Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other Enlightenment supporters, Gorbachev assumed that people are inherently good, and only society makes them bad. If you give a person freedom, they will use it for good. The root of his errors was in this faith. But that’s the only faith we should share.
It is easier today to understand what Mikhail Gorbachev meant for Russia than six months ago. There are many things we cannot say today that we could say yesterday. And under Gorbachev, you could say out loud what you couldn’t say the day before, and it was a moment of extraordinary happiness for many.
Today everyone is convinced that the Soviet Union collapsed because there was no sausage and no jeans. But the Soviets were not only deprived of decent food and clothing, they were also deprived of the opportunity to speak aloud about this deficit. And it was a source of growing frustration, anger and bitterness: perhaps even more than the lack of essential or wanted items.
Those old enough to remember the Gorbachev era remember it as an endless chorus of people interrupting each other and elated at the opportunity to do so. The country had been silenced for many decades, and now it had to have its say.
It’s the fall of 1984, and a classmate and I are staying to talk to our young history teacher after a class in which we were told that capitalist countries don’t have elections, unlike our country. Even at fourteen, I find it obvious that this is simply not true. My classmate complains about the range of goods in the stores, even though the official line is that they are plentiful. There are only three of us, but within days our class periods are taken up with making sure we get on the right line and we are sent to see the vice principal and the principal. Our young teacher learned a key lesson: if she doesn’t report that the children asked inappropriate questions, the children themselves might accidentally reveal it, so she is betraying her students.
It is now the May Day manifestation of Labor Day at the start of the Gorbachev era. Older children must wear portraits of members of the Politburo. I was given Gorbachev, but it’s a hot May morning and no one is in a rush to pick up his pole portraits. When I finally do, our teacher is red with anger. “Because of you, the head of state was in the hangar waiting the longest,” he hisses.
In one year, these two occurrences are impossible. You may wonder why all our elections have only one candidate who always wins, when there are places on Earth where there are two or more. What could have gotten you expelled from school is now being discussed in the newspapers. You can go to the Shrovetide fair in the town square because you heard a rumor that in one of the little shacks they were selling a Beatles record released by the Melodiya label.
All of a sudden, in the liquor and grocery stores, there are lines of people jostling and insulting each other. Seen today through the prism of time and space, the semi-prohibition law seems strange, but it was not so then. At the time, the country began to drink in the morning, drowning its silence in alcohol. With nothing else to spend it on, the country drank its rubles. The state got its rubles back from its people through vodka and premature deaths. The bosses drank among themselves, the workers among themselves, the intelligentsia in its own circles. Not drinking or even drinking less than everyone else was an act of treason. From Wednesday, the normal evening noises from the street below your window were supplemented by the ruckus of drunks arguing and singing. From Thursday, and especially from Friday if it was payday, there was a drunk lying on every street corner. Something had to be done about it, everyone understood that. Gorbachev tried to end the monetization of the social degradation of the population. Economically, it was not winning, but it was completely understandable from a humanitarian point of view. Having a good opinion of people in general, he did not realize that there would soon be shortages of sugar, which people used to brew their own liquor, and of dichlorvos, an insecticide which, in a pinch, could be used to punch up cocktails.
Just as suddenly, politics – something we thought only existed in the past or abroad – came back. When Gorbachev insulted Boris Yeltsin within the Politburo itself and demoted him, it was actually reported in the previously newsless newspapers.
The language was something else coming back to life. Previously, the bosses had mumbled wooden words that no one used in normal life. Even Gorbachev’s official speeches sounded much closer to normal human speech, not to mention his unofficial speeches.
And then there was Raisa. Instead of being married to his homeland, like many autocrats, Gorbachev was married to a woman. He had a beloved wife and he was not ashamed to show her his love. It wasn’t just that previous nomenclature had been a closed men’s club with shy wives awkwardly whisked away for state visits. Now the key official had a public romance with his own wife, which humanized authorities in Western election campaigns.
At the public factory (there is not yet a private factory) where I work after school, we are trying, 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 director of the company to the presidency of the Collective Council of Workers. It’s clearly cheating, and I’m voting against it. I even write why I vote against him in the biggest newspaper of the time, Komsomolskaya Pravda. The party official gives me the wrong reference for my college application. A year earlier, that would have meant that he had condemned me. “You have the worst reference of all,” says Yasen Zasursky, dean of the journalism faculty at Moscow State University. “But it’s fine,” he continues, “it’s the kind we need these days.” The party history class for freshmen is canceled on the grounds that the subject is too complex for such young minds. It is moved to the later years in hopes that it will never have to be taught. This hope has come true. During my university years, the party in power (and in fact, the only party) loses power. Some of my classmates are already in the army, relieved not to have been sent to fight in Afghanistan, while others are preparing for conscription the following year and praying not to be sent to Afghanistan. Suddenly, Gorbachev abolishes conscription for students. And then he also abolishes Afghanistan.
It is as if the eternal curse of Russia has been lifted. For the first time in many decades, if not centuries, Russia is freer than the majority of its European neighbors. Like American presidents, Gorbachev changes regimes, and does so easily and spontaneously. One visit is enough for people to start comparing him to their own revered figures, and they come out into the streets to greet him. The Berlin Wall could have lasted another century without him. The protocols of the Politburo sessions are replete with tales of Gorbachev dismissing the comfortable chairs under the leaders of the socialist bloc, demanding that they start their own perestroikas and talking to ordinary people over the heads of their local leaders.
The whole country, abandoning work and internal affairs, is glued to live broadcasts of party conferences and congresses of people’s deputies from morning to evening. The shows get viewership numbers that no one can brag about these days: neither Putin nor even the World Cup can compete. No one is forcing them to watch it, they do it on their own.
Today, when Russian spokespersons and propaganda operatives threaten nuclear strikes, we are reminded of 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 conflict have demanded of their own people to bear this fear in the name of the lofty ideals of communism – or the struggle against it. Then Gorbachev came along and said we didn’t have to put up with this, and managed to convince everyone in the process.
In 1988, Russia celebrates the 1000th anniversary of the country’s conversion to Christianity. The Metropolitan Archbishop of Yaroslavl, dressed in his robes, walks for the first time openly in the central square of Yaroslavl 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 seemed to have been lost in pre-revolutionary times. I sit near the Ilyinsky Church, under a blooming 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 of the local university.
Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other Enlightenment supporters, Gorbachev assumed that people are inherently good, and only society makes them bad. If you give freedom to a person, he will use it for good; if you improve society, people will become nicer. Whenever people didn’t use the freedom given to them for good, from Karabakh to Vladivostok, it was as if Gorbachev didn’t believe in it and he tried again. The root of his errors was in this faith. But that’s the only faith we should share.