UW hosts visit from former soviet president

By Susann Robbins

Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev accepts a cowboy hat from Wyoming Governor Matt Mead during his visit to the University of Wyoming Oct. 14. Photo by Susann Robbins

LARAMIE—Quoting Pope John Paul II, former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev told an estimated crowd of 6,500 at the University of Wyoming on Oct. 14 that we all need to make efforts and sacrifices to create a new world order that is more liberal, more just and more humane.

In their opening statements, UW President Tom Buchanan and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead both described Gorbachev as one of the most significant world figures in the 20th century.

Retired U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., known for his colorful Western conversational style, moderated a question and answer session after Gorbachev’s presentation, and Simpson said it took some time for Gorbachev’s translator, Pavel Palazchenko, to become accustomed to the senator’s American slang. For example, unfortunately, the best Russian word for the English “pal” was the Russian word for “comrade.”

Cooperation improves the world

Gorbachev pointed to ongoing world crises causing everyone to question what will happen to us. Humans live in a global world about which we feel differently and do not quite understand, Gorbachev said.

At the end of the 1980s, the U.S. and Russia played a large role in moving the world onto a better track. Because of efforts by both countries, the Cold War ended, and the world stepped away from the edge of nuclear war, which helped build better relationships among Russia, the U.S., China and other countries, Gorbachev pointed out.

Perestroika (“restructuring”) was a very important driver in this progress, Gorbachev said, for it helped people to find the courage for change, which they feared, and in those times was also dangerous.

Gorbachev said that, at that point in time, Russia was no longer a rich country, and its hunger for change opened all new possibilities and forced a leadership change. The old politicians, who had been in charge for a very long time, finally made way for a younger generation of leaders, Gorbachev said. He emphasized leadership should always change and no one person should be in his position for a lifetime, as it had been in the former Soviet Union.

Government should have handled some major areas differently

Looking back at the events associated with perestroika, Gorbachev said the Soviet Union should have handled the major areas differently. The Communist Party should have been reformed right away because, at first, the party favored reform and later turned against it.

This resulted in the Communist Party seeing Gorbachev as the enemy.

“They couldn’t win in the political field, so they tried a coup d’état,” Gorbachev said.

Next the USSR was a very complicated country with many different religions, languages and republics. “We should have decentralized and given more power to the different republics,” Gorbachev said.

Finally, not enough attention was paid to the shortage of consumer goods and food; funds should have been redistributed from the immense defense budget, he said.

Gorbachev said without openness and without involving the people, freedom cannot exist. Therefore, Gorbachev said people reacted enthusiastically to glasnost (“openness”), which made freedom a possibility. The people wanted reform and to be involved politically.

According to Gorbachev, it opened the doors to new political thinking, built new international relationships and made the search for universal interests the primary goal.

Gorbachev quoted part of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s commencement speech from June 10, 1963: “In a modern world, no country can assure its place in the world by itself. Those who think that the world of the future will be a Pax Americana are wrong. Either we have a world of peace or we won’t have a world at all.”

People taking risks in politics are always in danger, Gorbachev said.

He asked the audience to consider this: A single nuclear missile has 100 times the power of the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. There is no possibility for a nuclear war. If one missile is launched, it is all over.

New relationship between Russia and U.S. helps end cold war

This is why he was happy about the newly established relationship between the U.S. and Russia and his developing relationship with President Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev said he met Reagan in Geneva, Switzerland, at the peak of the Cold War and set the whole world in a state of alarm because of all that was going on at that time.

“Well, our two countries kind of didn’t like each other at that time. But I thought that it was ridiculous! After all, it wasn’t a date with a girl,” Gorbachev said. He said their first meeting was more an exchange of accusations, with Gorbachev stating to the press that Reagan was too conservative and a real dinosaur.

Reagan countered by saying Gorbachev was a diehard Bolshevik, Gorbachev said. After these exchanges, they released a joined statement: A nuclear war cannot be won, and it must not be fought. The two nations won’t seek military sovereignty over each other. They will dismantle nuclear weapons and will start another arms race in outer space.

President Gorbachev said to him this was the most important achievement for him and President Reagan in their lifetime.

One memory Gorbachev recalled was walking with Reagan and asking each other questions.

Reagan asked Gorbachev, “If we were to be attacked from outer space, would you help us?” Gorbachev answered: “Yes, we would. If the role was reversed, would you help us?” President Reagan answered: “Yes, we would.”

Gorbachev also recalled a different walk. He said Reagan, who was born the same year as Gorbachev’s mother, seemed to be in a mood to be lecturing him. Gorbachev said he stopped Reagan and told him the rules of conversation between the two of them. He said Reagan apologized, and so they were on a first-name basis of “Ron” and “Michael.”

He believed a foundation of what can be possible was laid. But not all opportunities have been seized yet, Gorbachev said.

War ended through Soviet problems, not by the U.S.

The main reason for this is the wrong perception of the end of the Cold War, he said. The breakup of the Soviet Union was caused by internal events, not by the U.S. The end of the Cold War was declared a victory for the U.S., instead of the combined effort it really was, Gorbachev said.

“There seems to be a “Western sickness’ of taking all the credit. Also, presidents are supposed to have a shooting war; otherwise, they are viewed as weak presidents. Presidents most think about freedom and the people; otherwise, they aren’t good presidents,” Gorbachev said.

Recalling the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and President Reagan’s famous statement, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down that wall,” Gorbachev said Reagan’s first profession was acting, and he was a very fine actor.

A lot of excitement surrounded the breakup of the USSR ended and a hope that Russia would be democratic. Gorbachev question where the country proceeds and whether more efforts are needed. Russia has a parliament and elected courts as well as a competitive environment in politics and economics.

According to Gorbachev, this new generation in Russia won’t live without freedom. They are probably halfway down the path to democracy, but much work must be done in order to achieve a democratic state, Gorbachev said.

When it thunders, we think about the storm and the rain, and then we begin to pray, Gorbachev said regarding to current world events.

He predicted the biggest issue is the deficit of water, which goes hand-in-hand with poverty and diseases. Understanding world problems and then having patience will be key to solving problems.

Gorbachev choose democracy over any other form of government

Noting it is important to be vocal about issues, Gorbachev admitted he said would have been with the those marching on Wall Street to protest poverty, corporate greed and other issues. Gorbachev urged ignoring extremists, however.

Gorbachev disagreed with the notion of politics as dirty business because without politics there is no democracy or freedom. Democracy doesn’t make things easier, but it makes them possible, he said.

Gorbachev quoted quote a former British prime minister, Winston Churchill: “Democracy may be the worst from of government, but all the others are worse!”

In the question and answer section of the presentation, Brain Schueler, of Buffalo, Wyo., a freshman majoring in international studies asked, “Perestroika and glasnost led to economic and political freedom in Russia. Do you think that the economic reforms being implemented in China will provide more personal and political freedom for the Chinese people?”

Gorbachev said reforms in China should be their own reforms.

“So far, China has accomplished a lot and should be proud of it. So did India. Combined, these two countries account for a third of the world’s population. After the Chinese economy changes, there will be a path for democracy,” Gorbachev said.

Gorbachev also said the best experience he could share with the new generation’s leaders is never to panic. “There will be problems and failures, but always start again. The most important thing is to persevere,” he said.

Literature influences Gorbachev

Gorbachev said he was influenced by Vladimir Lenin. “I also studied Tolstoy and Turgenev. So the literature, I would say, is the greatest influence.”

Gorbachev also said the Taliban grew because of America. The U.S. made a mistake getting into Afghanistan in the first place, and it should have learned from Russia, he said. America should leave Afghanistan to the Afghans and redraw troops but continue an economic relationship, Gorbachev said.

He said former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, referring to the British invasion of Afghanistan in the 19th century, once asked him, “Why didn’t you seek our advice before getting into Afghanistan?”

Anton Sergeyevich Kim of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a UW graduate student majoring in economics, asked: “If you were to be elected President of Russia in 2012, what would your first three steps be?”

Gorbachev answered: “I wouldn’t want to discuss it because it is not a realistic question, and this question comes too late.”