Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union who ended Communist rule in Eastern Europe and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, delivered a major address at Allan P. Kirby Sports Center.
I recently turned 80, and for 55 years I’ve been involved in politics. It meant a lot for me, my family, my country, and the world, because it was my destiny to be on the cutting edge of events. Today I will be telling you about that.
At the end of the 1980s, because of the efforts, above all, of our two countries, the United States and the Soviet Union, but also in cooperation with other countries, we were able to put an end to the Cold War and to step aside from the abyss – to lead the world from the abyss. We had been close to the possibility of the nuclear danger becoming a real conflict. And that could have happened even without a political decision to use nuclear weapons. There had been failures in the control systems of those terrible weapons. Let me give you one example. A flock of geese flying from the Soviet Union as a normal migration from their summer places in the direction of the United States – something that geese do annually – were detected by the American radar systems, and they appeared like Soviet strategic bombers flying toward the United States via Canada.
I can’t imagine the reaction when this mistaken detection was made, but fortunately, the reaction was wise and certainly the people who were in that area were responsible people who fully understood what the use of nuclear weapons could have led to. Therefore, the reaction was calm, and in a few minutes they realized that it was just a flock of geese. I once gave that example during my lectures in America and later I was given a little statue of a goose. That is an image, the goose, which continues to migrate between our countries, and I thank those geese, because whether we argue or get along well, those geese are still devoted and committed to our two countries. And I still have that souvenir in my home.
In order to end the Cold War, to start the process of nuclear disarmament, and to implement many other changes, certain important things had to happen. Certain decisions had to be taken – perhaps the most important decisions of the 20th century had to be made. When nuclear weapons were first invented, Albert Einstein said, “We need a new way of thinking, because mankind has been deprived of its immortality.” And then Chernobyl – the explosion of just one nuclear reactor, and the Soviet Union had a lot of difficulty in stopping that process. There were consequences, and we had to spend enormous amounts of money to take the situation in hand – more than 18 billion dollars – just to clean up the consequences of Chernobyl. That was just one reactor, and a vast country had to confront that danger.
Later, scientists stated that one Soviet strategic missile with multiple warheads contained the power of 100 Chernobyl explosions. Just one missile! Those who went through Chernobyl or a similar experience, those who were involved in decision-making about nuclear weapons, all those people understood the kind of responsibility that they were shouldering. Therefore, the end of the confrontation, when George Bush and I, at the summit in Malta, stated we no longer regarded our two nations as enemies, that meant that the Cold War had ended.
That happened as if it were something quite normal. But, again, before it all happened we had to make a decision, a commitment, to normalize relations with the United States. At that time, it was only possible when the new generation of leaders came to power in the Soviet Union, when my generation came to leadership. I recall that as a very difficult time. When we were discussing the proposals that the Soviet Union planned to make to our U.S. partners, we believed that cooperation with the United States was necessary. (At the height of tensions during the Cold War, for six years the Soviet leaders and American leaders had not had a single summit meeting. To me, it still sounds amazing.) We believed that we needed to act because of the security issues that we were facing and because of the enormous amounts of money that we were spending on the arms race, while life in our country for ordinary people was still difficult (of course, the standard of living was not to be compared with the United States) – people were working and sacrificing in order to maintain nuclear parity. So, we went to that summit meeting with Ronald Reagan. He came from Washington and I came from Moscow to Geneva.
That summit was an amazing event that is still engraved in my memory. The first conversation was a one-on-one conversation while members of the delegation were away smoking. This introductory conversation was supposed to be very brief, but it went quite long. Then I returned to my delegation, and they asked me, “What’s your impression of Ronald Reagan?” At that time, of course, Reagan was called a hawk in the international media. I said, “We had a real argument – a lot of bickering, a lot of mutual accusations.” We just accused each other for the state of the world. And I said, “Reagan is indeed a conservative, and I would say more. He is a dinosaur!” Three days afterwards, in an American magazine, we read a story about the same question being put to Reagan: What’s your impression of Gorbachev? He said, “Gorbachev is a diehard Bolshevik!” It was that kind of exchange of “pleasantries” that started our work.
But in less than three days at that summit, we made enormous progress and started to build initial trust. It was on the night of the last day of the summit that the final document was produced. It stated that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. That meant that if we did not intend to fight a nuclear war, why have so many nuclear weapons? At that time, 96 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world were in our two countries. It was madness to continue the arms race, and it was only because of the terrible mistrust that it continued. The leaders of the two countries that defeated the plague of Nazism, that had been allies and partners, were now in a state of confrontation leading to opposing military alliances. In that same statement, we also said that our two nations will not seek military superiority.
I think the first part of that statement – about the need for nuclear disarmament, about a nuclear war that must never be fought – is being fulfilled. We are moving toward a nuclear-weapon-free world, even though, I believe, we are moving rather slowly and a lot more could be done. But as for the obligation not to seek military superiority, I must say that our American partners have not fulfilled that pledge. Even now, when we discuss the need to implement comprehensive nuclear disarmament and even when positive steps are agreed between our two nations, we still face this question: What happens if all nuclear weapons are destroyed? What will remain in the world? Well, mostly what will remain is the military power of the United States. Seventy-five percent of the world’s military expenditures are made in the United States of America. It seems that things are beginning to change in this regard in this country, but nevertheless we see that our American friends are still excessively concerned about their security and trust no one. This is not a good thing, now that the Soviet Union doesn’t exist as a partner to the United States – which I regret. I regret that we were not able to preserve this vast country. But also from the standpoint of international relations, we developed a partnership between the Soviet Union and the United States during our final years, and that was a very serious partnership. Now, of course, in a different situation, we still need to address the issues of security, and we believe that those issues can be resolved.
As we were moving toward this change, of course, it had to be preceded by fundamental changes within the Soviet Union. Throughout our society, people were unhappy, concerned about the state of the country. They were worried about nuclear war, but they also were demanding general change in the country. The phrase, which has been recorded in the history of our country and of the world, was “We can no longer live like this. We can no longer live as before. We demand change.” That was the demand throughout our society. We were facing a situation that required us to propose something bold, something dramatic. That meant that we, the leaders of the country, had to assume responsibility for such bold change.
Perestroika was a difficult process in our country. Gradually we were pushing forward toward this democratic breakthrough, toward the end of the totalitarian system, and toward democracy and freedom. We were also moving step by step toward a new economy, toward market economics. But the most important thing was freedom and glasnost. Even today, some people say – I’m referring to the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (We recently visited Wyoming. He spent some time in that state when he lived in this country.) He was a great Russian writer, a great humanitarian, and a fighter against Stalinism. But one day he criticized me. He said, “Gorbachev’s glasnost ruined the country.” I decided to respond immediately. I said that if it had not been for glasnost, there would be no perestroika, no change toward democracy. There would have been no change in our country, no freedom of movement, no freedom of immigration – and then Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would probably continue to live in Vermont, cutting firewood for his fireplace. It was said maybe a little jokingly, but it was exactly true. He was able to return to his country as a result of the changes that happened in our country. He continued to work toward democracy and freedom. But it is an example that even people like him did not fully understand the meaning of what we were doing, even some who had experienced enormous hardship during the old system.
So the moment came when we concluded that the small steps that we had been taking were not producing the expected results, were not allowing people to move forward, to take the initiative. We needed to do something bolder to move toward freedom. We understood that if we just changed the ideology, liberalized the culture, etc., that was not enough. It was necessary to change the system. This is when we announced that we would implement political reforms. And, of course, that’s not just for leaders to do. It’s something the leaders can do only having consulted the people. We initiated a debate on those issues, and, in effect, it was a kind of national referendum that preceded the national party conference that we convened to discuss political change.
The 19th Party Conference, in 1988, adopted amazing decisions. We proclaimed freedom as our goal. We proclaimed the movement toward freedom of speech and freedom of religion and freedom of political choice – all freedoms. People must be free. Only a free individual can respond, can cope with the challenges we were facing at that time. We also decided that, in effect, we would change the entire system and build a system for a free country, a system of political democracy, and that we would implement a democratic constitution based on the right of people to know everything and to be involved in making decisions on all political issues. The conference lasted for 10 days, and during those 10 days, people were watching everything on television. We showed all of it openly. The theaters were empty, because the main show was not in the theaters, but in the Kremlin.
Therefore, we call 1988 the real beginning of perestroika. The previous years were preparation for perestroika – preparation of the society and the party. This was followed by free elections, and perestroika was gaining momentum and addressing the real challenges. The elections actually gave a lot of support to members of the Communist Party. They were competing with other candidates, and on any ballot there were several names. There was a renovation of power as a result. Eighty-four percent of the delegates elected to the parliament were members of the Communist Party, something that had never before happened in our country.
When the Politburo met the next day to discuss the results of the elections, I congratulated members of the Politburo. I said, “This is a victory for us.” But then I saw that members of the Politburo were not in agreement with me about that result, and I said, “Why are you unhappy? We have conducted free elections at the most pivotal time of perestroika, and this vote means support for our reforms and our political course.” But then the Politburo said, “Those are not real Communists.” Well, indeed, the bureaucracy that had ruled the country for decades had now to compete for its legitimacy, to prove whether it was legitimately holding all those positions in a democratic contest without any control. (I would say the only control we had was to make sure that no one undermined the elections.) I think that was the most democratic election of that time and, subsequently, elections were not as free. I believe it was the elections of 1989 and 1990 that were the most free and democratic elections, and during those elections, new people came to power, and this started a real battle against the reformers. That resistance was quite strong.
We did not succeed in fully implementing perestroika the way we wanted to, but we were able to carry it far enough, to the point where there could be no turning back. This has now been proven. The 20 years that have passed since the introduction of perestroika have been difficult, but I believe we have not turned back and can still continue the transformation of our country. The breakup of the union of republics affected very negatively the subsequent course of events in our country. During the time of Boris Yeltsin, shock-therapy reforms were implemented. That shock therapy ruined the financial system, the economy, the industry. We are only now moving toward the levels of production of 1990, which was the last normal year of perestroika. A big blow was dealt to our country. Now I think there is, again, an opportunity to move forward, but a lot of time was wasted, and that is why we have poverty in our country, why we have not been able to rebuild the manufacturing base, and so on.
I would say that Russia today is a country that is in the process of transition. We are moving toward democracy. This democratic transition is only halfway down the road, perhaps a little more. That is why we have seen some setbacks. We are having difficulty fighting corruption and many other problems, and there is a lot of work. I’m saying that to you because you need to understand what is happening in the country. Above all, you need to understand that Russia will not go back, but Russia is facing a lot of problems.
Speaking about the foreign policy of Russia and our relations with the United States, I would say that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, we did not succeed in staying the course in our relations. The opportunities that existed after the end of the Cold War – the opportunities that were opened up by glasnost, by freedom, by democracy – were not used properly. At that same time, we saw that the entire world situation did not develop positively. We saw deterioration where there should have been positive movement toward a new world order. Pope John Paul II, whom I regarded as my friend – we were very close – once said, “We need a new world order, one that is more stable, more humane, and more just.” He said it best; no one has been able to improve on that characterization of a new world order. But we still are facing the problem of building such a world order. We have crises: we are facing problems of the environment, of backwardness and poverty, of food shortages. All of these problems are because we do not have a system of global governance. We are living in a global world. The political prerequisites for a global world do exist, they have been created. But we were not ready and we still have to learn to live in a global world. This is the No. 1 problem, and a lot depends on how countries like the United States will act, how Europe will behave, how Russia will behave.
I must say that I have been disappointed during these past years by many developments. If we look at the course of events of the past 15 years, I would say that we are still living in a time of trouble and confusion, a time when the world needs very clear political reference points, goals for moving toward a future that would be not be one of hostility and divisions but a future that would bring people together. Therefore I say that after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, unfortunately, some people in this country, which remained as the only superpower, began to push the idea of creating a new empire, a special kind of empire. I was amazed when I heard that, including from some American scholars who actually promoted this idea. They stated that the Cold War had been won by the United States, the Soviet Union had been broken up, so why change anything in America – we should just continue in the same way, going toward more triumphs. Now we hear, for example, from Alan Greenspan. A few days ago he was asked what was happening in the economy, and he said, “Well, I don’t understand what’s happening in the economy and I’m confused about what needs to be done.” I am mentioning him as an example. I continue to respect him as a very knowledgeable person, but it means that we are reaping the consequences of a strategy that was not conducive to cooperation and partnership, to living in this new global situation. Instead, I think the kind of vision that existed at that time was pushing us back rather than forward.
I think that today, just about everyone agrees, including here in this country, that the idea of building a global American empire is a bad idea that was mistaken from the start. It was something that failed, and I think it was a political mistake to propose it. More important, I think that people in America are now giving serious thought to the future of their own country, and giving this priority. I believe this is an important change. Six or seven years ago when I spoke to a huge audience in a basketball arena at a university in this country, a young man asked, “Mr. Gorbachev, what would you recommend? What should we do to change things in this country? Things are getting worse. What’s your advice?” I said, “Giving advice to America may not be safe and, secondly, is useless. We are used to America giving advice to everyone, America pushing one model, like instant coffee, to all countries.” But now in America, people understand that that was a mistake that created a mess, that must somehow end. Another young man asked, “President Gorbachev, you are an experienced person, you have given your life to leadership. What is your advice as you are watching what is happening in this country?” I said, “Well, I don’t want to give you a kind of menu or a calendar of change, but I believe that American needs its own perestroika.” The entire crowd gave me a standing ovation. I concluded that change was coming to America. It was a crowd of students, people from politics and business, and just ordinary people.
What we saw during the last presidential election was, I believe, unprecedented, certainly in my lifetime. The entire nation was involved, and all the issues were discussed thoroughly. It was a fascinating experience and ended in a result that maybe surprised America itself. I believe it was the right result. I believe it was the choice of the people, who expressed in this way their expectations and their hopes. I spoke just before this lecture to a person from an American oil company, a company that I know. He is pleased about the cooperation that they established in Russia, with Russian companies. But I must say that when people speak out strongly, in a way that cannot be rejected or ignored, it’s the big corporations, particularly the military-industrial complex, especially in your country and in our country, that are not happy about it. But perhaps, finally, we are witnessing a process when people are becoming sovereign, when they are in control.
I have said to American friends – politicians, scholars, and others, “It looks like you need the military-industrial sector, the defense sector, for your economy to prosper. If that is so, that is a sick economy.” I said that very seriously. I am not saying that to rankle anyone. I am saying these same things to my people at home. So we need to think about this. Those who think about the future, those who want to build prerequisites for the future, to build the tools for democracy and freedom, to build a society at the center of which is the human being, where poverty is abolished – those people will ultimately win, I am sure. It’s very important for the military-industrial complex to understand that, because a lot of brainpower is concentrated in that sector. I believe that that brainpower should move from military plans to other goals, and I believe that the people who are now working there can make a great contribution to change.
A new generation is coming. I see those people sitting here. Some of them will be president, some will be prime minister, and I would like to welcome this new generation. The meaning of your life must be not just to have a good time. Of course, you must have a good time. Young people love life, and that’s important. But young people must think about their country and its future. They must prepare for life and prepare to become the generation that will transform the country and the world. Therefore, I would like to wish these young people the best of health, because you will need a lot of strength to build your life, your family, and your country. Raisa and I married when she was 21 years old and I was 22. We were, at that time, third-year students at Moscow University. I never regretted that decision. We did not do that because of some cold calculation, we did it because of our love, and that was the most important thing.
Questions and Answers
Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss: President Gorbachev, thank you so much for your remarks and for being with us. We have invited questions from students, faculty, staff, and members of our community. I’d like to begin with a question related to the comment you made about the collapse of the Soviet Union. You expressed great regret about the loss of the Soviet Union and you have commented elsewhere that the United States could have, at that time, been more supportive in helping protect the union. My question is how you understand the ways in which preserving the union would have affected the world order today.
President Mikhail Gorbachev: I think the role that the Soviet Union was playing at that time, during the reforms that we implementing, including the foreign policy that the Soviet Union was pursuing in the world during its final years, that would have continued to be an important factor, and I am sure that the two superpowers and the world would have benefited from that. Any project is strong as a result of two factors, its concept, or essence, and the presence of the forces that are capable of implementing the project. I believe that the cooperation that had emerged during the final years of the Soviet Union between us and the United States, which also involved other countries, was a big accomplishment, a big achievement, after the end of the Cold War.
As a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union, we saw attempts to build a global empire. Let me say frankly, in America there were quite a few people who were actually applauding the breakup of the Soviet Union. They did not realize that that was not a good thing. It was a bad thing, including for America. Certainly for us. And then we saw how Americans were watching Russia. When the country’s economy collapsed and two-thirds of our people were living in dire hardship, at that time we had many American guests who commented enthusiastically about what happened. Of course, when ordinary people are misinformed, that’s one thing, that’s forgivable. But even the presidents were applauding those developments. It was then that in Russia, where people had been extremely enthusiastic and even euphoric about the prospects of cooperation with America, the people began sobering up. They were saying, “Well, when we are living so badly, when we cannot rise to our feet, Americans welcome it. They come to Russia to celebrate our hardship.” That was a big lesson for the Russian people.
And Western Europe, at that time, decided to unite, and of course the European Union is a very important association. I believe that the European Union is a successful project, but nevertheless today we see that they went too far. They wanted to expand as much as possible, and right now they find it difficult to digest that expansion. Those difficulties are transitional, but at the same time, the former Soviet republics also existed. Today, all of those nations need cooperation. I have been saying that it is wrong that the process of European union is happening only from the west, whereas when we do something in the east of Europe to create associations, immediately we are challenged by the United States. They say, “Russia is restoring its empire.” We believe that America is a strong nation and a strong partner. I don’t think America should panic, and I don’t think it is panicking. Some politicians are trying to project that idea.
What I would like to see is a process of integration in the east of the European continent. I do not think that at any time there will be any question of rebuilding the USSR. That has been relegated to the past. During the time of the USSR, smaller nations needed that kind of strong association. But now, those republics, the newly independent states, have created their own economies – a good economy or a bad economy is another question, but they have intellectual class, their own specialists, well-educated people, and they want to be sovereign and independent states. I think that is right, but, so far as the need for integration to address the economic problems, commerce, etc., I welcome this.
President Weiss: To follow up on that question, one of our students asked whether you believe that the Putin administration’s gestures toward an alliance are going in the right direction and that this is the right way to go about this objective.
President Gorbachev: I have spoken on the subject quite often. I believe that the model we must pursue is an association of nations, a union of nations, perhaps, that remain sovereign and politically independent. It must not be some kind of a subjugation of other nations, but a kind of association of nations. To illustrate what people think about this in our country, the Gorbachev Foundation has been working on these issues, and we conducted surveys. One such poll was conducted on the anniversary of the breakup of the union. When people were asked whether they regretted the breakup of the union, more than 70 percent of them said they regretted the disappearance of the union. The next question was, would you want a restoration of the USSR, and only 9 percent said they did. That’s very important. You have, for example, NAFTA in North America, and it’s a noble way. But never forget that cooperation should be on the basis of equality. Putin has yet to prove that he respects these rules and this approach. I believe that if he considers the situation seriously, he or others who will follow him, if they develop a policy that respects the sovereign of our independent neighbors, if they recognize the need for equal cooperation in the economy, commerce, etc., then I think he will get support.
President Weiss: I have a question about your career. You built your career on strong personal networks, especially the patron-client networks of Yuri Andropov, and on strong ideas. Reflecting on your career, do you think you overvalued or undervalued either networks or ideas?
President Gorbachev: Well, if we answer this question, what will remain for the college to study? As I understand, today you are inaugurating a research center. That shows that you are among those who will develop the kind of intellectual product that will give people knowledge. I congratulate you on this initiative and I wish you success.
President Weiss: We have seen a number of events throughout the world related to popular uprising against governments, including the Arab Spring phenomenon. One of our students asks how you perceive these uprisings and how they will affect international order in the future.
President Gorbachev: I understand the causes, I understand why people are protesting. Actually, you can describe it in a very simple way. People are speaking out and saying, “Why do you leaders want to decide everything at the expense of the people? Why do people have to answer for all the mistakes of their rulers? The people are doing what they can. You must do what you must do.” And I welcome this approach. I welcome democratic protest. I believe that the right to speak out must exist in all nations, recorded in all constitutions. It’s one of the most important rights. Therefore, no one should panic when seeing such uprisings. The governments should think about what they need to do. In the United States, the big banks, the big corporations are still paying the same big bonuses to their bosses, and the bonuses are even growing. Was there ever a crisis for those people?
President Weiss: You have talked in various ways this evening about progress toward a new world order. You observed that the last election in the United States was a gesture in that direction. Reflecting on the Arab Spring, that seems to be a gesture in that direction. As you leave us this evening, I wonder if you might offer your sense of where we’re headed toward the world global order. Are you optimistic that we can achieve that? And what can our students do about it?
President Gorbachev: I have been thinking long about this and I have concluded that the protests that we are now witnessing everywhere actually are a sign that under very difficult circumstances, the movement toward a new world order is emerging. We cannot leave things as before, when we are seeing that these protests are moving to ever new countries, seeing that almost all countries are now witnessing such protests that the people want change. It means that they are not happy with the kind of world order that exists now. It means that the nations are adapting to the challenges of the new world order. Let me give you an example. Have we moved toward a new world order in the way that this was done in Libya, when bombs and missiles were used against Libya as though Libya were a terrible enemy? I agree that Qaddafi overstayed his welcome, to put it mildly, for 30 years. That’s not democracy. And there were clans ruling parts of the country. Under such a system, people had very little hope, they had to just silently accept it. And of course this never can last forever. I believe that as we are addressing these challenges, these problems that are raised by these protest movements – and these problems need to be addressed by political leaders, by scholars, by civil society – we will gradually find our way toward a new world order. Thank you and goodbye.