“Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev gave us 30 years of sunlight,” Maksim, a twenty-year-old political science student, told the New York Times in early September shortly after Gorbachev’s death. “Unfortunately, this time has passed, and there is no more sun, only darkness.”
Gorbachev left us an exceptional legacy, shining a light on the critical issues that confronted his generation—both at home and in the West. He brought an energy and enlightenment for which we must all be deeply thankful.
As an American lawyer with a practice in Russia, I had the occasion to observe first-hand the lasting changes Gorbachev brought to his country and was privileged to interact with him and his staff on a number of occasions. This article sets forth some of my own personal experiences—based on contemporaneous notes—which highlight Gorbachev’s character and commitment to improving the world. He focused on the “big picture,” taking risks that few, if any, leaders of a great nation would have pursued. Taken together, these reminiscences provide a small window onto a remarkable man who changed our future.
Initial Meeting with Gorbachev
My first experience with Gorbachev occurred in the Spring of 1996 when I met him (one on one) in a Stalinist-era building in the center of Moscow where he had his office. Gorbachev had decided to run for elected office as the president of Russia, reflecting, in part, his belief that his years as a Soviet leader were flawed because his power derived from the Communist Party
machine, and not from Soviet citizens directly. The meeting was arranged by a deputy to Gorbachev who, when visiting my office, and seeing a picture of Gorbachev displayed there, surmised I might be interested in supporting the reforms.
Gorbachev was rather good-looking. I was surprised that the large blemish on his forehead was so nondescript and barely noticeable. He looked healthy and extremely confident—unlike a recent television scene where he appeared like a fallen leader.
We sat down in a small coffee table setting. I said I was deeply honored to have the opportunity to meet him. He then replied with a comment that caught me entirely off guard. He said: “Haven’t we met before?” It was a clever way for Gorbachev to put me at ease, subliminally conveying a message that perhaps I was important enough to be remembered. I had heard that Gorbachev was a consummate politician, charming and personable, and it was wonderful to see that for myself. I went along with the pretense, so I fumbled my words in responding and left the impression that perhaps we met in a large gathering or conference he addressed.
After this unexpected beginning, I introduced myself as a lawyer in a large firm in Washington, DC, which had been involved in Western business initiatives in Russia since 1988. Gorbachev responded that he had just heard on the news that a political initiative in Washington might reduce or eliminate U.S. financial assistance to Russia. After a moment to reflect, I replied that the Clinton administration was very committed to Russian reforms. I added that I thought President Bill Clinton considered Gorbachev’s initiatives of enormous importance, changing the underlying psychology of the relationship between the United States and Russia.
Gorbachev replied that he had never met Clinton—a very telling comment because two weeks earlier, Clinton paid a brief visit to Moscow. In addition to his meeting with Boris Yeltsin, Clinton met Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party, who was the other leading presidential candidate in the first round of the upcoming presidential elections. The snub to Gorbachev was obvious to all and was reported as such.
After about fifteen minutes, our meeting concluded, with a gaggle of people waiting outside his office. I thanked the assistant who arranged the meeting, and said I hoped to return to Moscow in June, looking forward to joining him for the victory celebration. He appreciated the sentiment, and we exchanged a thumbs-up gesture.
Unfortunately, the election results six weeks later were devastatingly negative for Gorbachev. He received 0.5 percent of the votes (386,069), with Yeltsin receiving 35.8 percent (26,665,495) and Zyuganov pulling in a close second at 32.5 percent (24,211,686).
Gorbachev’s humiliating rejection ended what proved to be his last quixotic aspiration to regain political power in Russia. The fractional lead Yeltsin scored over the Communist Party in the first round also highlighted the fragility of Russia’s new democracy.
Gorbachev and Walter Rockler
In the following years, I had several occasions to interact with Gorbachev and his staff because of the “mutual admiration” friendship he developed with Walter Rockler, a senior partner at our law firm.
Rockler had served as a prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials of German bankers. Years later, when the U.S. Justice Department set up the Office of Special Investigation to deport Nazi war criminals, Rockler took a leave of absence to head the new office. He traveled to the Soviet Union, working closely with officials there to document Nazi atrocities. In more recent years, Rockler has written critically about U.S. foreign policy, particularly in connection with NATO action in Yugoslavia. The Economist devoted a full page to his obituary when he passed away in 2002.
Gorbachev greatly respected Rockler for his exceptional life and achievements. That respect and admiration were fully reciprocated. In 1997, in one of their informal meetings, Gorbachev indicated he was thinking of establishing a base in the United States to pursue humanitarian objectives. Rockler advised him to form a U.S. nonprofit foundation, which later became The Foundation for the Development Democracy and World Peace, discussed later in this piece. Its objectives were to pursue closer Russian American relations, and the resolution of international conflicts through principles of international law.
On Rockler’s eightieth birthday at the end of 2000, Gorbachev sent him a beautiful congratulatory letter. It was accompanied by a personal telephone call while Gorbachev was traveling from Tokyo to Hiroshima to speak at the fifty-fifth-anniversary event of the dropping of the first atomic bomb.
In the congratulatory letter, whose words surfaced again in a condolence letter to Rockler’s family two years later, Gorbachev wrote this tribute:
My colleagues and I express our sincere admiration and deepest gratitude to you for those many years you have contributed with honesty and with great intelligence to the ideals of Good, Justice and Peace. [Walter] was a man of uncommon decency and of the highest moral integrity. We shall always remember him.
I believe his descriptions in Rockler’s eulogy reflected the essential character traits to which Gorbachev himself aspired. Standing for the “ideals of Good, Justice and Peace” and “of the highest moral integrity” are how Gorbachev wished to be remembered.
The Inauguration of the Gorbachev Foundation Building in Moscow
In May of 2000, I was invited to attend the opening of the elegant glass and steel three-story building in the center of Moscow that was constructed for the new Gorbachev Foundation. This was a formal affair, with a string quartet playing classical music in the background. There were several distinguished speakers, designed as a tribute for Gorbachev as he moved from his rented government office to an independent building funded, in part, by Ted Turner, the founder of CNN.
Raisa, Gorbachev’s beloved wife who passed away the previous year, was a motivating force for the establishment of the Gorbachev Foundation, as well as its new building designed to convey the prestige and status to which Gorbachev was felt due. Touted as one of the first independent think tanks in Russia, the foundation was to engage in research, sponsor conferences, publish books, fund worthy charitable causes, and, in Gorbachev’s words, “help the world in this transition to a triumph of humanism and justice, in making the 21st century a century of a new human renaissance.”
Gorbachev gave a forty-five-minute speech describing the importance of the building to his future, and his gratitude to the people who made it possible to complete the construction after the financial collapse in 1998 when funding dried up. Turner spoke at the event, as did Shimon Peres, the former prime minister of Israel.
Gorbachev noted that he was very happy with the Turkish company which constructed the building, under Raisa’s ever-watchful eye to make sure all contractual undertakings were performed. On that latter point, and with a smile on his face, he related that Raisa and he adhered to President Ronald Reagan’s admonition to the effect: “Trust, but verify.” His self-deprecating humor was appreciated by the audience.
The Introductory Video
An introductory five-minute video preceded the formal speeches, designed to encapsulate Gorbachev’s historical contributions, with a special emphasis on arms reductions. It opened with a visual of the annual parade of military weapons in the Red Square, with a comment—and commitment—by Gorbachev in the late 1980s that the arms race spawned by the Cold War must be ended. Gorbachev did, in fact, fulfill that commitment, starting with the historical signing in December 1987 of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty which eliminated intermediate- and short-range missiles stationed in western Europe and the Soviet Union. That treaty was followed by two decades of progress in substantially reducing the arms race, with 80 percent of both countries’ nuclear arsenals decommissioned and destroyed.