By Halliburton, Rachel
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 140, No. 5055
When he was 11, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev had an experience that would shape him personally and politically for the rest of his life. It was early spring 1943, the snow had just thawed, and he was running through the countryside with other children. Suddenly they came upon a remote stretch of forest filled with the corpses of Red Army soldiers who had died in a battle with the Germans the previous summer.
"It was an unspeakable horror," Gorbachev wrote decades later, "decaying corpses, partly devoured by animals, skulls in rusted helmets, bleached bones, rifles protruding from the sleeves of the rotting jackets. There was a light machine-gun, some hand grenades, heaps of empty cartridges. There they lay in the thick mud of the trenches and craters, unburied, staring at us out of black, gaping eye sockets. We came home in a state of shock."
Many factors have shaped the complex and forceful figure who arrived on the world stage in the mid-1980s and unleashed forces that were ultimately too strong for him to control: disillusionment, as for so many other communists, when in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev exposed the full extent of the brutality of Stalin's regime; a Stakhanovite work ethic that distinguished him as a peasant farmworker and then law student, and which, by 1980, made him the youngest member of the Soviet Politburo; impatience in the late Brezhnev years "with a corrupt political system that seemed gripped by conceptual permafrost. Yet, as he sits in a Mayfair hotel suite flooded with evening light, he asserts that he is increasingly preoccupied - in his 81st year - with the way his Second World War experiences have defined him.
If the evolution of his political persona could be viewed as a set of Russian dolls, it is easy to see how that small boy, disturbed by his encounter with the corpses in the wood, is contained within the Soviet politician who, when he first met Margaret Thatcher in 1984, handed her a diagram of the world's nuclear arsenals and informed her with passion that they had the capacity to wipe out all life a thousand times over. Who, even today, when I ask him about what many - including himself - view as the Middle East's Berlin Wall moment, declares: "No one can stop through force the movement of the people who want freedom and democracy. This is a dangerous moment. The only way forward is to conduct a dialogue."
The night before our meeting I attended the Mikhail Gorbachev 80th Birthday Charitable Celebration at the Royal Albert Hall in London. He was born in March 1931 in Privolnoye, a village near Stavropol in the north Caucasus, son of a man who drove combine harvesters. The gala's location in London, rather than Moscow, had attracted much comment about his fractured legacy in his home country, something that even he referred to obliquely in his otherwise upbeat speech by citing the title of an old article of his: "There are no happy reformers".
If the length of the gala - four and a half hours - was one of the most notable things about the evening (Gorbachev jokes, "It was great, but I thought that I would not survive it to the end"), understatement was not. The hosts were the actors Kevin Spacey and Sharon Stone; the guest speakers included Shimon Peres and Arnold Schwarzenegger in person and Bill Clinton and Bono by satellite link. Among the eclectic list of performers were the conductor Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra, Shirley Bassey, blasting out "Diamonds Are Forever" (presumably chosen for the music rather than its sentiments, given Gorbachev's lashing out against his countrymen's displays of wealth) and Paul Anka, who serenaded the ex-president with - what else? - "I Did It My Way".
Under the theme "The Man Who Changed the World", three inaugural Mikhail Gorbachev prizes were announced. A slightly tearful Ted Turner, founder of CNN, was recognised for contributing to the culture of an open world (the Glasnost award), the Kenyan engineer Evans Wadongo won for his initiatives in science and technology (Uskorenie) and Tim Berners-Lee was feted for aiding the development of global civilisation (Perestroika). …