The Man Who Should've Ruled the World
by Jim Knipfel
Being a man without politics myself, I've been able to observe the actions and intentions of political leaders without any annoying ideological baggage to befuddle me, and for my money Gorby was right up there with the best the century had to offer. His intelligence was obvious, as was the fact that he had a plan for his country--a long-term plan at that--as opposed to the muddled, cut-and-paste, day-to-day, "let's get me elected again" tomfoolery most politicians play with. What's more, he had style. Style is three-quarters of the battle.
So when Gorbachev appeared in New York for one day to plug the American release of his memoirs, I figured I should take the opportunity to meet him, maybe shoot the shit. His only public appearance in town was going to be up at the 92nd St. Y (where else?), and there was to be a reception for him afterwards, where he'd be signing his book for folks. I figured that would be easier than tracking down his hotel room.
"Oh, look! It's Raisa!" the older woman sitting behind me screeched, as she pointed over my shoulder, elbowed her husband viciously, and kicked the back of my seat. Though I like Gorbachev, I never quite understood the Raisa-philes.
"No, no it's not," her husband explained calmly, "Raisa isn't blonde."
His interviewer that night was Walter Isaacson, Time's managing editor, who came off as a strange cross between Bill Gates and Martin Sheen. He did a good job, though, throwing out the basic questions, then fading into the background while Gorbachev spun out his answers. The real star of the evening, though, was the translator (whose name, I regret, I never caught). Simultaneous translation--especially politically-based simultaneous translation--is one of the toughest jobs around. The folks who decide to take it up usually don't last very long. But this fellow has been with Gorbachev long enough to justify the publication of his own memoirs, coming out sometime next year.
The evening opened with Gorbachev telling the story--never reported in either American or Russian papers--of Yeltsin's apparent suicide attempt back in 1987, after he attended the festivities surrounding the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution.
"I saw him sitting in an emergency room," Gorbachev said, without ever explaining why he was visiting the hospital himself, "covered in blood." Yeltsin claimed that he had "fallen" on a pair of scissors that were sitting on a table, but his close aides tell a different story. The scissors entered just below his heart, but didn't go deep enough to do any serious damage.
After the third or fourth Yeltsin question from Isaacson, Gorbachev shot him a glance and muttered, "You really love this Yeltsin guy, don't you?" Everybody laughed, and I don't know if they caught him saying "That's okay--I do, too," as the laughter died away. He should love Yeltsin--Yeltsin, in comparison, is making Gorby look like a genius and a saint.
It became obvious, when the conversation rolled around to the current presidential elections in Russia, that Gorbachev doesn't like much of anybody. He thinks that Yeltsin is too sickly and should pull out. Should Yeltsin die in office, he argued, it would open up the way for, not only a very brutal and dangerous power struggle, but violent unrest among the Russian people. Unfortunately, he doesn't like much of anybody else who's running either. Some of the major candidates, he claims, have plotted to do away with the elections altogether. Others are simply dangerous and are currently planning to reignite the war in Chechnya (a war which Gorbachev claims he would never have undertaken, and one which, given the chance, he would end immediately, granting Chechnya its independence). The last, best hope, he feels, is Alexander Lebed, the recently booted national security advisor. "As long as he comes to office with a good team around him. He needs a team. He's a good man, a strong leader, but he doesn't have what it takes to do it himself." Perhaps he made that point because there was a time not long after he stepped down when Gorbachev proposed a four-man presidential "team" to run things--a team which included Lebed and, of course, Gorbechev himself.
During that particular election--most people, I've found, don't even realize that Gorbachev ran--he netted a whopping one-half of one percent of the vote. Isaacson asked him why he thought that things turned out that way.
"During the campaign," Gorbachev said, with the same delicate, sweeping hand gestures that he used all night, "I was speaking to packed auditoriums. Auditoriums filled with 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 people. Why were they there? They were there because they wanted to hear what I had to say about things."
So why such a miserable result at the end?
"Pontius Pilate stood before the people," he said, in all earnestness, "and he gave them a choice. They could release Christ and crucify the robber, or vice-versa. They chose to release the robber and crucify Christ."
Now Gorbachev is one of the few men I'm aware of who's actually justified in being as full of himself as he is. Still, if the man has any handlers at all, they should strongly warn him against comparing himself to Christ.
The strange religious analogies continued throughout the evening. Time and time again, he described his political career to date as "ascending Mt. Everest, and then climbing back down--and surviving." Though he never used the name Moses, you could sense it in his voice.
He does have a point with the whole mountain thing though. He remains pretty much the only Soviet/Russian leader to ascend to office, then leave office, without dying somewhere along the line by natural means or otherwise. It's especially remarkable when you consider what he did while he was there, and the number of enemies he made.
In other news: he doesn't like the idea of expanding NATO, arguing that a new European-wide defense organization should be created--one which he proposed in the Paris summit in 1990. He's worried about China getting out of hand. He had nice things to say about Reagan--"We all have shortcomings. Human beings are only perfect in test-tubes." He never considered using military force to stop the collapse of the Berlin wall, saying, "It's what the people wanted. It's what they decided. And had I decided to use force to stop them, I wouldn't be sitting here tonight." He rejects Bob Woodward's contention that the Pope was behind the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War: "I'm going to be meeting with the Pope again in a few weeks, and if he has any new information to pass along to me, I'll be sure and let you know."
He argued quite eloquently that what he was doing with Perestroika was not setting up a hard and fast blueprint for Russia's future, but rather was simply setting down some ground rules, much like the Founding Fathers did with the Constitution. "Just a set of principles for the next 20, 50, 300 years--rules which can be interpreted and reinterpreted with every changing generation." With that, he also argued for the need to create a new civilization.
"We're beyond the point where capitalism and socialism matter. America right now is more socialist than you realize." What our governments need to do, he claimed, was take those things from capitalism that work, and those things from socialism that work, and combine them. Then just get on with our business. There are more important things to worry about than politics and economics. At that point, he started in on his environmental schtick, and I stopped paying attention.
When he called Raisa up onstage to say a few words at the end, the woman behind me elbowed her husband and kicked my chair again. "See? It was her!" Then she leaned over to her friend on the other side and stage-whispered, "She looks so nervous up there!"
"Shh, be nice," her friend shot back. "She just had plastic surgery!"
All that out of the way, the interview over, the reception looming, I had a few questions for Mr. Gorbachev myself. And a few offers. And a few of my own "ground rules" to suggest. I wanted to know how he felt about Reagan and Bush taking all the credit for the end of the Cold War, and how much credit he, himself was willing to take for the 70% unemployment rate you find across Russia these days.
Even though I was a respected member of the journalistic community, somehow I never ended up with the necessary passes to get into the reception. That's okay. Such things have never stopped me before. It was a big room, there were a lot of people there, a lot of people trying to get in, and only two people working the door. So getting in was no trouble.
"Jim Knipfel, NYPress," I barked at the man at the door, flashing my drivers license, my voice full of world-weary confidence, the voice of a man who's used to dealing with world leaders before breakfast. "I've arranged to have a few words with President Gorbachev."
He stepped aside and let me in the room. I almost laughed as those insane, giddy, nervous bubbles floated up from my stomach. For as often as I do this, I'm always amazed when it works. I floated around the room a bit, ate a snack or two and had a couple glasses of wine before Gorby snuck in the back door, where he was immediately mobbed by the blue-hairs and the rich folk. That was okay. It's necessary sometimes, in situations like this, to bide one's time. Fortunately for me, these people spoke no Russian, and Gorbachev spoke no English. I spoke a little--and that, I figured, was more than a foot in the door.
As I wormed my way closer, I watched him sign books and shake hands, smiling kindly, bemusedly at all these jabbering faces belching out at him and his translator, talking at him as if he were deaf. I threw back another glass of wine and made my last move, elbowing my way past some rich people and sticking out my hand, which he gave a hard firm shake.
"Postli revolutsi ya vom kupru novyu shliappo," I said. I paused for effect, rocked back on my heels and tapped the brim of my hat significantly. "Novyu shliappo."
He glanced at his translator, asking with his eyes alone why this crazy man was offering to buy him a new hat after the revolution. He turned back to me a second later, smiled, clapped me on the shoulder, and shot some Russian at me. Unfortunately, I only know three Russian phrases so, not knowing what the hell he said, or what else to do, I leaned in closer and said, "Prosze ne chodzik pro trawniku." ("Don't walk on the grass.")
Now he looked extremely baffled and a little worried, so I tapped the brim of my hat again and smiled, rocking back on my heels. Then I quickly shook his hand again and left before any security personnel caught wind of what was going on. I'd said my piece. And, I hope, made Mr. Gorbachev's visit to New York just a touch more surreal than he had intended.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. All rights reserved.
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