Were you harboring any doubts about whether Mikhail Gorbachev was a democrat who sought freedom for his people? Let Mikhail Sergeyevich himself correct your impression. Asked about his successor Boris Yeltsin, the first-ever elected leader of Russia, Gorbachev today says spitefully, “I should have sent him off somewhere. He was playing up.”
Gorbachev, 88, would like history to remember him with adulation, but that would mean pulling off an “I meant to do that” performance he can’t quite manage. His own words betray him via a clever gambit by the great filmmaker and interviewer Werner Herzog, who co-directs with André Singer the documentary Meeting Gorbachev. Herzog elicits the above remark on Yeltsin by deploying the interviewing trick of remaining totally silent. People, even very famous people, even famously self-disciplined people, will say the most amazing things if you just stare at them and wait.
Gorbachev has not really changed: He was a Party man. He was trying to preserve the Soviet Union, not end it. Though he says today, “More democracy, that was our first and foremost goal,” he adds, “I also wanted more socialism.” In the 1980s he is seen reassuring his citizens that he has no intention of implementing one of those ghastly market economies with all of their nasty “revenues and profits.” “I don’t think that’s the way forward,” he said then. “That’s just not right.”
Gorbachev was steeped in Communist dogma as a young lawyer from the sticks. When he implemented glasnost and perestroika in a desperation move, wise observers to his west saw the opportunity to supply him with rope and watch him fit the noose around his own neck. “He really believed that he could reform Communism,” marvels the great Polish anti-Communist labor leader Lech Walesa today. “Of course I and many others knew that Communism couldn’t be reformed. So we applauded and encouraged him, knowing that once one element was removed the whole system would collapse.” Reforming Communism was a game of Jenga.
Herzog, in his narration, says Walesa’s take is “sinister reasoning,” crying foul on those who abetted the suicide of the Evil Empire, but the director’s sympathetic attitude toward his subject makes the film that much more damning. Herzog was not seeking to nail Gorbachev. He merely sought to understand, and like other Herzog subjects, the former Soviet leader loosened up enough to reveal more than he intended.
Interviews with former Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker and other officials fill out the picture along with still-amazing footage of the fall of Gorbachev and the atrocious system he headed. With his typical deadpan, Herzog revisits the days when Soviet sweethearts Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko died in quick succession, yielding three highly amusing funerals in two and a half years, and the heady days of June 1989, when a Hungarian state newscast led with a lengthy segment on how to repel slugs. In a wrap-up of brief items at the end, the news reader casually revealed that the barbed-wire fence on the border with Austria had just been shredded by the foreign ministers of both countries. A Hungarian official recalls waiting to hear from Moscow, but no call came, and no troops. Eyes turned to the Berlin Wall.
Gorbachev bristles at suggestions that there were any winners or losers here. “Americans thought they won the Cold War and this went to their heads,” he says. “What victory? It was our joint victory. We all won.” Well, I don’t recall the Republican party of the United States dissolving, I don’t recall the American economy reversing direction, and I certainly don’t remember watching Maine, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Idaho, and Minnesota break off from the United States. But, sure, both sides won. You say tomato, I say tomahto.
Herzog tells the former leader, “The end of the Soviet Union was a tragedy for so many people” — not really, Werner, no — “but it must have been a tragedy for you personally.” Gorbachev agrees: “I regret it to this day. Yes, it is hard. It is my own internal problem.” On August 24, 1991, Gorbachev went off-script to hastily and unceremoniously sign his resignation before the official camera was turned on (Herzog shows how a secondary one captured the moment anyway). Days earlier, hardline elements within the Party had sent tanks into the street to wrest power away from both Gorbachev and the democrats, but finally lacked the nerve to murder Russians en masse. The game was over.
Today, hinting that Vladimir Putin reversed course on freedom without saying the words, Gorbachev would have us believe that his mission to fully democratize fell sadly short. “We wanted to have democracy in our country and we made progress in that,” he says, “But we didn’t get to finish the job as certain forces took control of state power and property.” In contemplating an epitaph, he suggests “We tried.” But what he actually tried was to save the USSR. When elections started, he says today, “It’s like lighting a bonfire instead of a match to have a smoke. They started a fire and everything burned down.” So which is it — “We made progress” or “everything burned down”? Pride, or bitterness? Gorbachev started something that got away from him, and we should all be glad he did. But much of the good that happened in post-Soviet Russia happened against his wishes. He didn’t want there to be a post-Soviet era in the first place.