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Nina Khrushcheva & Katrina vanden Heuvel Remember Mikhail Gorbachev as Reformer Committed to Peace

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We look at the life and legacy of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91. Gorbachev led the Soviet Union from 1985 until its dissolution in 1991 and has been credited internationally with bringing down the Iron Curtain, helping to end the Cold War and reducing the risk of nuclear war. Inside Russia, many say his policies led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse in the standard of living for millions. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation and a friend to Gorbachev, remembers him as a “believer in independent journalism” and credits him with introducing the “fairest and freest presidential and parliamentary elections to Russia.” Joining us from Moscow, Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, says she knew Gorbachev as “an absolute democrat in comparison to anybody who came before him, including Nikita Khrushchev,” and his policies allowed her the freedom to pursue her academic career in the U.S. as a Russian expat.

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AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the life and legacy of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He died Tuesday at the age of 91. He led the Soviet Union from 1985 until its dissolution in 1991. Gorbachev has been widely credited with bringing down the Iron Curtain, helping to end the Cold War, reducing the risk of nuclear war by signing key arms agreements with the United States. In 1990, Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said, quote, “Mikhail Gorbachev was a one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history. The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace,” unquote.

But inside Russia, Gorbachev is seen by many in a different light. On the domestic front, Gorbachev pushed to reform the Soviet economy through a policy known as perestroika and to open up the Soviet political system through what was known as glasnost. This is Gorbachev speaking in 1987.

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV: [translated] We need more enterprise, more democracy, more organization and discipline. Then we will be able to bring perestroika, restructuring, up to full speed and give new impetus to developing socialism.

AMY GOODMAN: Critics say Gorbachev’s policies led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse in the standard of living for millions. By some accounts, there were over 3 million excess deaths in the former Soviet republics in the 1990s as mortality rates soared after 1989. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. The Kremlin announced today Putin will not attend Gorbachev’s funeral this weekend in Moscow.

We’re joined today by two guests who knew Mikhail Gorbachev. Katrina vanden Heuvel is publisher of The Nation magazine, columnist for The Washington Post. Her books include Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev’s Reformers, which she published in 1991 with her late husband Stephen Cohen. Her new piece is headlined “Gorbachev’s Legacy: A great reformer in his country’s tormented history.” And joining us from Moscow, Russia, Nina Khrushcheva. She’s a professor of international affairs at The New School here in New York. She’s great-granddaughter of the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Her latest piece is headlined “The Greatest Democrat Russia Ever Had.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Khrushcheva, let’s begin with you in Moscow. Can you talk about how Gorbachev is perceived outside of Russia and where you are, inside?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, he is perceived — thank you, Amy. He is perceived differently by different people. For people like me, people that represent intelligentsia, of course, he’s a great hero. He allowed the Soviet Union to get open, to have more freedom. In fact, we’ve lived with his legacy in the last 30 years. So he’s a hero. The night he died, nobody was sleeping. Everybody was talking to each other and sort of thinking what a momentous day it is, especially now when Russia is having or conducting a special military operation — I have to say it — from Moscow in Ukraine. And in some way it is the end of the Gorbachev era. So, his death has become not just a historical event — he was an old man — but it’s also a very contemporary event, it’s a momentous event, because we see, we compare with what Russia, the Soviet Union, was before it got dissolved.

And I do want to correct critics, because Gorbachev did not dissolve the Soviet Union. In fact, he tried everything to preserve it. It was dissolved by others, by Boris Yeltsin and the Belarusian and Ukrainian president at the time. So, it is — today, for some, it’s a great tragedy.

But I do want to say, in the last two days, the Kremlin rhetoric, or even those — the critics actually have been quite complimentary of him. We know today Putin is not going to attend his lying in state on Saturday, but he went to see the body today. He kneeled in front of it, and so on and so forth. So, somehow the state, for now at least, decided that they are going to take his legacy, although it was very critical of his period of kind of disarray and getting Russia’s strength or Soviet strength out of the Soviet Union, because that’s how Gorbachev is perceived, that he showed weakness of the Soviet Union, and therefore, ultimately, it collapsed — so, they decided for now that they’re going to appropriate the legacy of freedom into what Russian history in the last century and in the first quarter of this century has been.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nina, could you — let’s talk a little bit more about his legacy, the words most associated with him around the world, of course, glasnost and perestroika. Could you explain what happened once these policies were implemented, which was all most immediately after he came to power in ’85, and over which some say he lost control?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, and that’s an incredible question. Actually, it wasn’t exactly clear whether he’s going to be a reformer or not. I remember we were waiting with bated breath how he’s going to act, after all the sort of the whole slew of geriatric and rather conservative leaders the Soviet Union had. And, in fact, there was more appearance of Stalin suddenly, and so we thought that, for example, for the Khrushchev family, it’s going to be another disaster, because Khrushchev’s name wasn’t mentioned for 20 years altogether. The first time we realized that Gorbachev was a reformer was only in ’86, so it took him about a year to really navigate his very difficult way in the corridors of the Kremlin, because if he was a reformer, he had a good reforming team, but there was a lot of hard-liners there, and there was a lot of hard-liners who were not going to give up whatever, that kind of monolith of the Soviet Union they believed in.

And so, all those words, like perestroika, the restructuring — the glasnost is the opening. There was another one. There was a new political thinking. In fact, I just learned rather recently that all these words that we associate with Gorbachev, in fact, were taken from early Khrushchev speeches. So, he, by doing this, even they were — at the beginning, they were not really claiming that they’re Khrushchev descendants. But by doing this, they’re already showing the path. But the other part of it was interesting because he was considered a KGB candidate, KGB candidate to become the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And so, for those hard-liners, it was a bit of a pacifying notion that he came out of the previous leader, Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB. He was the head of the KGB before. So Gorbachev was very politically savvy trying to navigate between the hard-liners and all the opening that he thought that the Soviet Union needed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to bring Katrina vanden Heuvel into the conversation. Katrina, you, of course, knew Gorbachev, as well. If you could talk about your meetings with him? You also conducted an extensive interview with him alongside your late husband, Stephen Cohen. And in particular, if you could speak, which you do in your piece in The Nation, of his legacy on foreign policy? He withdrew the Soviets from Afghanistan, of course, and then these arms control treaties with the U.S.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I welcome Nina Khrushcheva’s points from Moscow. You know, her great-grandfather had an enormous influence on Gorbachev. Gorbachev was someone of the generation of the shestidesiatniki, the people from the '60s. 1961 to ’64 became a model, as did my late husband's book on Nikolai Bukharin, who was a Soviet leader who was killed in Stalin’s purges in 1938. Gorbachev read the book on vacation before he became general secretary. And it was an alternative to what had been the model, Stalinism, in the Soviet Union. And he was very influenced by it in terms of perestroika, opening up the economy, and glasnost, rolling back seven decades of censorship. So, in that context, they first met at the Soviet Embassy in Washington when Gorbachev came for his heralded visit in 1987. And over the years, we saw Gorbachev when we went to Moscow. He always welcomed talking to those who had points of view about American foreign policy or what was happening in the country.

He was also someone who I came to know as a believer in independent journalism. He was a supporter, contributed some of his Nobel Peace Prize winnings to the establishment of Novaya Gazeta, whose editor received the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of last year. What a sweet irony that Gorbachev received in 1990, and then Dima Muratov — who he reconsiders a son, by the way. So, he was a jolly person, in a way, grew very pessimistic.

But the character we haven’t discussed here, the character is Yeltsin. And I want to get to the foreign policy. But Yeltsin was responsible, as Nina said very clearly, for the dissolution, for the liquidation, for the abolition of the Soviet Union. It could have possibly been maintained in a looser confederation, but Yeltsin had a will to power, Gorbachev had a will to reform. And the clash of two men in history — and I usually don’t do the all-men history — really did play a role in three leaders, of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, going into a forest and signing a treaty. And then it just went paaah. And it had very little to do with the nationalist impulse, because many in the nationalist elite had already received their property and power.

In any case, that’s — Gorbachev was the most radical thinker about security who ever led a major country. He was certainly the most revolutionary and radical in his belief in nuclear abolition. He rolled back generations of military buildup. He had a vision, New Thinking, which was a demilitarization of our foreign policy, that we would end the Cold War, and instead of NATO, which is not a coffee klatsch, we would have, from Lisbon to Vladivostok, an alternative security structure, better equipped to deal with pandemics and nuclear proliferation and climate crisis. He became a great believer in climate crisis. He established a group called Global Green about two decades ago. So, he was an interesting figure. And I think we can take lessons today from Gorbachev as we build up military armaments that will kill people and not help reconstruct a more fair and just world.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go, Katrina, the comments that Gorbachev made about Putin, but actually the whole relationship over decades and the changing relationship, leading many to question whether Putin would even be going to the funeral. As we’ve heard, he’s visited the body but won’t be going to the funeral. Let’s go to comments Gorbachev made about Putin in 2011, more than a decade ago.

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV: [translated] Do you remember I said once, actually, I would advise Vladimir Vladimirovich to go? There were three terms: two terms as president, one as prime minister. Three terms. It’s enough. It’s enough, because circles and clans are created around him. There’s so much to root out.

AMY GOODMAN: In an interview with the BBC in 2019, Gorbachev appeared to defend Putin’s hold on power.

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV: [translated] Our president inherited such chaos. And everyone saw he stopped the chaos and literally took everything on himself. From press reports, we’re hearing that the people want him to stay on and finish the job. There’s still a lot to do. I am all for abiding by the law. But I will tell you, I would never oppose something if all the people are for it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Gorbachev in 2019 and 2011. Katrina vanden Heuvel, if you can talk about his changing view right through to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: So, Mikhail Sergeyevich was a deep democrat. He was a social democrat. It’s interesting, out of the Communist Party, one party, he emerged social democrat. He introduced the fairest and freest presidential and parliamentary elections to Russia. He also understood — again, the missing figure here is Yeltsin, who presided over the creation of an oligarchy which has looted Russia, and continues to loot Russia. And so, in that, he saw Putin coming in, appointed by Yeltsin to kind of save the institutions of the state, the nuclear institutions and installations, as well, from chaos, хаос, breaking down. And he respected Putin as the alternative to Yeltsin, but he saw how Putin acquired more and more power. The process of de-democratization began under Yeltsin, but it has continued vigorously under Putin, and he began to see that. And the man, the leader, who withdrew a country from Afghanistan — and that was not easy; there are transcripts in the politburo showing the fights — did not admire someone who was waging war in Chechnya following Yeltsin’s path.

So, he finally saw in Ukraine — and, by the way, Nina Khrushcheva knows this very well. Raisa was half-Ukrainian, I think, and Gorbachev has family, Ukrainian. He despaired of the war in Ukraine. And I think, in that, he saw that Putin was — you know, he’s the Russian, Soviet — he’s the Russian statist. He’s anti-communist. He is the Russian myth, the Russian world. And Gorbachev was, you know, a social democrat of a more European kind. The battle between Europeanists and Slavophiles continues, and has for centuries. And I think you could see in Putin much more of a Slavophile, though he hoped to be more part of the West and was rebuked.

One thing that Gorbachev always said — and I’ll end here — at the end of the Cold War — and this is something that was shared by George H.W. Bush at the beginning — there was no winner. There was no winner. But the triumphalism of America, I think, in the end, opened Gorbachev’s eyes to the dangers of making agreements with the West, which would be broken, as was the promise not to move NATO eastward, a broken promise which was a stab in the back against Gorbachev’s policies and success. But we cannot forget that Yeltsin played a role in creating a country that really demanded more attention in terms of the chaos and the destruction that had been wreaked.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nina, if you could also respond to that, what Katrina has said? And your sense of how Gorbachev, in his last months, in particular, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine — his perception of this war? And relate it to the opposition he had to attempts in the Baltics and the Caucasus in 1989 to gain greater independence from Russia as the Soviet Union was coming apart, and how, in fact, protests at the time, from Vilnius to Tbilisi, were — protesters were killed.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Yes. Thank you. I actually wanted to follow up on what Katrina was saying. It’s really very important. Gorbachev hated war. I mean, he got a Nobel Peace Prize. Katrina mentioned Dmitry Muratov, who got a Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, Dmitry Muratov, speaking about Gorbachev’s death, he said we had 30 years where we were very lucky. We had a gift. We lived without wars. We lived with kind of this notion of freedom, or idea and values of freedom that he instilled in us.

Something that Katrina was saying, that Gorbachev was a globalist, and that’s a very important thing. Putin is not. And what — the clip that you played, on the '19, it's not that he’s supporting Putin staying on forever. That’s absolutely not — let’s remember, it’s '19, 2019, so it's two years ago. He was an 89-year-old man. He thinks that Putin should not stay. But Putin was already reelected, or reinstalled himself in 2018. So, what Gorbachev was saying is that staying until 2024, which technically Putin’s term should be expiring in, so that those words that he said, none of it is a support for Putin staying forever, Gorbachev supporting of a strong hand. What he was saying is that, indeed, early on, Putin was helpful in bringing chaos, of the sort of chaotic cowboy capitalism that developed under Yeltsin, under some control. But, absolutely, I don’t think we should interpret this as something that Gorbachev was helping or supporting Putin.

And he hated the war. He thought what’s happening today — and I know it — I didn’t talk to him, but I spoke to somebody to kind of deliver my message to him and his words to me, that he hated all of it. He just thought that — that he felt very sad that Russia gave up all this potential that really was given to us and to the world by Gorbachev.

As for those protests, yes — I mean, you know, Russia is a despotic country. Gorbachev tried to make it less, but it is a despotic country, and it always existed through suppression. And he couldn’t escape some of it. But let’s remember 1989, when he could have sent tanks to East Berlin to defeat the falling of the Berlin Wall, and yet he didn’t. Let’s remember — I mean, I know it’s a horrible thing, and it is a horrible thing that 13 people died in Lithuania. But comparing to Soviet history, it’s 13 people. Death, of course, every person counts. But once again, I would like to remember that, contextually, Gorbachev was an absolute democrat in comparison to anybody who came before him, including Nikita Khrushchev.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And finally, Nina, we only have a minute. You not only knew Gorbachev, but, in fact, you’ve credited him with your life now as an academic at The New School. Could you talk about that?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, I do. I mean, I think Katrina also kind of pointed out to the fact that he opened the world. He said, “It’s a free country. Do whatever you want to do.” And I thought, “Well, why not? I’m going to apply to graduate school.” And I did. And it was still the Soviet Union. Just imagining that a Soviet person would apply to Princeton University, Katrina’s also alma mater as mine, and just get there out from the Soviet Union. I got here. I got to the United States before the Soviet Union collapsed. I mean, he allowed me to be an expat. I’m not an immigrant. And this is something that for a Soviet person was an incredible gift of freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Nina Khrushcheva, professor at The New School, great-granddaughter of the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, speaking just from Moscow, Russia, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation, Washington Post columnist. We’ll link to her pieces, speaking to us from Denver, Colorado.

Next up, we go to a major new study that shows Greenland’s melting ice sheet will likely contribute almost a foot to global sea level rise by the end of the century. Stay with us.

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