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Mikhail Gorbachev, the man seen in the moment of defeat

LONDON – Jovial, warm, endowed with an inexhaustible energy: so it seemed to us Mikhail Gorbachev, on December 26, 1991, a few hours after announcing his resignation on television. It was also the last hours that the now ex-president spent in the office in the Kremlin, which he had occupied since the day he took office, six years earlier. Welcoming me and my colleague Fiammetta Cucurnia, then correspondents of Republic from Moscow, for what was his last interview inside the fortress on Red Square, from whose dome the red flag had been lowered the day before, Mikhail Sergeevic did not give the impression of a loser, he did not appear demoralized or depressed: on the contrary, in a sense it was as if a formidable weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

Farewell to Mikhail Gorbachev, father of perestroika

The end of the USSR had been in the air at least six months earlier, when the nostalgics of communism had tried to overthrow it with a coup: from being a designated victim, Mikhail Sergeevic became an accomplice in the conspiracy in the eyes of his own people, because those men he had chosen him, in the continuous zigzag between reforms and backtracking to hold together the largest country in the world. In a certain sense, after the August coup, it had therefore been a long farewell, with a foregone conclusion. This does not mean that Gorbachev was not bitter and worried about the collapse of the USSR. “We are neither Tartars nor Germans,” he said in the long conversation, which went on longer than we expected, the sign that he was in no hurry, because his official commitments were over. He meant that Russia was neither Asia nor Europe, but a hinge between the two continents: he would have liked to resolve the eternal dilemma between Slavophiles and pro-Europeans. But the time for compromise was over. And his personal time was up.

The fall

by Carlo Bonini (editorial coordination), Fiammetta Cucurnia, Enrico Franceschini and Ezio Mauro. Multimedia coordination by Laura Pertici. Gedi Visual production

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From the southern village to the Kremlin

To measure the journey made by Gorbachev between 1985, when the Politburo of the Communist Party elected him general secretary after the death of three elderly leaders one after the other, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, and the 26 December ’91 of his departure from the scene , another trip was needed. I had done it, driven by curiosity and chance, in the previous July, a few weeks before the coup, by going to Privolnoe, a village of two thousand inhabitants in southern Russia, where Gorbachev was born and raised. In the silence of the sunny countryside, there was only one “stalovaja”, a canteen overrun with flies, between the miserable wooden izbe and the horrendous Soviet-style huts. Young Mikhail went to school in the neighboring village every morning in a cart pulled by a tractor or oxen. The grandfather, judged a kulako, an enriched peasant, had suffered the Stalinist persecutions. Grandmother had secretly baptized Mikhail, as she used to do then. Perhaps from there came his habit, repeated several times in the course of our interview, of exclaiming “Slavic Bogo”, thank God: it was strange for me to hear the former leader of the Communist superpower, of the nation that preached atheism, insert his speech on the successful or unsuccessful reforms of perestroika with the name of the Lord. One of the contradictions of Soviet power: Stalin had sent his tormentor Kaganovic to shoot the priests, but he had not succeeded in completely eradicating religion from the language of real socialism.

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That remote village in the Stavropol region, where only one house stood out, modest like the others but protected by a KGB guard hut, because Gorbachev’s mother continued to live there, was far from Red Square, the Kremlin, office with the red flag on the roof, like the earth from the moon. It took an iron determination to complete that path: the ability to make a career using ancient firmness and new methods, to appear a continuer and an innovator, not to scare the nostalgic but also to give the system the jolt that even its predecessor and godfather Andropov, a former head of the KGB, therefore one of the few to know the true state of the Soviet disintegration, considered it necessary. But that duplicity, which had worked to bring him to the top, had no longer served him when it was a question of changing the USSR without revolutionizing it: like all reformers, Gorbachev was left alone, abandoned by the nostalgics of communism as well as by democratic radicals. And mocked by ordinary people for his battle against alcoholism, which earned him the nickname “mineral secretary”, as if he were a teetotaler, an infamy for a Russian comparable to that of an Italian who disdains pizza or spaghetti. It wasn’t true that he didn’t drink: sometimes, in the final days of loneliness in the Kremlin, he even got drunk on brandy, as his closest aide confessed. Anatoly Chernyaev in your diary. He was not a drunkard like his successor Boris Yeltsin, however. He would never have said, like Prince Vladimir, founder of the first Russia, “drinking is the joy of the Russians, we cannot live without”, thus rejecting Islam as a state faith, because it banned alcohol, and instead embracing the Christianity.

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Gorbachev died. The last Secretary General, the first Reformer

by Ezio Mauro


The day after the interview with Gorbachev, I returned to the Kremlin to interview his right-hand man Alexander Yakovlev, known as “the architect of perestroika”, also intent on moving and abandoning his office. Leaving Yakovlev’s room, who do we run into again by Fiammetta, me and our Russian editor Sergej Avdeenko? In Gorbachev, who wandered through the corridors, with a fur hat on his head, like a man who no longer knows where to go, what to do, unable to leave forever. He kissed Fiammetta. He shook hands with me. Then he handed it to Sergej too. But Sergej drew back, almost as if a dark force was pushing him towards the corridor wall. “Don’t you understand?”, He told me later. “For me it was as if the emperor, God on earth, had come down from the throne or from heaven to shake my hand. It didn’t seem possible.” This was the general secretary of the PCUS: a god on earth. And now the earth had collapsed, overwhelming him.

The collapse of the USSR

That interview was supposed to be his political testament. But it was too hot a will to be complete, thoughtful. I saw Gorbachev again in Moscow, then in Israel where I had been transferred from the newspaper, finally in London, after a new transfer. And precisely in the British capital Mikhail Sergeevic offered a sharper reflection, as well as more painful and more aware of the problems created by the failure of perestroika and the Soviet collapse: “We were in a hurry, but we should have gone slower”. He said the early years of Vladimir Putin they had been good, to restore some order without completely harnessing the nascent Russian democracy and good relations with the West, but which Putin then made a mistake in pushing on authoritarianism and force. That force that Gorbachev had not used, letting Eastern Europe free itself from its chains, giving the Russians themselves the sprite of freedom. But freedom, as the Moscow housewives used to repeat in front of empty shops, cannot be eaten.

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Not even with Yeltsin, the rival who had shattered the USSR to overthrow him, did Gorbachev use force. “I could have sent him to be an ambassador to Canada and we would never have heard of him again,” he recalled in December 1991. Instead he had been lenient, he had kept him in Moscow, he had given him a second chance. Perhaps because it suited him, in the constant search for a balance between communists and democrats. Partly because that was his character.

(ansa)

The most beautiful thing he told us, as often happens in interviews, came with the recorder closed, on the office door. He remembered a trip of many years ago, when he was only secretary of Stavropol, invited to Sicily by the comrades of the PCI for a holiday with his wife Raissa, in an era in which only authorized Soviets could go abroad, putting their noses out. from that immense prison-state. And Raissa, beautiful when the world met her as a modern first-lady, must have been even more beautiful when she was young: “On the beach, near Palermo”, said Mikhail Sergeevic, “local dudes began to circle around her. And me. I had to pull my muscles out to get them away! What a figure! Who knows what they thought of that Russian lout! ” The man of perestroika, the last Soviet president, the leader who destroyed it to free an empire, was like this: he knew how to laugh at himself. Even when he had lost everything.

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