Almost 10 years after The Minnesota Daily dedicated an entire issue to Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit, the Cold War leader returned to the University to deliver a speech about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
The Center of the American Experiment hosted its annual dinner Saturday in the University’s Gibson/Nagurski Football Practice Facility, with Gorbachev as the keynote speaker. He spoke about his life, the struggles of the former U.S.S.R. and his hopes for Russia’s future.
“It would be obviously wrong to ignore the contribution that Mr. Gorbachev has made to ending the Cold War and advancing freedom,” said Mitch Pearlstein, the president of the Center of the American Experiment. “I give a great credit to him for allowing the system that gave him his political life to die without firing a shot.”
Although the 3,000-person crowd consisted of mostly professional people, there were groups of students present from various Minnesota colleges. Several of those groups received donated tables because of the $150 ticket price.
Mandi Lighthizer and Aimie Langenfield, political science seniors at University of Minnesota-Morris, said they wanted to see Gorbachev because he is an important influence over the former Soviet Union’s evolution.
Gorbachev started his speech with memoirs of his life, growing up in a family of peasants in one of the villages near the city of Stavropol, Russia. German soldiers occupied Stavropol during World War II, and Gorbachev said the experience had an impact on his life.
“One can say that it is that life that both tested me and gave me a character, the character that was helping me afterwards,” he said through an interpreter.
As most high school students during the Communist regime, Gorbachev joined the Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth organization, where he became the first secretary of Stavropol’s Komsomol organization. He was admitted to Moscow State University’s law school in 1950, and two years later became a full member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
It took Gorbachev 35 years to climb the ranks of his party and attain its top spot. Because the party ruled the Soviet Union, Gorbachev held a position equivalent to other countries’ presidents.
“By that time, I knew a great deal about the concerns and the problems of our country and the world,” he said. “I understood the responsibility that I was shouldering as a leader of the second superpower, and the decisions that I was facing were difficult,” he said.
Throughout his career, Gorbachev had to take chances, including the biggest one of all — the introduction of perestroika and glasnost to the Soviet Union. Rebuilding (perestroika) of the Soviet society and openness (glasnost) in the governmental organizations and mass media were the main new components added by Gorbachev to the Soviet system.
“Glasnost means more than just freedom of speech — glasnost is the ability for people to know what is happening in the country; glasnost is the ability of the people to demand that those who make decisions be accountable,” Gorbachev said.
He has been harshly criticized by the people of the former Soviet Union. Many feel he should have thought more about the reforms before enacting them, because he did not realize the consequences of his actions.
Although many agree Gorbachev had good intentions, the outcomes of his reforms still show through in former Soviet republics, especially Russia. Unstable economical systems and the rise of poverty and unemployment rates are just some of the consequences after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Tom Wolfe, a University assistant history professor, said Gorbachev was unable to respond adequately to the rate of change in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
“The changes started to accumulate so fast, both internally and externally, that it was very difficult for him to respond, given his education and his background and his assumptions about the world,” he said.
Although criticized for perestroika, Gorbachev accomplished what his predecessors could not — improving the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Wolfe said since the beginning of the Communist regime in 1917, the Soviet Union had been feared by the United States. Gorbachev played a key role in helping Americans overcome that fear. Because of his youth and both his and his wife Raisa’s sociableness, Americans accepted him.
“He made it possible for this psychological oppression to be lifted,” Wolfe said.
Another accomplishment made by Gorbachev was the end of the Cold War, which Gorbachev discussed in his speech.
He mentioned the first meeting he and President Ronald Reagan had in Geneva in 1985 and their work together throughout the years.
In Geneva, they both spent two days working “practically around the clock,” which helped bring progress forward, Gorbachev said.
“As a result, both of us adopted a very important statement, and in that statement, we said that nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought,” Gorbachev said.
He and President George Bush met in Malta in 1989, where they talked about ending adversarial relations between both countries, and declared the end of the Cold War.
While Soviet Union and the United States stabilized their alliance, internal problems began to rise in the Soviet Union. On Aug. 18, 1991, leaders of a political coup took charge of the Soviet government’s functions. The coup lasted for several days, during which time future president Boris Yeltsin gained popularity for his opposition to the coup.
Soviet republics also started to declare independence in 1990, starting with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime. More republics followed their lead, and on Dec. 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union collapsed.
“Back in 1991, perestroika was cut short; nevertheless, it had tremendous gains, and those gains enable Russia to continue to go forward. It will never turn to the past,” Gorbachev said.
In his speech, Gorbachev mentioned recent Russian presidential elections. He said Russia’s government does not have credibility, and new President Vladimir Putin needs to find a way to rebuild relations between the government and its people by listening to the nation’s interests.
He also said there should not be a fear of Putin’s policies, because Gorbachev feels they are clear-cut and predictable.
“I very much hope that it will be the kind of choices that I have recommended,” he said. “I hope so very much.”
Ada Simanduyeva welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at 627-4070 x3223