A Laggard in the Race, but a Leader Nonetheless That Russia Is Holding Its First Presidential Election at All Is a Tribute to Candidate Mikhail Gorbachev

By John M. Florescu. John M. Florescu is executive producer of "Talking with David Frost. " | The Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Laggard in the Race, but a Leader Nonetheless That Russia Is Holding Its First Presidential Election at All Is a Tribute to Candidate Mikhail Gorbachev


John M. Florescu. John M. Florescu is executive producer of "Talking with David Frost. ", The Christian Science Monitor


When the history of the 20th century is written, not many leaders will have played a more influential role than the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. The man who presided over the collapse of communism and the winding down of the superpower arms race - who arguably brought more freedom to more people than anyone since decolonization - is now battling at the bottom of the Russian electoral heap in his quest for the Russian presidency.

How could this Nobel Peace Prize winner, who helped nurture this quasi-democracy, lag so far behind an unknown eye surgeon, a faceless Communist apparatchik, and a man whom Mr. Gorbachev himself lifted from the obscurity of Moscow's town hall? It's a reminder of how revolutions consume their creators.

With the world nervously focused on Russia's uncertain future, it seemed a good time to ask a few questions. We arrived in Moscow during the home stretch of Russia's first presidential campaign to tape an interview for the long-running PBS series, "Talking with David Frost."

We found that Moscow cab drivers have a different take on Gorbachev than the world's diplomatic elite. They speak dismissively about the man who had replaced a rapid triple succession of Kremlin hard-liners. Blame flows mercilessly (and recklessly) in Gorbachev's direction: the loss of an empire, the rise of the deadly Russian mafia, dwindling state subsidies for the elderly. Not even high schoolers, who blithely rollerblade in black hip-hop clothing around the periphery of the Kremlin walls, seem to have a touch of indebtedness to the father of glasnost and perestroika. Indeed, it almost seems impossible that one person could be blamed for so much. Gorbachev's poll ratings hover at 2 percent.

Since Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day, 1991, his personal empire has moved about eight miles from the 13th-century Kremlin to a sixth-floor, mock Athenian-style building at 49 Leningrad Prospekt. It is here that the Gorbachev Foundation, an ecological think tank, is discreetly housed in the second floor of a building that was described to me as a financial accounting institute. A dreary, Russian-speaking soldier stood at the front door holding a machine gun.

Our production team was led upstairs. Only a hanging 4-by-6 foot map of the world hinted at the stature of our host.

We were soon joined by Gorbachev's translator, Pavel Palazchenko, the once-famous mustachioed aide who shadowed Gorbachev at superpower summits in Geneva; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Washington. Our researchers told us that Pavel was one part translator, two parts confidant.

Gorbachev burst into the room minutes late. His eyes were alternately steely cold and warm. If nothing else, he exuded power and magnetism. Candidate-style, he walked up to each of the three cameramen, exchanged a few words and even a joke.

As I looked at Gorbachev, my mind pulled up dazzling images of him in Reykjavik, his address to Congress, and the ecstatic throngs just down the street from the White House. But the candidate was getting impatient with small talk, unaware that this was a well-honed and intentional stratagem intended to buy time for the technicians to tweak lights and adjust sound levels.

"Let's go on. Let's begin," he said with the firmness of one accustomed to giving orders.

With Pavel and Sir David's own translator in place, Sir David began with the upcoming June 16 election. On President Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev did not mince words:

"Originally, I thought that Yeltsin was the man I needed badly and later I figured out that Yeltsin was a dangerous person," Gorbachev said. He added that he suspected fraud in the upcoming elections, placing the blame squarely on Yeltsin, who controls the election commissions. With a trace of anger, he talked about how Yeltsin took away his government phone - "that rank-and-file businessmen get" - and was even now placing bugs. …

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