Pal, Amitabh, The Progressive
I met up with Mikhail Gorbachev in a bar in Wisconsin. As a world figure, Gorbachev has always fascinated me. When he was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 until its demise in 1991, he introduced the ideas of glasnost (transparency and openness) and perestroika (the restructuring of the Soviet society and economy), concepts that brought about historic changes in his country. The winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for helping improve East-West relations, he currently heads the Gorbachev Foundation of America and Green Cross International, organizations dedicated to such issues as disarmament; the environment, democracy, and the global economy. He lectures the world over, including at such far-flung places as Appleton, Wisconsin, home of Joe McCarthy and the headquarters of the John Birch Society, though also the location of the liberal Lawrence University.
I had been trying to get an interview with Gorbachev for several months--ever since I learned that he was coming to Appleton on October 1. After calling and e-mailing several places, including Moscow, I finally got in touch with his translator and chief media aide, Pavel Palazchenko, who promised me a few minutes alone with Gorbachev, possibly before his talk.
I spent the whole morning of October 1 in the lobby of the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton, waiting for my chance. On entering the hotel, Gorbachev surveyed it with a touch of haughtiness. He looked shorter than he did in his Soviet-era photos, and a bit older.
In the afternoon, I received a call in my room from Palazchenko. He said that Gorbachev was exhausted and wouldn't be able to do the interview before the speech. However, he said, if I waited till the end of the reception, I'd be able to do it then.
I managed to get a question in at a mini-press conference, where I was positioned next to a senior editor with The New American, the publication of the John Birch Society. After sitting through Gorbachev's talk and hanging around afterward, I was chagrined to see Gorbachev and Palazchenko exiting from a side door.
I hurried back to the hotel. Just a few minutes later, Gorbachev and Palazchenko appeared, heading toward the hotel bar. "Mr. Palazchenko, you had promised me some minutes alone with President Gorbachev," I said, as Gorbachev walked along unperturbed. "Why don't you wait outside the bar, and I'll see what I can do," Palazchenko said. Almost an hour later, Palazchenko reappeared. "You're still here?" he said. "Why don't you come on inside?"
As soon as I met him, Gorbachev raised two fingers. I thought he was flashing me the peace sign. "Only two questions," Palazchenko translated. I managed to get in four. A slightly annoyed Gorbachev raised four fingers at the end. When I spilled the remnants of Palazchenko's wine while putting away my tape recorder, Gorbachev remarked to Palazchenko (who duly translated for me) that this was his punishment for bringing me there. Here's what Gorbachev said in Appleton, in response to my questions and others at the press conference and the reception.
Q: You recently wrote that the Iraq War was "felonious" and that the United States needed a perestroika of its own. Could you elaborate?
Mikhail Gorbachev: Not only America but all countries should think together about how the enormous might of the sole remaining superpower should be used. We need a leadership that is based on partnership, a leadership that unites nations and makes it possible to solve the problems of the globe together. Otherwise, we will have another Gold Rush for a superpower that wants to gain even greater advantages, that wants to gain an absolutely new position for itself. That would lead to a perverse utopia.
Q: A lot of people in this country think that President Reagan's hardline policies, such as massive military spending and the Strategic Defense Initiative, helped bring the Soviet Union down. …