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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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This September, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, a contributing editor, interviewed former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at his foundation in Moscow. With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaching, we believed that the leader most responsible for that historic event should be heard, on his own terms, in the United States. As readers will see, the discussion became much more wide-ranging.

KVH/SFC: Historic events quickly generate historical myths. In the United States it is said that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of a divided Europe was caused by a democratic revolution in Eastern Europe or by American power, or both. What is your response?

MG: Those developments were the result of perestroika in the Soviet Union, where democratic changes had reached the point by March 1989 that for the first time in Russia's history democratic, competitive elections took place. You remember how enthusiastically people participated in those elections for a new Soviet Congress. And as a result thirty-five regional Communist Party secretaries were defeated. By the way, of the deputies elected, 84 percent were Communists, because there were a lot of ordinary people in the party--workers and intellectuals.

On the day after the elections, I met with the Politburo, and said, "I congratulate you!" They were very upset. Several replied, "For what?" I explained, "This is a victory for perestroika. We are touching the lives of people. Things are difficult for them now, but nonetheless they voted for Communists." Suddenly one Politburo member replied, "And what kind of Communists are they!" Those elections were very important. They meant that movement was under way toward democracy, glasnost and pluralism.

Analogous processes were also under way in Eastern and Central Europe. On the day I became Soviet leader, in March 1985, I had a special meeting with the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries, and told them: "You are independent, and we are independent. You are responsible for your policies, we are responsible for ours. We will not intervene in your affairs, I promise you." And we did not intervene, not once, not even when they later asked us to. Under the influence of perestroika, their societies began to take action. Perestroika was a democratic transformation, which the Soviet Union needed. And my policy of nonintervention in Central and Eastern Europe was crucial. Just imagine, in East Germany alone there were more than 300,000 Soviet troops armed to the teeth--elite troops, specially selected! And yet, a process of change began there, and in the other countries, too. People began to make choices, which was their natural right.

But the problem of a divided Germany remained. The German people perceived the situation as abnormal, and I shared their attitude. Both in West and East Germany new governments were formed and new relations between them established. I think if the East German leader Erich Honecker had not been so stubborn--we all suffer from this illness, including the person you are interviewing--he would have introduced democratic changes. But the East German leaders did not initiate their own perestroika. Thus a struggle broke out in their country.

The Germans are a very capable nation. Even after what they had experienced under Hitler and later, they demonstrated that they could build a new democratic country. If Honecker had taken advantage of his people's capabilities, democratic and economic reforms could have been introduced that might have led to a different outcome.

I saw this myself. On October 7, 1989, I was reviewing a parade in East Germany with Honecker and other representatives of the Warsaw Pact countries. Groups from twenty-eight different regions of East Germany were marching by with torches, slogans on banners, shouts and songs. The former prime minister of Poland, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, asked me if I understood German. "Enough to read what's written on the banners. They're talking about perestroika. They're talking about democracy and change. They're saying, 'Gorbachev, stay in our country!'" Then Rakowski remarked, "If it's true that these are representatives of people from twenty-eight regions of the country, it means the end." I said, "I think you're right."

 
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