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From the Archives: Gorby and Me

November 20, 2019

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How the leader of a foreign superpower changed my life—and a few others, too

[Originally published in the Las Vegas Weekly, March 25, 2004]

When I was a little kid—and I must have been an odd little kid, now that I think about it—I always dreamed that I would grow up to be the guy who ended the Cold War. Then along came Mikhail Gorbachev and ruined everything for me. I was 15 when he came to power and 22 when he left it and even his theft of my prospective life’s work couldn’t peel me away from my desire to study the country he’d led and lost. A master’s degree and three periods of scantily remunerated, definitively non-world-transforming work in Russia later, I was 27 and sick with the certainty that I’d become irrelevant. I beat a path back to my hometown, Las Vegas, to try to find a new mission in the real world. I’m still looking.

That’s one story. There are others.

Gorbachev, the former and final leader of the Soviet Union, came to UNLV last Monday, March 22, to talk about how to make the world a better place. I listened attentively. I took notes. I was truly interested. But my interest in the man’s words was in constant competition with my awe at his presence. Every time he spoke about our future, I kept thinking about his past. Every time he spoke about our world, I thought about the extent to which he made it what it is. This is the pathos of displaced greatness: The central historical figure of our time was standing in the Thomas & Mack Center telling me and several thousand others his prescription for restructuring global priorities, and my mind was not on the implementation of his new ideas, but the impact of his old ones.

OK. Full disclosure. My mind, as minds will be, was also on my own life. I felt a little ashamed of myself. What kind of person goes to listen to a Nobel Prize-winner speak and sits there thinking, Boy, that guy really did a number on me! But he did a number on millions, not such a bad number, all things considered. If we all sit and think about the numbers he did on us, the numbers start to add up to something like a revolution.

 

★ ★ ★

 

By the time I was in third grade, I had effectively grokked the meaning of deterrence. When the subject of the Cold War came up—and, believe it or not, at Lewis E. Rowe Elementary School, it did—I liked to say things like “strength makes peace.” At the same time, I’d tell people that the original reasons for the arms race were pretty much lost beneath all the shiny missiles. I was against the unilateral-freeze movement, but I figured that if the two sides could be brought to discuss not their weapons but their actual differences, they might realize together that neither of them really needed the capacity to blow the world up a 10th time. Leonid Brezhnev was not listening, and I don’t think they heard me on this side of the pond, either. I decided to bide my time.

Several years later, Mikhail Gorbachev announced to the world, and perhaps more courageously, to his own generals, that effective deterrence didn’t really require that many bombs, and advocated a defense stance not of supremacy but of “reasonable sufficiency.” Gorbachev’s idea worked. I bore him no grudges. I was a good kid that way.

 

★ ★ ★

 

An actor named Boris, wearing a cowboy hat and a dusty vest, was to burst into a saloon, doors swinging behind him, and shout out, “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”

No. That was Phoebe Cates in Lace. The mind plays tricks that way. In any case, Boris, a good guy playing a bad guy, was to barge in and make some sort of menacing cowboy declaration, and I was to coach him to say it well enough, cowboy-like enough, that at least the dubbing wouldn’t look ridiculous. We were on a closed Russian military base outside the provincial town of Golitsyno and about an hour from Moscow by slow bus. It was July of 1993, during my first trip to Russia, and we were shooting an Italian-American-Russian joint-venture western called Jonathan of the Bears, starring Franco Nero and a nice South African girl named Melody. Franco had been raised by bears; Melody was a Native American named Chaya. Then there was Boris. Boris, with a long, bent nose, bulgy eyes and a snaky frame, was taking care of some sort of Old West dirty work or other. I think he may have been some kind of cowboy scientist.

My job was to help everyone with a little bit of everything—dialogue coach, occasional translator, mover of things from one place to another and back. Sometimes my job was to do nothing at all. One day I was sitting with a group of Russian actors and stunt-men in a circle around a puddle. We were throwing pebbles in the puddle. We were watching the circles spread. “I want to work,” I said.

“This is work,” Boris answered.

I liked Boris.

The Russians, some of whom knew I was working on a master’s thesis on post-Stalin Soviet cinema, tried to be protective of my putative scholarly dignity. On my first day, I saw a pair of fellow production assistants, named Andrei and Andrei (both of them, I later found out, karate champions of some note), digging a trench on the set. I was standing next to the producer’s son, Alyosha. “Is there another shovel?” I asked him. “I’ll go dig.”

“You didn’t come 10,000 miles to dig,” he said.

Ah, but I did. I’d spent years on the observational margins of Russian life. I’d come 10,000 miles precisely to live it—not just to note the fact that the Gorbachev revolution had made it possible for me to be here, doing this, but to actually be here and do this. For my first month of work, I lived on nothing more than the $30 they paid me. I had lunch on the set, got back to Moscow at midnight, bought a loaf of bread and a bit of salami from an old lady by the subway station, ate a bit, saved the rest, went to sleep. I cheated a little: I’d brought 15 Power Bars with me. I had a bite or two a day. I dug trenches with Andrei and Andrei. I liked digging trenches with Andrei and Andrei.

 

★ ★ ★

 

From March 11, 1985, when Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to December 25, 1991, when he became a private citizen and itinerant lecturer, thousands of westerners—scholars and students, media wiseguys and sensible-shoed people around water coolers—debated whether a communist idealist was really capable of effectively reforming a country that had been suffocated by communism. The extraordinary thing is that people are still having the same debate.

There are today in the public consciousness—both here and in Russia—several popular visions of Gorbachev, none of which are particularly accurate. There is Gorbachev the Revolutionary Westernizer, who set out to liberate his land from communism and succeeded. There is Gorbachev the Bumbling Fool, who had no idea what he was doing and led his nation to ruin. There is Gorbachev the Serpent, who sought and thankfully failed to hypnotize the West with pretty words while nursing his country to health for a new ideological and military offensive. Even the best among the popular visions—Gorbachev the Bronc Rider, who let the forces of change out of the pen and then was thrown from his mount—feels not quite right. There was nothing wild-eyed or duplicitously slick about Gorbachev; on grand matters of principle he was the most earnest statesman of his time, saying what he meant and meaning what he said and thinking out the theoretical underpinnings of every policy he put forward. If he was unaware of what the effects of those policies might be, it was not a reckless or foolish unawareness: he knew better than anyone that he had embarked on an utterly novel project. (Even Orwell never convincingly imagined how a nation works its way back from Big Brother.) Gorbachev, in undertaking the task of bringing personal choice and responsibility into Soviet life, grasped that it would be nearly impossible to stand before his people and pronounce the same coldly hypocritical words—”Everything is going according to plan”—as his predecessors. The understanding implicit in his entire program of reform—that life does not unfold according to plan—necessitated in his character an extraordinary patience with uncertainty. It was a patience with the uncharted journey from a society that was securely inhumane to one that was humanely insecure. It was also a patience with the strong possibility that, in the short term at least, everything might not turn out quite right.

 

★ ★ ★

 

One of the great set-designers of the Russian cinema, Marksen Gaukhman-Sverdlov, had built a small and utterly convincing cowboy town on our Russian military base, possibly marking the first time a person with a name that is a contraction of MARX-ENGELS ever built an utterly convincing cowboy town on a Russian military base. Marksen and I and the set photographer, Samoil, sat together on the morning bus rides from Moscow. Marksen and Samoil, Jews in a country where Judaism had not been, shall we say, encouraged, were pleased and amazed that I was a practicing Jew. We’d get off the bus during one of its frequent small-repair stops, and Marksen would grab me by the shoulder with his tan, sinewy, septuagenarian hands—at least they seemed like septuagenarian hands—and declare to Samoil, Gregory is a practicing Jew. I didn’t have the heart to tell Marksen that I actually don’t practice as much as I should. The Russian phrase for a practicing Jew, though, is literally “believing Jew,” and I really do believe. So maybe it was OK that I smiled proudly and nodded. Samoil thought it was great.

This relates to Gorbachev in quite a straightforward way. Before Gorbachev, Marksen Gaukhman-Sverdlov would not have been standing by the roadside joyously proclaiming for all the disgorged passengers of a packed bus that Gregory is a practicing Jew. In the old days, that sort of thing was bad for your career.

 

★ ★ ★

 

In 1985, the Soviet Union was something like a busted old van on a busy block. It wasn’t going anywhere, but some folks had been camping out in it a long time and didn’t want to leave. Along came Gorbachev to dismantle it, piece by piece, replacing a tire here, a fender there, trying to keep the frame itself, hoping the whole thing wouldn’t just fall apart in a heap. While the West was on the cusp of the information age, the Soviet economy was lumbering along with an early industrial mind-set, and an inefficient statist one at that. Here was a country that had amassed the second most awesome arsenal—nuclear and otherwise—in human history, but could provide its citizens neither a modicum of civil liberty nor any but the most basic comforts. Gorbachev’s hope was that perestroika—the restructuring of Soviet life—would change all that. But the further he went with his reforms, the harder it got.

In the last three years of his leadership, as an economy increasingly stripped of old certainties crumbled, Gorbachev took turns looking to both democrats and communist conservatives for support. It’s true that he was unable to commit to the most radical market reforms recommended by the democrats, but it’s also true that he never gave in to the Brezhnevite nostalgia of the conservatives. To the end, he stubbornly refused to arrest the process of fundamental restructuring that he’d set in motion. He had been working not to destroy communism but to transform it, humanize it and save it; the logic of salvation, however, necessitated ever more radical initiatives. Having forced the Soviet Union to confront its brutal authoritarian past, he now created the new, semi-democratic Congress of People’s Deputies (to which the persecuted and recently freed dissident Andrei Sakharov was promptly elected). Next, he stripped his own Communist Party of its constitutionally guaranteed “leading role” in Soviet society, declaring that the Party must earn its power by winning the trust of the people. Meanwhile, he continued to encourage private economic initiative through cooperative enterprises and pushed state factories and farms toward self-financing. In foreign affairs, he broke with his predecessors’ practice of securing domestic legitimacy through the conjuring of external demons and declared that the Soviet Union could compete in the ideological marketplace only by creating a humane, just and prosperous society at home. He permitted the empire’s Eastern European satellites to choose their own path, and, together with his American counterparts, he completed the process of ending the Cold War.

After the start of 1990, Gorbachev never spent a day out of danger. He’d been warned repeatedly that continued liberalization could lead to a conservative coup, yet on the day his erstwhile hard-line advisors kidnapped him in August, 1991, he’d been planning perhaps the biggest liberalization of all: a Union Treaty that would give the empire’s republics de facto sovereignty. There is another word for this kind of stubbornness: It is courage.

 

★ ★ ★

 

In 1996, I was working as a reporter at The Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper read not only by the city’s growing Western business community but also by a good number of English-speaking Russians interested in a dose of Western journalism. I wrote about police corruption and lead poisoning and the prickly aftermath of a plane crash in which victims’ survivors were trying to get their just compensation. I went to crowded city squares and asked everyday people politically tinged questions. In the newsroom, I worked at a desk between a whip-smart twentysomething Russian girl named Valeria and an experience-hardened American newshound named Jonas. She challenged mayors; he challenged ministries; both challenged millionaires. Such combativeness, of course, is supposed to be part of daily news reporting; Valeria and Jonas would have laughed if I shared my admiration of what they were doing. But the fact was that 10 years earlier the whole scene would have been comically unthinkable, the stuff of underground farce and silently stewing minds.

The newspaper held its annual anniversary gala at the Central House of the Red Army.

 

★ ★ ★

 

Two diary entries:

October 9, 1996, 11:05 p.m.: Yesterday I covered the groundbreaking for a Jewish synagogue at Poklonnaya Hill, the complex built to honor Soviet sacrifices in World War II. I met and spoke with several Jewish veterans of the war, including a Hero of the Soviet Union, Moisei Maryanovsky. It was inspiring to see Jews regarded not simply as victims of the war, but also as heroes who defended their loved ones, their faith, and their country. After the war, Stalin and his hoods tried to spread propaganda that the “cosmopolitan” Jews had fought poorly. Maryanovsky and other brave warriors like him are here to set the record straight. The groundbreaking was also attended by U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. I’d never been so close to so much power in my life, but Maryanovsky was the most impressive of them all.

October 28, 1996, 12:20 a.m.: Today I went to the church of St. Nikolai on Bersenevsky Alley, next to the Red October chocolate factory … The church is set back about 75 yards off the street and is hidden behind a long, slim building of old red brick. The brick building is plain and partly covered in gauzy green draping in preparation for some restoration that has never taken place. It has a peculiar beauty all its own, like one of those rough-hewn rocks you bust open to find crystals inside. Sure enough, as I passed an arch opening to a courtyard, I looked through and saw a jewel: blinding white walls, newly painted, trimmed in orange, yellow, green and blue. I went through the arch and a riot of cupolas rose before me.

I watched the worshippers cross themselves, drop to their knees, kiss the ground, quickly rise, kneel again. Old women moved with rabbit-like agility, keeping up with the bearded young men, all buoyed on by the singsong intonations of an unseen priest. From entryway to iconostasis, candles glowed and popped and the place was warm and rich and real ….

The church was built in 1566. In Soviet times it fell into disrepair. In the 1970s, part of it was home to a cultural organization called Rosconcert. In the ’80s, the place was used as something like a dump—the courtyard was strewn with litter and piles of dirt and God knew what else. It was a place where worship and beauty were long forgotten, chased out by authority and neglect. But in 1988, a cross appeared on the red brick building out front. And in 1994, reconstruction began. The church reopened this summer in all its glory.

So there I was, thinking this sort of thing must be preserved. It must stand proud in a modern world as it did in a medieval one. The beauty and sincerity of the place must survive, I thought, because people need it—not just the Russian Orthodox worshippers, but all people whose spirits are borne aloft by beauty and sincerity.

Then what should strike my eyes but a newsletter sitting on a table for free distribution. The name of the newsletter is Chornaya Sotnya—Black Hundreds—the name of the infamous right-wing mobs that carried out brutal anti-Jewish pogroms at the turn of the century and drove my grandfather’s family from its home. The paper’s motto is “For Faith, Tsar and Fatherland: The Orthodox-Patriotic Newspaper.” The lead article, “The Great Lie of Our Time,” tells us that democracy is an evil innovation. Inside the paper, there is a book order form with titles on the usual subjects: the machinations of international Jewry, the sinister role of the Masons in Russia’s World War I tragedy, etc. 

 

★ ★ ★

 

March 22, 2004. The speech. Gorbachev is alive, pugnacious, hungry for world-changing work, bucking up our sad-sack international institutions, railing at American unilateralism, flattering American democracy, putting little pinpricks in the sails of globalization, keening for the environment, cheerleading for his country, calling at once for the liberation of individual entrepreneurial energies and the harnessing of marauding market forces. He tosses out little poison darts to Yeltsin and mildly disconcerting air-kisses to Putin. He believes there are political-cultural-economic solutions to terrorism, to Iraq, to Israel-Palestine impasse, to Chechnya. He tells us military action has its place, but it’s a smaller place than we think it is. He is, above all, full of hope. History, he tells us, is moving fast, too fast perhaps, fast enough to frighten us, so fast that it seems that even if we catch it by the tail we can only hope to be dragged in its wake. Don’t panic, he says, we can train this beast. We can encourage the best traits of the post-industrial era and condition out the worst. It will, he says, require international determination, deliberation, negotiation, cooperation—and if the U.S. is willing to deliberate, negotiate and cooperate, its leadership is more than welcome. Diversity must be tolerated, poverty must be ameliorated, the earth must be saved; failure, as they say in the movies, is not an option. Gorbachev heads an educational foundation, an international environmental organization and would, one imagines, lead something else if only the world would ask. This is a man accustomed to taking on impossible tasks; depending on your point of view and your particular cultural reference points, he is the Evel Knievel, the Super Dave Osborne, the Phileas Fogg, the Icarus, the Ralph Nader, the … the … Mikhail Gorbachev of high-stakes politics. He is 73 and recently widowed and his wellbeing appears to require a continuous course of world-repair, the patching of holes, the discovery and caulking of cracks. He is, in this way, a sort of left-wing version of my Grandpa Ben, a man never happier than when fixing a roof. Though when Grandpa got to fixing a roof, you pretty much knew that the end product would be a fixed roof. With Gorbachev, who clearly prefers tasks with no blueprint, you never know.

 

★ ★ ★

 

The first Russian word learned by a whole generation of Americans was glasnost, or openness. Gorbachev understood that if you want people involved in solving a nation’s problems, you have to let them talk about the problems—and that the talk must be uninhibited, critical and, above all, public. Glasnost was of a piece with Gorbachev’s economic and political ideas, in which the removal of certain inhibiting strictures was to create a virtuous cycle of enthusiasm and accountability that would, in itself, renovate society. In politics, he called for more choice; in economics, for more responsibility and reward; in culture, for more astringent honesty. Not all of the consequences were what he had intended.

Among the ultimate fruits of glasnost were both The Moscow Times and Chornaya Sotnya. Religious renaissance brought the new synagogue at Poklonnaya Hill, the restored church on Bersenevsky, and the raised voices of bitter chauvinists who would just as soon crush the former and sully the spirit of the latter. Economic liberalization made the dream of prosperity possible for some and left others bewildered and destroyed. As a result of Gorbachev’s leadership, millions could travel beyond the empire’s borders and tens of thousands were able to emigrate. In the aftermath of his rule, financial capital was moving, too—much of it straight into Swiss bank accounts. He closed a door on communist corruption, and capitalist corruption crawled in the window. Normalization of relations with the West, meanwhile, brought warhead reductions, Pizza Hut, L’eggs and the production of Jonathan of the Bears. Mixed legacies are the unavoidable occupational hazard of statesmanship.

All of which, of course, brings us back to me. Gorbachev beat me to the glory of a world-saving diplomatic breakthrough, but if his glasnost made The Moscow Times possible, it also, by extension, made it possible that I would spend New Year’s 1997 in the countryside with a group of my fellow newspaper people and the friends of my fellow newspaper people, and that one of those fellow newspaper people—who also would not have been there had Gorbachev never done the things he did—had invited along a friend named Sveta, and that the group of us would go walking after dark on a frozen lake and that we would ice-surf on a large piece of cardboard and that we would sing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” at the top of our lungs in the 30-below-zero night and that we would grow tired and lie down on the ice and look up at the stars and that on the way back I would say to this Sveta—

“We had a good walk.”

And that she would say—

“We had a great walk.”

And that somehow seven years later we are still walking.

As I said, things happened that Gorbachev never intended.

Revolutions can be that way.

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