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Gorbachev on His Legacy, and Obama's Chance to Lead an American Perestroika

The former Soviet leader on his push for a peaceful dissolution of the Russian empire, and his idea that the US should follow suit.

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MG: Gorbachev never had a guru. I've been involved in politics since 1955, after I finished university, when there was still hunger in my country as a result of World War II. I was formed by those times and by my participation in politics. In addition, I am an intellectually curious person by nature and I understood that many changes were necessary, and that it was necessary to think about them, even if it caused me discomfort. I began to carry out my own inner, spiritual perestroika--a perestroika in my personal views. Along the way, Russian literature and, in fact, all literature, European and American too, had a big influence on me. I was drawn especially to philosophy. And my wife, Raisa, who had read more philosophy than I had, was always there alongside me. I didn't just learn historical facts but tried to put them in a philosophical or conceptual framework.

I began to understand that society needed a new vision--that we must view the world with our eyes open, not just through our personal or private interests. That's how our new thinking of the 1980s began, when we understood that our old viewpoints were not working out. During the nuclear arms race, I was given a gift by an American, a little figure of a goose in flight. I still have it at my dacha. It is a goose that lives in the north of Russia in the summer and in the winter migrates to America. It does that every year regardless of what's happening, on the ground, between you and us. That was the point of this gift and that's why I'm telling you about it.

KVH/SFC: Listening to you, it seems that you became a political heretic in your country.

MG: I think that is true. I want to add that I know America well now, having given speeches to large audiences there regularly. Three years ago I was speaking in the Midwest, and an American asked me this question: "The situation in the United States is developing in a way that alarms us greatly. What would you advise us to do?" I said, "Giving advice, especially to Americans, is not for me." But I did say one general thing: that it seems to me that America needs its own American perestroika. Not ours. We needed ours, but you need yours. The entire audience stood and clapped for five minutes.

KVH/SFC: And do you think President Obama will be the leader of such an American perestroika?

MG: As far as I know, Americans did not make a mistake in electing him. Barack Obama is capable of leading your society on a very high level and of understanding it better than any political figure I know. He is an educated person with a highly developed capacity for dialogue, and that too is very important. So I congratulate you.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation. She is the co-editor of Taking Back America--And Taking Down The Radical Right (NationBooks, 2004). Stephen F. Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University, is the author (with Katrina vanden Heuvel) of Voices of Glasnost: Conversations With Gorbachev's Reformers, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia (both Norton) and, most recently, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War (Columbia).

 
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