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“Gorby – save us!”

  • September 13th, 2022
  • Posted by EU Australia

Lee Duffield records impressions of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev the Russian statesman who changed history. As a news correspondent he tracked the man’s progress across Europe as he tried to get support and negotiate a peaceful ending to the Cold War.

Starting a reporting tour in Europe in July 1987 was strategic, with at the time already a growing “imagination gap”, where you could not imagine that the momentous events being reported on, actually would be taking place. Could you believe your own despatches? With Gorbachev at the centre, those events inexorably and very rapidly led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Eastern bloc, then of the Soviet Union itself.

“Everything is rotten” in the USSR

Gorbachev’s ally and Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, had reported on their famous conversation in 1984, the year before taking power, where they agreed on the degraded state of the Soviet Union concluding, “everything’s rotten; it has to be changed.” He’d seen the population as a “humiliated people”, the country impoverished, living on the “brink of catastrophe”; the system broken down long before Gorbachev’s proposal for reforms, glasnost for openness, and perestroika for an overhaul and modernisation, leading even to a market economy.

On 11 March 1985, with hard economic times, dissent in the outlying republics of the USSR, distrust in every corner of society, the gerontocracy of the time elected Gorbachev, at 54 the youngest member of their inner circle, together with his ideas for change, as leader of the communist party — later to be also Soviet President.

An immediate test arrived on 26 April 1986 with the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On his own telling, the reformers initially reacted in the “old way”, imposing a blanket of secrecy, but then determined to do it differently, informing Western leaders, asking for help, bringing in world media.

Up to that moment the new man in Moscow had not had much to do directly with Europe, as after all a leader of the overlord power prone to send in tanks if people in the satellite states became restive. But he had already talked change with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1984, who gave him a badge of approval, as “a man I can do business with” — he called her the “iron lady”.

Peacemaker springs a surprise

By mid-1987 Mikhail Gorbachev was then set to both tackle the system at home and fully make his splash on the world stage. He had shocked the Americans at his Reykjavik summit with President Ronald Reagan, April 1986, by suddenly proposing a drive to eliminate nuclear arms in 15 years. Though the chance was passed up because of disagreements over the US “Star Wars” anti-missiles program, the world was taking notice – and the Gorbachev story, at least for the outside world, shifted to Europe.

It would follow two tracks: pushing to settle the dangerous stand-off over Intermediate Range Nuclear weapons (INF), many of those on German territory, East and West, setting off serious war talk and frantic protest movements in the West from the early part of the decade; and secondly, as the Soviet Union stumbled towards chaos, a desperate one-man campaign by the Soviet leader to get help from Western Europe – help with money, commodities, diplomatic and moral support that might somehow save his project, and himself.

In that summer of 1987, following up on the progress at Reykjavik, Gorbachev signed an INF treaty with Reagan, in Washington, which saw the destruction of 2692 missiles, the treaty lasting until abrogated by President Donald Trump in 2017.   The next step was START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks), negotiations on short range missiles and on conventional forces. It began a hectic routine of exchanges involving Shevardnadze and his American counterpart George Shulz, and leaders of the NATO alliance, usually at Brussels, Geneva or Paris. Following it involved making sense of bamboozling numbers, of missiles, troops or tanks, having to recall each time that the subject matter was death and the other substance was hope.

We heard Schultz declare at an anxious meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers at Brussels in December 1987, that openness, information and good contacts would enable them to act on the opportunities of Russia’s glasnost and perestroika. Citing his own report on progress, he said:

“Something different was going on … The change in the relationship with the Soviet Union was profound … Allied strength and cohesion would remain vital, but the prospects for a major breakthrough were there.”

Gorbachev with Reagan in Moscow – 1988

All that work pushed up to a five-day summit at Moscow starting on 29 May 1988, where Gorbachev and Reagan formalised the INF accord and moved their conversation to human rights – never on a summit agenda before. An international media pack was building up in Europe and we mixed in at Moscow with hundreds of the US and Russian journalists. The event was valuable for symbolic acts, for exposing more of what was happening, and would happen in the Soviet Union, and for seeing more of Gorbachev – soon to be a regular feature in cities in Western Europe.

At the US media centre set up inside a new, Western-style hotel, with a video feed of all events, one of the Americans called out: “Reagan’s got out of the car”. The break in protocol saw an impromptu street meeting with a family group, where Gorbachev asked Reagan if he still thought of Russia as the “evil empire”. “No”, he crooned. “Do you mean that, Mr President?”, Gorbachev would persist. “Yes”.

At a media conference given by Gorbachev and some Generals, big, hard men, the sound system embarrassingly broke down in half the auditorium. The mercurial Gorbachev, as he was, got up all the Russian speakers and moved them to the dead zone, then marshalled the rest of us into seats where translation could still be heard. (This was a needed skill; on another occasion his Zil limousine refused to start outside of the Chancellery in Bonn; he had to himself organise a reallocation of seats to the remainder of the motorcade, in front of a giggling local crowd). Nor did Mikhail Gorbachev bat an eyelid when told at that media conference his Party chief in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin, had been publicly complaining about slow progress with reform. “Let’s hear from him!”, he said. “Let him stand up and make his case!”. What would Joseph Stalin have done with him? (In his memoirs Gorbachev would say magnanimously that at the time, Yeltsin, the man who later displaced him and took up the Russian Presidency, since he was in the capital, had been bearing the brunt of pressure from hold-outs against change).

The summit as a large media event was itself beyond the capacity of the Soviet government to fully provide. There was no ‘taxi driver poll’, as drivers at the wheel of over-heating old wrecks, rostered on a shuttle of summit venues, shared the common anger of the community, not speaking or not turning up. No after-hours bars, shops or restaurants were available for those working to foreign deadlines. In the palpable drought of consumer goods of any kind, whatever aid might be wanted, if at all available, could be got for a carton of American cigarettes.

Break-down of the Soviet Union – asking Europe for help

The attempts at economic restructuring were back-firing, aggravating shortages and causing higher prices. The Soviet Union had already been falling behind due to inability to match the West in computing power and the rise in agility and productivity it brought. Government revenues were down, especially as a campaign against alcohol use, which was linked to collapsing productivity, meant reduced sales and therefore less tax revenue. Gorbachev would blame more of the severe economic contraction on very low world oil prices at that time, spending on Chernobyl, and ruinous events like the devastating earthquake in Armenia that December where, true to Glasnost he owned up to poor construction of buildings, and was mobbed and jeered in the streets. By 1990 he achieved his wish, that nobody should any longer be afraid — in response getting cat-called by marchers in the May Day parade. As said by a friend and colleague who saw it: “When somebody comes along who is reasonable they throw it in his face”.

The habit of declaiming was the trademark of Gorbachev, as a certain kind of European politician prone to interrupt any function or interview and start delivering an unprepared speech. Unsurprisingly, he was under severe mental stress during the next phase, a series of visits to the capitals of Europe, appealing for help in buildingour common European home”. If resented at home, the peace-maker had become highly popular abroad; it was still a time of “Gorbymania”.  Yet a glance at the historical record shows that each time he was away, violent rebellion and armed counter-measures would break out in one of the Soviet republics, there would be ructions in the government, or some fresh crisis for the economy.

During 1989 and 1990 the man negotiated lines of credit, never enough, and support from governments, including from the then European Community, which dug into its celebrated food stocks, like the “butter mountain” put in store because of subsidised over-production on farms. Trainloads of that product, well past its use-by date, were sent, to be used in food processing – in truth needed for dinner tables.

He would declaim at the new Paris Opera in the Place de la Bastille, where, on arrival to see the modern building, he instead strode off across the square, cordoned off from the usual traffic, officials and journalists scurrying behind, making for a crowd held at barricades, but then stopping mid-way at the monument to deliver an oration in Russian. It happened also on the sweeping outdoor stairway at the entrance to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, a sudden change of plan and a speech, defying any interpreters on the scene to try and catch up – lost for lack of translation.

East Berlin 5 October – Berlin Wall 9 November 1989

The declaiming became important during his visit to East Berlin in early October 1989 for the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where Western journalists had been let in, to cover the celebrations – also watching for something else. Paying respects at the tomb of the unknown soldier he then worked a crowd and gave an unscheduled speech, to make the famous declaration: “life punishes harshly … anyone left behind”. It was translated into German by a few journalists, then for others in French, then others into English. It meant he would not help the GDR, or the other regimes like it in Eastern Europe, suppress a public revolt – no more Soviet tanks in the streets.  The message was then reiterated at a large indoor rally put on by his hosts, disconcertingly for them.

Journalists who received an anonymous tip-off to be at the central Alexander Platz there saw a pretend street fight shepherded by a protective mob, then more arrivals, and a snowballing march to a reception centre where official guests were being entertained. “Gorby save us!”, they shouted, police struggling to hold them back, (one officer making to give me a kick if I did not get away). It became a world event. Gorbachev said he “heard them”. Astonishing to all, the Berlin Wall came down five weeks later, on 9 November 1989.

A vignette from Gorbachev’s efforts to save himself and the USSR: At a very low point he had a ‘low-key’ meeting with President Francois Mitterrand, inside a chateau outside Paris, some of the news media finding out and passing it around, so that in the end maybe 20 were let in for an informal media conference, reporters gathered around the two men at a table. Gorbachev came under pressure over the unravelling state of affairs in Russia; were they travelling down the capitalist road, could they even get there, and so on. “The Russian people will always support socialism”, he declaimed, unconvincingly, a man in trouble. Mitterrand reached over and rested his palm on the back of the other man’s hand — a rare gesture of humanity at that level of political affairs.

The Soviet Union had turned out a bold experiment destroyed by criminals and madmen, some from outside driving tanks, others out of the ranks of the communist apparatus. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (21.3.1931 – 30.8.22), its last President, husband of the equally esteemed Raisa (5.1.32 – 20.9.99), tried to create reasonable solutions, offering peace, prosperity, human freedoms. He was frustrated by the weight of bad circumstances that had bult up; he was forced to try and do the impossible. So in 2022 we are back with a criminal state and madness in Russia, though perhaps with the chance that those trying to reform it another day will find useful inspiration in his example.


In this article, first published on 4 September 2022 in Independent Australia, Lee Duffield reflects on his work as the ABC European Correspondent, covering the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, central figure in that drama,  died on 30 August 2022. (Picture – Duffield at the demolition of the Berlin Wall).