I am starting at the port-wine stain on Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’s forehead that starts near the top of his receded hairline and drips in its forked way partly down toward his eyebrows. Technically, this is called a naevus flammeus, which is a huge congenital hicky, a vascular birthmark made of dilated capillaries which makes the skin off-color – probably more red than purple in this case.
This is the man who melted the Cold War. This is the man who led the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. This is the man who signed two broad disarmament pacts and ended communist rule in Eastern Europe. This is also the man who did a Pizza Hut commercial in 1997.
But what was he doing in the Trenton, New Jersey on Monday afternoon?
The whole scenario sounds like the set up for a joke: a former General Secretary (President) of the Soviet Union, on a Monday afternoon, in the Sovereign Bank Arena, across from the Trenton Industrial Center and a river-line metro that takes passengers from the slums of New Jersey’s capital to the slums of Camden.
At the time of his speech, Gorbachev had been in the United States for 10 days in the Trenton area, of which (he claimed) he approved. He spoke excitedly of his visiting the place on the Delaware River where Washington crossed on Christmas night of 1776 to fight for independence from England. This struck a sound cord within a man who has seen oppression, lived through wars hot and cold, and come to value America as a vital force in the world.
In Trenton, within rusted rail-guards on highways and brick walls and people with doo-rags smoking cigarettes and sagging their pants on street corners, the crowd inside the arena awaited Gorbachev. Though a famous bridge in the surrounding area spells out “Trenton Makes, The World Takes,” postcards inside the arena (ironically, I hope) had written “Trenton Makes, Moscow Takes.”
Though stern in his masculine Russian manner, Gorbachev relaxed with the crowd and spoke of his culinary undertakings during this particular stay in New Jersey. In clear, distinct Russian, Gorbachev spoke though a translator of his pleasant meals in Trentonian Italian restaurants and added that though the food was good, it was served in “American portions.” Ever the politician, Gorbachev roused the residual crowd in laughter as he gave the large portions credit for bolstering American agriculture.
Gorbachev is neither the monster of Lenin or Stalin, in whose madness and power we in the West have a twisted fascination. He is not Peter The Great, a majestic, mythical man in Russian history who was known to dress in peasant rags and travel through port cities to hear what the people were saying and plan his political aims accordingly. Gorbachev is neither Krushchev nor Brezhnev; he never had the difficult task of following the carnage and corruption of Stalin’s regime.
Gorbachev, who sought to end the Cold War, inadvertently ended the political hegemony of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Though viewed with scorn by Russians, those in the West admire Gorbachev for his efforts of perestroika (government “restructuring”), glasnost (political “openness”), and uskorenie (“acceleration,” of economic development), initiatives Gorbachav launched in 1986.
On Monday, Gorbachev spoke of his first interaction with Reagan. The leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union had not met in six years, and as such, chose the neutral ground of Switzerland, of halcyon political past. “This guy is a real dinosaur,” Gorbachev said of the fortieth president of the United States, and Reagan is said to have told his staff that he believed Gorbachev to be “a diehard Bolshevik.” Nevertheless, the two formed one of the most intriguing and pleasant political relations of the twentieth century.
In the seven years given him to transform Mother Russia, Gorbachev believed he could weave beautifully—warp and woof—democracy into the Soviet system. He established a Congress of People’s Deputies in 1998, and he signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty in 1987 with Reagan. During his time, he ended the Russian military occupation of Afghanistan in 1988 and sought to normalize relations with Europe and China. He admitted there “were flaws with human rights” in the Soviet system
Gorbachev spoke of his steadfast belief in perestroika, and insisted that if his reforms had not been terminated after just six years, Russia today would be a more stable and democratic state.
This Russian leader, this Russian leader of the world, this leader placed for an afternoon in Trenton, banged his hand on the podium and declared, “Perestroika triumphed, perestroika won, even though it was interrupted.”
Gorbachev criticized Boris Yeltsin, who took over power in 1991, for failing to embrace the world in Russia’s restructuring. Yeltsin, according to Gorbachev, abandoned the help of others and tried to man Russia alone, with corruption and adulteration of the perestroika the last Soviet leader had sought. According to Gorbachev, Yeltsin put the economy through “shock therapy” through haphazard “cowboy methods.” Always with charismatic charm, Gorbachev added, “ But when in America I have to careful when I say this, because cowboys are good people.”
The Russian leader, with light shining on the right side of his face and the birthmark in shadows on the left, looked into the crowd and declared: “How is it that a person from…a remote Russian village in the caucuses…35 kilometers from the nearest railway station could rise to such power?” Indeed, Gorbachev came from a family of illiterate peasants, but he was able to graduate with honors from high school and what he deemed “the most important, best” university in Russia – Moscow University – where he studied law. Gorbachev described himself as “naturally ambitious,” adding, “Without ambition and self-esteem, you should not go into politics.”
Having joined the CPSU in 1952, it is perhaps no coincidence that he married his wife in 1953; perhaps communism is attractive in nuptial affairs. Bah to whoever said, “Better off dead than red.” Gorbachev’s career was catapulted further as he specialized in and became First Secretary for Agriculture in 1970 and was made a member of the Central Committee the following year. He continued to move through the Soviet ranks until March 11, 1985, when he was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party at 54.
In the Sovereign Bank Arena, Gorbachev spoke of his feeling that Vladimir Putin, who took over for Yeltsin in 2001, stabilized the country from ten years of Yeltsin’s “reckless adventure…and disintegration of the Russian Federation.” Gorbachev believes that Russia must take a slow steady process to capitalism.
In his stately but chic dark suit and sky blue shirt in consonance with his dark blue tie, Gorbachev raised his hand to his clouds of trim Cool Whip hair and spoke about the high expectations for Russian capitalism.
“We Russians may be talented, but you created a democracy in two hundred years, and you want us to create a democracy in two hundred days?” he questioned. “Only God could create the world in seven days. Do not overestimate our abilities.”
Gorbachev also admonished the United States for its cavalier tactics in world diplomacy, specifying the war in Iraq. “You cannot be democratic within your own country when you act according to the law of the jungle with regard to other countries,” he said. Describing the need for concentration on the common, global interest, Gorbachev urged America to gain approval from the United Nations. He believes in serving the world, but cautions the use of force. “Democracy cannot be imposed by point of bayonet or nuclear weapons…You shouldn’t equate humanitarian intervention with the use of force.” He looked out to the audience and said, “I ask of you, the American people: are you enthusiastic about being a global policeman?”
With Bush and Putin both in their second terms, Gorbachev sees opportunity for the two countries to unite and never regress to the tension existing during the Cold War. “I would hope the second term of Putin will be used to start a broad based movement for economic growth,” he said. “I always speak very candidly to American groups…and in our relationship, the best is yet to come.”
Still, the question remains: why was Gorbachev in Trenton on Monday? Did he come for the rubles or the dollars? He now heads the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (Gorbachev Foundation) and the environmental organization Green Cross International, so he needs money to give money. Whatever his ulterior mercenary motives, Gorbachev laid down his gavel of judgment on the past and his perspicuous advice for the future.