March 01, 2011

Gorbachev at 80

In January a photo exhibition opened to honor the 80th birthday of Mikhail Gorbachev, which falls  on March 2: “Mikhail Gorbachev. Perestroika.” Almost simultaneously, on the other side of Moscow, another exhibition, “Boris Yeltsin and His Times,” opened to honor Yeltsin, who would have turned 80 February 1. Clearly the two “first presidents” will forever be bound together by history.

“I never thought that I would get to celebrate my 80th,” Gorbachev said at the opening of his exhibit. “Raisa and I told each other that it would be nice to live to 2000. And I have nothing to brag about; I cannot say that I am a peppy old man. I have started visiting hospitals more often, even checking in, yet I feel that I have to hold on. I am very glad that this exhibition is taking place here. As to the subject of the 80 years of my life, in those 80 years I have lived not one life, but several, perhaps. There were many great joys and terrible losses. Yet my perspective is unchanged: I am a person for whom it is very important in this life to do everything Fate allows to keep people from harm, to give them joy.”

And of course this is the problem so many Russians have with Gorbachev, why he is so unpopular: he inflicted harm with reforms that are widely seen to have been hasty and unrealistic, casting many into poverty. Yes, he opened the floodgates to free expression and free travel, but he also allowed ethnic tensions to explode and let the Union fall apart.

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