Last stern conversation: Mikhail Gorbachev: "I understood that Russians and Germans have to reconcile"

Actually, he says, he no longer meets with journalists.

Last stern conversation: Mikhail Gorbachev: "I understood that Russians and Germans have to reconcile"

Actually, he says, he no longer meets with journalists. After all, he has just turned 82 and is plagued by back problems, blood pressure, diabetes, all of these age-related issues. But for the people from stern he wanted to make an exception in 2013. "We've known each other for years," says Gorbachev, as he greets the stern team in a good mood in his foundation's office in Moscow. Gorbachev has tea and biscuits brought. "Shall we get started?" he asks.

Mikhail Sergeyevich, you changed the world peacefully like few people before you. You should be happy.

Somewhere in Germany I was asked exactly that: Are you a happy person?

It was in Hamburg during a conversation with the star. Back then you said: There are no happy reformers.

I have often thought about this conversation. And I realized: I can't be ungrateful. On the contrary. Because it fell to me to change our vast country.

This change was too radical for some, not radical enough for others. Many Russians blame you for the collapse of the Soviet Union, berate you. How lonely is the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev?

My family was caught in the middle of the glowing cauldron of perestroika. She had to endure terrible things. For Raissa, my wife, it was just too much. She died of leukemia within just three months in 1999. This is my worst loss, the hardest for me.

After her death you withdrew for a long time and didn't want to live any longer.

To this day I feel guilty for her death. I think about it every day. That I couldn't save her. She was always with me, always backed down. She gave everything for my success and my career. I should have protected her. I should have protected the whole family. At some point, Raissa's strength was no longer enough.

To endure years of criticism, the hostilities, the malice?

Everything was for nothing, she said. When I came home from work, she sometimes sat on the balcony. There were mountains of newspapers on the table, full of criticism of me and my politics. And she too was attacked. Then she sat there and read and read. I asked why are you doing this? It's just politics. But she was desperate: so much dirt! You insult us! At some point she couldn't take it anymore.

But when your wife fell ill in 1999, you both experienced encouragement for the first time in many years. Was that any consolation?

At that time we flew to see specialists in Münster. She was so bad that we didn't know if she would make it to the clinic. I thought we'd lose her along the way. The letters came in a torrent. laundry basket way. Not just hundreds, but thousands. An article appeared in the Russian newspaper "Izvestia": "A lady with dignity". I read it to her. During this time she said a sentence that has been engraved in my memory forever: "Do I really have to die for people to believe me?" Maybe it really was.

Mikhail Gorbachev was only in power for six years, but during this time he changed what had previously seemed unchangeable. "You can't live like that," he declared when he became the most powerful man in the Soviet Union in 1985: the state was bankrupt after decades of the arms race. He modestly called his reforms "perestrojka", Russian for reconstruction.

It became a revolution. Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan and surprised the United States with disarmament proposals.

He dissolved the Warsaw Pact, ending the Cold War. He released the economy from state control, his "glasnost" (openness) allowed freedom of expression.

The reformer himself soon became the center of criticism: for some he was too quick, for others too hesitant. In 1991, Soviet hardliners staged a coup, Boris Yeltsin became the leader of the resistance. Gorbachev had to resign a little later. Enemy and friend Critics from his own country accused Gorbachev of having vainly fallen in love with power, but defending it too gullibly and not hard enough.

Gorbachev's archenemy Yeltsin possessed a greater instinct for power. Without Gorbachev's knowledge, he organized the dissolution of the Soviet Union and became Russia's first president. After some initial difficulties, Gorbachev became friends with Helmut Kohl. Gorbachev promised him in July 1990 that he would withdraw the Soviet army from Germany. Nothing stood in the way of reunification.

You were all-powerful General Secretary of the party, President of the Soviet Union. And come from a completely different world, a boy from the village. Her daughter Irina once joked: you were born like Jesus Christ.

On the straw in the pantry of our farmer's cottage. Grandma told her that. My parents were farmers. Our hut had four rooms, one of which was for cattle. It was unbearable poverty. The life of the peasants at that time differed little from that of serfdom. I myself hardly got out of Privolnoye, my home village, for almost twenty years. When I came to Moscow for the first time, it was like a shock. The city, the noise, the crowds.

Her family experienced the collectivization under Stalin, the famine in which almost seven million people died.

In 1933, when I was two years old, almost every second person in our village starved to death. My grandfather Andrey's family had six children, my father was one of them. Three of the siblings died of starvation in the winter. When spring came, there were no more seeds. My grandfather Andrei had not joined the kolkhoz. Nevertheless, according to a government decision, he had to fulfill a sowing plan. But what should he sow? So my grandfather was convicted for not fulfilling this plan. That is sabotage! He was exiled to Siberia to cut wood. He was lucky he survived.

Your other grandfather, your mother's father, was also arrested.

Grandfather Pantelej was even the chairman of the kolkhoz. He believed in Soviet power. But he was suddenly accused of being a Trotskyist. Under Stalin this was considered a serious crime. From one day to the next, the neighbors stopped visiting us, and if they did dare, then only at night. It was like the house was quarantined. It was the house of an enemy of the people.

But he survived.

He was then sentenced to death by firing squad. The judgment was not carried out. Only once later did he talk about it at the table. Then never again. And nobody asked. Neither with us nor in other families. So the great silence settled over everything. Decades later, when I was already President of the Soviet Union, I had the records of his imprisonment retrieved from the KGB archives. He was interrogated for 14 months. He was tortured but said nothing. I was amazed by his steadfastness, shaken by his fate.

Nevertheless, you joined the party at the age of 19, "with a pure heart", as you once said. Why?

After all, we believed in Stalin, in Soviet power. We believed: She saved us! We were convinced. That's what ideologies do to people, especially children. I was ten years old when the war started.

Were you afraid of the Germans?

Once, when I was little, my grandfather took me to a neighboring village, a settlement of the Russian Germans. They sold bunny and bear shaped gingerbread cookies that were thickly covered in icing and tasted wonderful. It was then that I found out for the first time that there were people who were called Germans. I immediately decided that they were good people

Until then the war came, the completely different Germans.

At that time we didn't have a radio in the village, a horseman came and reported: "It's war!" We had just survived the years of collectivization, Stalin's purges. Now, for the first time, we have some hope. Life got better. There were even simple shoes for sale, calico and soap.

The Wehrmacht also occupied your district in southern Russia.

We children thought: "The Red Army will show the fascists!" My father had to go to the front and my mother had to do forced labor for the Germans. Bad rumors spread about mass shootings in neighboring towns. We heard that tens of thousands of people, most of them Jews, had been shot near the town of Mineralnye Vody in the Caucasus. From Krasnodar we heard about the cars in which people were killed with gas.

The SS task forces and their helpers in the Wehrmacht murdered with such mobile gas chambers.

We called these wagons soul killers. And then there were rumors about an impending punitive action in our village. A reckoning with the families of the communists. My family knew they would be the first to go.

Her grandfather was a collective farm chairman and a communist—although he was also a victim of Stalin.

My mother decided to hide me on a nearby pig farm. We went out at night. It was pitch black. There was mud everywhere. I would probably find the house today with my eyes closed. But then we lost our way. We were in a panic. Suddenly a thunderstorm broke out. Everything could be seen in the flashes. The building was right in front of us.

How long did you have to stay there?

A couple of days. The punitive action was scheduled for January 26, 1943. But on January 21, the Germans retreated in haste. That saved us.

They were lucky to survive.

There were no machines, no cattle, no seeds. Famine began again. We were saved by a sack of corn, which my mother, after weeks of searching, was able to trade for a pair of boots and a suit from my father

When did you see your father again?

After the war ended in 1945, he initially had to remain in the army. When he was on a business trip near our village, he was allowed to go home for two days to see us again. I was sitting in the yard repairing something. There he was suddenly. We hadn't seen each other for four years. He wore a uniform with medals. I had grown up and was very skinny. I wore all the clothes. We didn't have anything. We woven makeshift fabric ourselves. I had made the sandals myself, from coarse cowhide. That's how I stood there. He said, "And that's what we're supposed to have fought for?" I will never forget those words. We happily threw ourselves at each other, hugged.

You later had a lot to do with German politicians. Did you find that difficult?

Well, it wasn't easy. It was probably very difficult for everyone to overcome old prejudices and to approach one another.

Are you still friends with the German ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl? With Kohl, who once compared you to Goebbels?

We learned to trust each other. Yes we are friends. It wasn't always easy for me to deal with Western politicians. Not even later

Why? In the west people were really crazy about "Gorbi".

However, some politicians in the West like to present themselves as victors of the Cold War. As if everything was her merit. As if everything - including German reunification - would have been possible without Russia.

You were a party functionary and rose to the powerful Politburo. When did you realize: You can't go on living like this?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the state of the country continued to deteriorate. It's hard to imagine today. We lived in a system where the general secretary had tremendous power, second only to God. Brezhnev and the other members of the Politburo were so old and so ill that they could no longer work at full capacity. At that time, some meetings only lasted 15 minutes. It often took longer to get together than the meeting itself. Items on the agenda were approved and no one was allowed to ask questions. At that time there were four general secretaries within four years. One by one they died. It was an absurd spectacle. Almost unimaginable today.

And the Soviet Union was 30 years behind the West.

The arms race and the colossal costs associated with it were the main reason for this. Up to 40 percent of the national budget was then spent on the military. Labor productivity was three times higher in the West, and even five times higher in agriculture. In the middle of summer it was not possible to supply the city of Moscow with fruit and vegetables. There was a lack of storage capacity. And then the shock of Chernobyl.

You divide your life into "before" and "after Chernobyl". Why?

At that time I understood how worn out our technology was, what was wrong with our science. The Politburo was informed far too slowly, incorrectly and incompletely. The President of the Academy of Sciences told us: against the radiation one must drink some alcohol and sleep. How cynical! It was clear: the whole system was ailing. All!

Chernobyl was also an economic disaster. The follow-up costs amounted to many billions of dollars.

Then the oil prices fell. Our foreign exchange earnings fell by two thirds within a very short time. The difficult situation was obvious. Everyone who wanted to change something ran into the wall. You had to change the system.

Then why didn't you change it? Your critics say you didn't act decisively enough. After two years, perestroika had effectively failed.

Because I initially believed that I could gather people who were willing to reform around me and start making changes together with them. The people would find freedom through glasnost, i.e. openness, and support perestroika. For us, glasnost meant telling the people the truth about the state of our country and the world. I was convinced that this new generation would peacefully change the frozen system. That was a wrong assumption. The backward-looking forces offered more and more resistance.

And yet you remained loyal to the Communist Party. Until it was too late. Tragic almost.

I should have been more decisive. That we soon lost popular support for perestroika was my biggest mistake. I know that today. But I'm only human like everyone else.

Their country fell apart, the economy collapsed, food became scarce...

... at some point we couldn't stop the process anymore. However, chaos must not arise under any circumstances. The most important thing was to get so far that there was no going back to the old system, to Stalin's system. But at the same time bloodshed had to be prevented at all costs. My top priority was to prevent bloodshed and even a possible civil war. I assumed that perestroika would take many years, a generation, maybe longer.

Were you hoping for more help from the West in this situation?

I'll tell you frankly: I sometimes had the impression that some in the West were trying to fool me. And maybe the truth is they never really trusted me. I probably represented the wrong ideals for them: I was probably too socialistic for them. But I had chosen to be honest and open. I didn't want to lie. And without trust, it just doesn't work.

At that time they asked in the West almost desperately for loans ...

... it was in London, during the meeting of the G-7 ...

Meeting of the G-7 ... ... the group of the seven major industrial nations met there in July 1991, including Germany with Chancellor Kohl and the USA with its President George Bush.

Back then we were hoping for $30 billion in loans. In vain

Even Kohl turned his back on you?

Kohl was silent at the time.

You said your Western partners lacked vision.

Sometimes I had the impression that some people rubbed their hands contentedly under the table when they thought of the dire situation in our country. But the truth is: Our country opened its doors and the world changed! Our disarmament policy with the USA laid the foundation for the end of the Cold War! Also for German reunification.

Where were you when the wall fell on the night of November 9, 1989?

At home, where else?

Did you wake up?

No, and that wasn't even necessary. I learned the details early in the morning. Our position was clear from the start, no matter what the shouting. We knew: Europe cannot live with a divided Germany, with a time bomb. I understood that Russians and Germans need to reconcile. I understood that you have to forgive each other.

Have you forgiven the Germans?

Yes. I have that. We were convinced that German reunification was in everyone's interest. Even if both Great Britain and France initially opposed it at the time. Even if there were some of us who wanted to squeeze as much money as possible out of the Germans. Ridiculous.

In August 1991, former confidants staged a coup against you and your politics. They were on vacation in Crimea and had apparently not taken warnings seriously.

I was very exhausted at the time, but I shouldn't have gone on vacation. But it was almost worse: I experienced the betrayal of people I thought I knew well. How wrong I was about them. The coup attempt collapsed because the people protested peacefully.

Your wife fell seriously ill during those dramatic three days.

She probably had a stroke. She could not speak, her right hand was paralyzed. then depression, all at once. It all became too difficult for her.

Under the impression of the coup attempt, she even burned personal documents.

Yes. There were 52 letters that we had written to each other, the letters of our youth. Strangers shouldn't invade our lives, she said. I also burned 25 notebooks with official records at the time.

You always discussed important things outside, during a walk with your wife.

Within our four walls, we could never be sure not to be bugged. This fear later came true. When we moved out of the presidential apartment in 1992, my staff discovered listening devices everywhere. The apartment was full of them. The apartment of the President of the Soviet Union.

It then quickly came to an end with the Soviet Union. Your great adversary Boris Yeltsin took power in the Kremlin at the end of 1991.

He was a mean man. It couldn't go fast enough for him.

It is said that there were drinking bouts in the Kremlin at the time.

In any case, I should vacate our apartment and the presidential residence within 24 hours. My immunity was lifted and I was forbidden from appearing in public. I was banned from leaving the country. That's why I almost couldn't have gone to the funeral of my friend Willy Brandt.

And today? What is left of perestroika in Putin's Russia?

Censorship prevails, dissidents are persecuted, the corrupt elite rakes in billions. The current rulers resort to fraud and authoritarian measures.

You should keep your mouth shut, Putin allegedly once told you.

Yes. But in spite of all this: There will no longer be a dictatorship in Russia.

Why are you so sure?

Because we did what had to be done: we set people free. There's no turning back. Russia will be a free country.

We wanted to ask you why you recently met Arnold Schwarzenegger?

We've known each other a long time. We met Thomas Gottschalk on this TV show. We became friends.

And what are you talking about now?

About a film project.

Gorbachev, perestroika, as a Hollywood thriller?

Maybe. There is no script yet, but first ideas. Schwarzenegger would be the producer.

And who do you want to see in the leading role?

Who knows, maybe Leonardo DiCaprio. How do you like that?

The interview was published in Stern in 2013 (12/2013)

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