BLUES FOR GORBACHEV
A Whiff of Freedom Back in the U.S.S.R.
I have been thinking about the death of Mikhail Gorbachev on August 30, 2022, at age 91. Gorbachev was the last leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and from most angles, its most humane. He ruled for only a short time: he took power in 1985, and left in 1991. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 under his watch, and the USSR dissolved in 1991 when many of its satellite states outside the massive borders of Russia declared their independence of the rulers in Moscow.
Others ineffectively or nominally ruled briefly (Boris Yeltsin, Dmitri Medvedev), but since Gorbachev, the singular power has been former KGB official Vladimir Putin, who in a 2005 address to parliament called the dissolution of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." The invasion of Ukraine is the most extreme example of Putin's obsession with undoing that "catastrophe."
In 1987, I had the good fortune to spend nearly three weeks in Gorbachev's Russia, covering the Billy Joel tour, with three concerts in Moscow, and three in what was then known as Leningrad, but which has reverted post-Putin to St. Petersburg. (See my Substack, Heavy Metal in Gorky Park.)
When visiting a country as isolated as Russia had been, there was much curiosity among the small media corps whose companies paid for the full trip: Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press representing the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain; Mark Sheerer, ABC News; Edna Gundersen, USA Today; Rona Elliot, the rock reporter for NBC News' Today Show. Michael Jensen and Jeff Helsing were the press representatives, and Neal Preston was the official tour photographer who traveled with Joel, his then-wife Christie Brinkley, and their baby daughter, Alexa Ray. My paper, Joel's hometown Long Island paper Newsday, hired Brian Brainerd of the Denver Post for photography to accompany our stories for both Newsday and the family owned parent company Times-Mirror, whose flagship was the Los Angeles Times.
We went to all the shows, we all had interview times with Joel, especially at the end of the tour. There was intense friendly competition among us to get an interview with Brinkley, because in 1987, celebrity-obsessed America (think Michael Jackson and Madonna, just for starts), Brinkley was the "get" our editors wanted. One afternoon midtour I disappeared for a few hours with one of our American translators, peers from the Citizen Exchange Council (CEC) that oversaw much of the travel arrangements. The immediate instinct among our band of brothers and sisters was that I had been snuck into an interview with Brinkley. Actually, I had whispered to one of our CEC reps that I was feeling very ill with a stomach bug that tormented me most of the trip, and I feared I would pass out if I didn't get some nourishment. All I had eaten for two days were two ice cream cones from Gorky Park the day before. Some soup was found, and I returned to the gang, soon able to self-medicate my stomach with vodka.
We interviewed a number of officials, including the head of the state-owned record label, Melodiya, which took a dim view of rock. But I am sure that at the top of our wish list for people to interview, or just meet, was not another Russian rock musician, but Gorbachev. Every day, I'm sure one of us asked: Any chance we can meet Gorbachev? Just say hello? Snap a photo? In our view, Mikhail Gorbachev was really the celebrity "rock star" we most wanted to see. But Gorbachev remained beyond our reach, which was rational but disappointing. Would a group of Russian arts reporters get an audience with the president of the United States at the time? Doubtful, especially since the president was Ronald Reagan, who had called the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire."
In the recent posthumous writings about Gorbachev, he was said to be greatly disappointed in Reagan's "evil empire" shtick, which put progress towards Cold War peace and mutual reductions in nuclear weaponry at a disadvantage for Gorbachev at home. Nevertheless, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
It was Gorbachev, who grooved to Dave Brubeck with Reagan in Washington, and invited the jazz pianist to Moscow, who made the Joel concerts possible. (You can read more about it in the liner notes that I wrote for the 2014 Sony CD/DVD package A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia, sometimes informally but incorrectly called "The Bridge Tour.") Jensen, Graff, Preston, and Elliot also wrote essays for the package; we should have been nominated for a liner notes Grammy award, at least!
Gorbachev had come to power in 1985 on two themes, for which his era will always be remembered: glasnost and perestroika. Glasnost was "openness": increased (but still limited) freedom of expression; more range in media commentary; the ability to criticize (to some degree) the rigid, and sometimes decrepit state institutions; to acknowledge some mistakes of the past. Glasnost was the reason we could do "person on the street interviews," approaching people, for example, who were in line buying tickets for one of the Joel concerts, and asking them questions. That they would answer with any candor at all struck our translators as unprecedented. It was progress, not perfection: We were always asked not to request surnames, and most said, "call me Ivan" or "Irina." The ability to talk to Americans without fear that the KGB was watching every move (although it seems certain our whereabouts were always known by someone, somewhere) was new and refreshing to young Russians, but no one was sure where the line was.
Perestroika was more complicated. It meant "rebuilding," and it was taken to mean the economy, a streamlining of bureaucracy. The question was, rebuild what?
This weekend as part of its online Gorbachev package is an article from the New York Review of Books archives by the late Yelena Bonner, the human rights activist and widow of physicist and fellow antiwar activist Andrei Sakharov (both of whom were in exile and surveilled in Gorky, Russia, and allowed back to Moscow by Gorbachev in 1986). The article, from the May 17, 1990, issue of NYRB, is from a talk given at Berkeley March 22 of that year. It is largely about the destructive impact of Russia's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, a nearly ten year nightmare that has also been blamed as a cause for the breakup of the Soviet Union. That war, she wrote, demoralized the Soviet military, reduced its prestige, and ruined a generation that fought there. (During this insane Cold War proxy war, Russia tried supporting a puppet Communist government in Kabul against the Islamic rebel guerillas known as the muhjadeen; the United States backed the Islamic rebels. Sakharov, and then Bonner, were exiled for protesting this war.)
Bonner saw some good things in glasnost and perestroika: Travel in and out of the country was much easier. But economically, Russia was still a wreck. When we were there in 1987, the food was dismal, if available at all. Lines outside shops meant the butcher, the baker, or the liquor store had supplies until they ran out later that day. Something needed to be rebuilt, under perestroika, as Bonner wrote, but no one knew exactly what or how. There was no blueprint for making a dynamic economy after so many desultory decades. Think about it: Does Russia manufacture any consumer products at all? Just tanks and missiles. Any products (think: China and microchips) that can be used in the modern world? Did you ever drive in a Russian-built Lada automobile? (Reviews on the Internet say the Lada SUV is a vast improvement, but compared to what?) Did you ever smoke a Sputnik brand cigarette? (Don't).
I experienced the little bit of openness, the window of people-to-people exchange. opening just a crack. It was Friday afternoon, and I had filed a story at the Associated Press office, which the AP generously allowed us to use their wire service lines to communicate directly with our newspapers, when the technology was working. I was alone there and hailed a taxi back to my hotel. Traffic was horrendous. I had my Russian phrase book with me, and by gesturing (I speak with my hands, if you've ever seen me in the classroom), and I was able to communicate with the cab driver. I taught him two phrases: "rush hour" and "traffic jam." We made very slow progress. By the time we got to the hotel, though, something changed. I had paid him the correct amount in rubles, and a generous tip. But he did not want to let me out of the taxi. We were both tongue-tied and whatever was going on couldn't be resolved by tourist phrases and gestures. Finally, I asked him to write down what he wanted, and told him I would step out of the taxi and ask a Russian speaker to translate.
What the note said was, "I would be honored for you to please come to dinner at my home tonight."
I told him I was unable to do that, but I asked the Russian speaker to thank him profusely. I walked around to his side of the car and we heartily shook hands.
This weekend, I thought of something else Yelena Bonner said in that article. In 1972, her husband Sakharov wrote a public "Memorandum to Soviet Leaders," in which he used the words glasnost and perestroika. But his bottom line was simple: "What is needed to be changed is for our country to stop being a monster, terrifying the rest of the world."
Gorbachev, at least, tried. But Putin's fake trial and sentence of nine years for U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner for possession of a small amount of hash oil, proves the monster is alive, and taking innocent hostages. The invasion of Ukraine, the attacking and displacement of millions of civilians, the shelling of a nuclear reactor in Ukraine risking catastrophic meltdown, all prove the monster is more than alive. It is hungrier and angrier than it has been since Stalin's murderous reign. The Russian people, like all people, deserve better. And Brittney Griner needs to be allowed to come home, now.
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