Mikhail Gorbachev


ARTICLE FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD by DAVID ALTON

David Alton visited Russia, where he met the former Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mikhail Gorbachev will forever be associated with the collapse of the Soviet empire and the ushering in of a new era of openness in Russia. Ten years after these momentous events he describes the Yeltsin years as “ten years of confusion” but believes that Russia can now emerge as a significant player on the world scene. His new crusade is to promote `globalisation’ and to develop a western-style Social Democratic Party in Russia. Sitting with him in the Gorbachev Institute, a modern building which is the Centre from where he now works, I sensed that after a period of personal and public strain, he is a man with a new lease of life. The Institute is a bright and well appointed building, tastefully furnished by his late wife, Raisa. He felt the effects of her death, just a year ago, very keenly. Politically he was left isolated by Yeltsin, but enjoys a closer relationship with President Putin. This has thus become an opportune time for new initiatives.

Seven months ago he launched a Social Democrat Party because of what he calls “the deficit of leadership”. He says, “when I face an audience anywhere I am always asked, am I a communist, a socialist or a social democrat”. His answer was to create yet another Russian Party, joining about fifty others, but he also ambiguously adds a quotation from Willy Brandt that “the one who is afraid to use the word socialism cannot be a social democrat. He was right.” He then remarked that his vision of social democracy coincides with the vision of social justice advocated by the Pope: “Pope John Paul II has argued that we must create a more ordered, just and humane society. I agree with him.”

By no stretch of the imagination could today’s Russia be described as ordered, just or humane. The Mafia has replaced Marx, social anarchy has replaced the oppressive structures of communism, and terrible deprivation faces many vulnerable groups, especially children. Russia’s struggling economy is equivalent to a small country such as Holland. Russian self-esteem is at an all-time low – battered by events in Chechnya, the recent tragic loss of a nuclear submarine, and general awareness of the disintegration of every Soviet symbol. Many openly talk of their nostalgia for the old certainties and there is a dangerous identification of the country’s present ills with democracy.

Gorbachev puts his trust in progress and quotes Tolstoy:`I don’t accept progress if it rejects the east.’ From the point of view of the west it would also be extremely short-sighted to leave himself isolated. He says there is no going back to the old ways: “Attempts to run politics from a single centre proved bankrupt. It would be a lie to say that nothing was achieved in the past seventy years – but I reject oppression and a life in backwardness and poverty. This is my fundamental belief.” “We must integrate all our past experience and make man, social justice and his relations with nature our priorities. Man is at the heart of an integrated society. He cannot achieve social justice without freedom.”

For Gorbachev the new ideological solution is globalisation. He talks about it with fervour and believes it is the key to addressing Russian stagnation: “Accelerated globalisation has only given benefits to the developed countries and to international companies. We are witnessing the formation of a fourth world excluded from the process. To date this has left one billion people without a job: 1.2 billion subsisting on $1 a day and 20% in the developed world consuming 80% of the wealth. This in turn fuels migration – discussed everywhere – and extreme nationalists build on that. It is testing the western democracies.” Gorbachev dismisses the fear which many of us have that globalisation will be a fear to national culture and he emphatically rules out “the creation of a world government.” What he wants is “a multi-tier system, including the United Nations and international organisations. We need new concepts that are not replicas of the old ideologies of liberalism or communism. The new concept of globalisation would move us beyond the Market or the State.” His view seems to be that World Government will not work, but that the world needs structures that allow it to be governed. It is an interesting distinction which he makes, but begs the question whether the latter would lead inevitably to the former. He knows that “the global world is above all a place of information” and he wants Russia to become an information-based society: “Krushchev talked about overtaking the other side; let’s at least keep pace.”

Gorbachev is, of course, right that the flow of information, the movement of markets, and the transfer of ideas is extremely fluid and that in this context national borders are less important. Cultural capital, rather than physical capital has also become more important to many people, but I sensed here, too much emphasis on the ability of international political structures, and too little appreciation of the desire of people to identify with their family, their community, their region and, crucially, their nation. I also wondered how the ordinary Russians, many living in squalor, would connect with ideas which can easily sound like political Esperanto – and which they think are about as relevant. They captivate the intelligentsia in their salons and drawing rooms, and may unite the political classes from George Town to Islington, but lack resonance in putrid rural shacks and faceless concrete urban apartment blocks.

The day before I met Gorbachev I attended Mass in Moscow’s re-opened Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Stalin closed it and turned it into a warehouse. Here, Archbishop Kondrusevich, the Apostolic Administrator of the Catholic Church in Russia, blessed the icon of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. The Jubilee Year icon, blessed in Rome by the Pope, was bound for Kaliningrad, St Petersburg and then Athens. In the cathedral were some of the 29 Russian seminarians who began their studies this year. In the side aisle was an exhibition illustrating the development of the unborn child. Ten years ago this would have seemed an impossibility. I remember how as I grew up as a child, never a Sunday passed without prayers being offered for the church in Russia. Here were some of the answers to those prayers.

Before Gorbachev’s period of Perestroika and Glasnost I had seen this cathedral building – shut as a church and used as a warehouse. His truly historic achievement was to allow the old edifices to collapse and not to all back on the old brutal methods. Historians will be left to judge how much of the change he instigated and how much was inevitable. If he, and his new political party, can now play a significant role in helping to create a decent and civil society in Russian then the historians will have no need to equivocate.