SPIEGEL Interview with Mikhail Gorbachev: 'They Were Truly Idiots'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Mikhail Gorbachev, 80,ádiscusses the last days of the Soviet Union, his failure to resolve problems with the Communist Party and the ensuing bloodshed he says still troubles him today. He also accuses Vladimir Putin of pulling the country "back into the past."

SPIEGEL: Mikhail Sergeyevich, you turned 80 this spring. How do you feel?

Gorbachev: Oh, what a question. Do you have to ask me that? I've gone through three operations in the last five years. That was pretty tough on me, because they were all major operations: First on my carotid artery, then on my prostate and this year on my spine.

SPIEGEL: In Munich.

Gorbachev: Yes. It was a risky procedure. I'm grateful to the Germans.

SPIEGEL: But you look good. We saw you before the operation.

Gorbachev: They say you need three or four months to get back to normal after an operation like that. Do you remember the book "The Fourth Vertebra," by the Finnish author Martti Larni? It is a wonderful book. In my case it was the fifth (vertebra). I've started walking again, but every beginning is difficult.

SPIEGEL: And yet you are back in politics, and you're even making headlines again. Why don't you finally sit back and relax?

Gorbachev: Politics is my second love, next to my love for Raisa.

SPIEGEL: Your deceased wife.

Gorbachev: I will never give up politics. I've tried to give it up three times, but I never made it. Politics mobilizes me. I won't last long if I give it up. However, I would never have thought that I would make it to 80. I was about your age when I became general secretary.

SPIEGEL: At 54.

Gorbachev: I was already the youngest secretary in the party leadership in Stavropol. And here in Moscow I was the youngest member of the Politburo when (former General Secretary Konstantin) Chernenko died.

SPIEGEL: In fact, you were expected to become head of the party a year earlier.

Gorbachev: Chernenko was ill. Still, they elected him in 1984, and there were scuffles and clashes in the Politburo. They assigned the positions as they saw fit, even though (Yuri) Andropov…

SPIEGEL: … the then-general secretary and head of the KGB for many years …

Gorbachev: … had written, in a letter to the Plenary Assembly of the Central Committee, that he supported Gorbachev.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps you could fill us in on a detail from the decisive Politburo meeting following Chernenko's death in March 1985. Ironically, it was Foreign Minister (Andrei) Gromyko who nominated you as the new party leader. Why did he do it? He didn't like you and was envious of you. And there were other candidates?

Gorbachev: Because Gromyko was a very clever and serious person. Why was he envious of me? I don't know. But he had recognized the signs of the times. When Chernenko was ill, I was often called upon to manage the work of the Secretariat and the Politburo, and it went well, which didn't go unnoticed. In that regard, Chernenko even helped me. And I gathered important experience in the process. If I may modify something Voltaire once said about God: If Chernenko hadn't existed, someone would have to have invented him.

SPIEGEL: There were also important rivals who didn't want Gorbachev.

Gorbachev: Yes, a few. On the other hand, a group of regional party leaders had approached me and said, while Chernenko was still alive: The old guard are trying to put one of their own on the throne once again. If they do it, we will sweep them away. I said to them: Enough of this talk. When Chernenko was dead and the issue of the succession had to be resolved, I met with Gromyko 30 minutes before the critical Politburo meeting. I said to him: The situation is serious, and the people are demanding change. It can't be forced, even though it's risky, even dangerous. Let's tackle this together. Gromyko replied that he agreed with me completely. We only spoke to each other for five minutes. That night, I retuned to my dacha shortly before dawn -- and went for a walk with Raisa.

SPIEGEL: You never discussed important issues with your wife at home?

Gorbachev: You had to go outside. We also never discussed important things openly at the dacha. When I cleared out our Moscow apartment after stepping down as president, they found all kinds of wiring in the walls. It turned out that they had been spying on me all along.

SPIEGEL: What advice did your wife give you that night?

Gorbachev: I said to her: The new general secretary will be elected today, and it's possible that they will nominate me. Do you need that, she asked? I said: They've gone through three general secretaries in four years. I explained to her that I wouldn't turn them down, because people would interpret that as political cowardice.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gorbachev, allow us to conduct an experiment.

Gorbachev: I don't participate in experiments anymore.

SPIEGEL: This one is completely harmless. Three or four reasons are always cited as to why your perestroika, the renewal of the Soviet Union, failed.

Gorbachev: Did you just say "failed?"

SPIEGEL: Yes, but we don't want to argue about the word. We could also use a different word. We'll give you the reasons and ask you for a brief comment. First: You only treated the symptoms of the sick communist system, but you didn't get to the core of the problem, namely that the planned economy and the party's monopoly on power remained untouched for too long. Was that not truly the case?

Gorbachev: Let's take one thing at a time. I would launch perestroika in exactly the same way today. "We can't go on living this way." That was our slogan. "I want changes," Viktor Zoi, the pioneer of Russian rock music, sang.

SPIEGEL: But you lacked a concept for these changes.

Gorbachev: If I had had a plan for it, I would have quickly ended up in Magadan.

SPIEGEL: The capital of the Stalinist gulag, 6,000 kilometers from Moscow.

Gorbachev: Both of you were very familiar with the Soviet Union. Don't you remember what kind of a country it was? All it took was a tiny political joke to end up in Magadan. And I was supposed to have a plan and a supporting team? First we had to lead the people out of torpor. The party establishment didn't need perestroika. Each of them had it made. The district party leader was the king in his district, the regional leader was a czar and the general secretary was practically God's equal. That's why we needed glasnost -- openness -- first. It was the path to freedom. We later conducted the first free elections in Russia in 1,000 years.

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bud.hovell 08/20/2014
History will surely treat Mr. Gorbachev kindly and with deep respect as a visionary leader who simply arrived too late.
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