MOSCOW — We did not know that the man who changed the world could also sing. At Mikhail Gorbachev’s 85th birthday party last week, many jaws dropped in surprise as he crooned of love and peace.
Russians had no idea that their former president and the great reformer of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1986 to 1991, who brought the wind of freedom into the country 30 years ago, could also intone romantic ballads. But that was not the only surprise.
At his gala party on Wednesday, Gorbachev was singing to the accompaniment of a dissident musician, rock star Andrei Makarevich. And that in itself was a political statement: Over the last two years authorities have canceled Makarevich’s concerts all across the country because of the musician’s support for Ukraine.
There might even be an album in the offing, and if the sample we hear is any indication, then it will be easy listening for everybody but the Kremlin.
From 1986 to 1991 as General Secretary of the Communist Party and the first elected president of the USSR, Gorbachev conducted major democratic reforms, known as Perestroika, in a final effort to save the Soviet Union. That proved impossible, and in 1991 the USSR ceased to be.
The potential for Russia’s future was, and should have remained, a bright one. But today, there is nostalgia for the past built on fears for the present and the future, many of them generated by the present government’s statements and actions. Indeed, the Putin government’s heavy hand has many people afraid.
So, as we discovered at his party and in an exclusive interview, the aged Gorbachev charms the public with his sentimental songs, even as he levels pointed criticism at the Kremlin, calling on people to fight against the fear-mongering and resist the suppression of their freedoms.
“Fear is very bad and very dangerous,” Gorbachev told The Daily Beast. “When people are scared of the political power, things might turn out in the worst way. We need Glasnost [Gorbachev’s term for freedom of speech]. We need dialogue between society and those in power, especially dialogue about the most acute issues. I keep saying: We should not be afraid of our people.”
Russians who remember their history recall one specific incident as an emotional turning point. In December 1986 Soviet leader Gorbachev personally called exiled political dissident Andrei Sakharov in Gorky, an industrial city on the Volga River that was closed to foreigners, and let the academic and his wife, Elena Bonner, know that they could come back home to Moscow.
The following year, Gorbachev ordered amnesty for all political prisoners, and hundreds of people were freed. “He was not afraid of the dissidents,” author and human-rights defender Zoya Svetova told The Daily Beast. “Gorbachev’s voice, his broad personality is important now; he is known as the leader, who, unlike today’s president, was never grabbing at his chair to keep his power.” (Both of Svetova’s parents were freed from the Gulag in 1987 thanks to Gorbachev.)
The cult of personality was something that Gorbachev always despised. Instead of a portrait of Vladimir Putin, a common feature in most state offices today, Gorbachev’s has a big portrait of his wife, Raisa, on the wall over his desk. In 1999, Gorbachev lost Raisa to cancer; but it is clear in conversation, and indeed in his songs, that he still cherishes her memory.
Gorbachev was always a big fan of good jokes and new, daring ideas, and at his party he surrounded himself with independent journalists, liberal politicians, and artists.
“In the last two years of economic crises and increasing tensions with the West, Mikhail Sergeevich [Gorbachev] has been growing more concerned about Russia’s future,” says Pavel Palazhchenko, who has worked as Gorbachev’s aide and interpreter for 31 years. “That is why his critical statements are heard more and more often. He says publicly that the only way for Russia to recover is to restore true democracy.”
Gorbachev proudly considers himself the leader of Russian anti-Stalinists.
In his interview with The Daily Beast, Gorbachev talked about the arrest of his own grandfather during the tyranny of Joseph Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union as General Secretary of the Party from 1922 to 1952, and about the thousands of innocent victims executed in those times.
“To understand why we should not allow the return of Stalinism, we need to look back at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party,” said Gorbachev. At that crucial meeting in 1956, four years after Stalin’s death, then-First Secretary Nikita Kruschev denounced his predecessor’s cult of personality.
“In my life I happened to stand on the peak of the system and once again revive the work of that congress,” said Gorbachev. “Freedom of speech was the most important aspect. When we began working on our Perestroika policies we needed Glasnost very much, we needed democratic elections, the removal of [absolute] power from the government.”
Sadly, few believe that Gorbachev’s words of wisdom today can stop Russia’s slide back toward its Stalinist past. The Kremlin once again is promoting loyal-to-power journalism, putting pressure on the last few independent media outlets, persecuting political critics, and condemning them as enemies ruled from the West.
Not only is history repeating itself, the Stalinist cult, which Gorbachev’s Perestroika worked so hard to destroy, is creeping back into view all over the country: Stalin’s busts, Stalin memorials, and Stain museums have popped up in provincial towns one after another.
On Saturday, the anniversary of Stalin’s death, Muscovites covered the dictator’s grave with flowers. Last month, Stalinists in the town of Pskov installed a monument to the Soviet dictator not far from the Latvian border; and in spite of criticism by historians and dissidents who said the memorial is built on “the bones of millions of victims,” the bust stayed on its pedestal.
Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinskiy recently opened an exhibit of paintings by Stalin’s favorite artist, Alexander Gerasimov.
“Nobody in the Kremlin takes Gorbachev’s criticism seriously, since he cannot bring thousands to the streets,” Svetova told The Daily Beast. “The murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov could,” she added.
Perhaps he can’t lead mass rallies, but Gorbachev, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, remains the wisdom of Russia.
He cannot walk much these days, but his voice remains strong, his mind is clear as ever, and his heart is wide open to people. As Echo of Moscow radio pointed out in a morning show on Thursday, the day after the birthday party, if Gorbachev had had a dictator’s heart, and not the heart of a liberal, Russia could very well have the 85-year-old Gorbachev for its president today.
One of the show’s hosts, Olga Bychkova was a guest at the birthday festivities—and, when we talked, we came back to the music. “Even after knowing the president of the USSR for decades, I was shocked,” she said. “I had no idea he could sing! Or that he had such deep baritone full of love for life, of pure and sincere human feelings, something we do not hear much from officials these days.”
Gorbachev wants the Kremlin to make people feel that they are the masters of Russia.
“I hope that we will stick to our original Perestroika ideas and not invent some dubious projects that look more like somebody’s artificial plot, created by passionate desire to grab and possess,” said Gorbachev. “Only then we can say that we work together with our people, for our people.”