Last night I didn’t sleep well. I wasn’t restless, I didn’t toss and turn. I lay still in thought, contemplation, and prayer. Mikhail Gorbachev is dead. My Albanian friend Arben Kallamata posted on Facebook (Awkwardly translated from Albanian by Facebook):
“Hats off to Gorbi! It is likely that without Gorbachev, all of us, if we were lucky and escaped prison, would be, in the best case, sharing 250 grams of minced meat a week for 4 people, bathing only on Saturdays, and standing in a milk queue from three in the morning. Without Gorbachov… we would be cheering on the volleyball team in stadiums built over churches.”
I grew up in the “duck and cover” generation. We were raised with the fear of nuclear annihilation. As a young child, every night, I asked my mom if the bombs would come before we woke up. She tried to reassure me, but it was a weight on my kid shoulders. When I was 14, I spent the summer in Ireland with my grandfather. That was the era when tanks stood muzzle to muzzle at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. I watched the wall go up on live Irish TV and wondered how safe we were in neutral Ireland, how safe was anyone. I wondered if I, all of us, would live to see my parents at the end of the summer.
Our literature and popular entertainment was riddled with apocalypse, “On the Beach.” “Alas, Babylon,” “Fail Safe” and even comedy, “Dr Strangelove.”
And then there were the sleepless nights of all sleepless nights, in October of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I went to school wondering if I would make it home that afternoon. In high school my volunteer service was with Civil Defense, a Geiger counter and radio operator in the fallout shelter in the basement of our neighborhood school — assuming we survived the blast.
As I grew older, our kids assumed some of that weight. In popular culture we watched the TV mini-series “The Day After,” news shows about nuclear winter and read books like “Warday.”
Then came Gorbachev. He lifted that weight and for a quarter of a century we lived, not under the Stalin, Khrushchev or Brezhnev doctrines, but, as his spokesman Gennady Gerasimov styled it, “The Frank Sinatra Doctrine.” “Every one is entitled to do it ‘my way.’”
Now with Putin and Viktor Orban I’m beginning to feel the weight again. So, last night I meditated on 25 years without the weight, what could have been but ultimately wasn’t to be and gave thanks for the life of Gorbachev. I thought about the Arben’s closing: “Honor Gorbi, perhaps the greatest politician of the twentieth century!”
One thought on “Gorbi”
We tend to attribute social change with individual leaders; however, their ability to act relies on widespread support. For example, the Cold War drained Russian coffers and perestroika was an excuse to cut wasteful military expenditures cloaked under the guise of open trade – or so I’ve been led to believe. When mass movements are associated with individuals the complex elements of social change and shifts of power become obfuscated. Nevertheless symbolic national officials are well served by simplification as I learnt when doing environmental and social work in the Russian Far East.
I do share your youthful fear and paranoia although I attribute to our own government as a way to win our hearts and minds in support of the military industrial complex. A prelude to the “ wars” on drugs, terrorism and contemporary boogie men.