I have been reading obituaries marketing the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, who died yesterday at the age of 91.
Let me begin this post by attesting to how controversial his decision was to begin the series of political reforms that ultimately led to the break-up of the Soviet Union. I know many people today who regret that the USSR ever broke up. Similarly, I know many who oppose totalitarianism in any of its forms, including the kind prevalent in Russia today.
Be this as it may: my intent here does not extend to trying to convince anyone of anything. It is, instead, to reflect on Gorbachev’s decisions and their impact.
I will never forget standing in front of a TV at Chancellor Green at Princeton University, sometime in November 1989, watching the Berlin Wall come down. It was my freshman year at Princeton. There was a powerful sense of unreality to the scene. American society was already totally parochial in terms of international events. Add the pressure cooker of university, where everyone was focused on keeping up with the brutal academic schedule, and very few people seemed to notice, or care.
There were perhaps three of us watching the news. Everyone else was studying. The moment came and went, and I am not sure anyone in the room that night understood its significance and what this would bring about.
A few months before that moment, in April or May 1989, I had accompanied my father on a Fulbright trip to West Berlin. I was a senior at ACS, had already been accepted to university, and was in that strange nether stage where I was neither really invested in the normal high school academic schedule, but nor could I fully escape it.
I remember walking through West Berlin for hours, and then crossing over into East Berlin three times. Once with my father; once by myself; once on a tour bus that visited Potsdam. East Berlin was empty. We must have stood out like fluorescent talking mushrooms. There was an air of sullen resentment everywhere, which I totally understand now. The East German border guards in the U-bahn tried to look strict, but even to me they looked like 18 year old conscripts and it was difficult to feel impressed.
The tour guide at Potsdam told a few of us, before disembarking, that her fondest hope would be to keep riding the bus to West Berlin.
Looking back at those moments, it is hard to believe how far the world has changed. The fall of the Berlin Wall … the subsequent fall of the USSR … the independence of the Baltic States and the other Soviet Republics … the freedom of Eastern Europe and the Balkans … the massive reconstruction that started, and which I have been privileged to play a part in. The massive migrations from east to west; from north to south.
I remember visiting Soviet legacy factories in the former East Germany, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria and quite a few other countries.
I remember the difficulties in shifting emphasis from the engineering and production mentality to one where inputs, outputs and decisions have costs, and consequences. This challenge remains today, no matter where in the world one is.
I remember the social safety net evaporating and people suddenly living with nothing: a worthless currency; no food; no job or income. This challenge equally remains with us today, no matter where in the world one is.
I reflect on what kind of courage Gorbachev must have had to put forward the reforms he did. All his life, he was a member of the elite – mainly through his own hard work, if the narratives are to be believed.
If there is one defining characteristic that I have come to understand about the elite, it is the power of group think. The power of inventing a logical system that protects own interests above all else, and causes you to see the world through a very specific set of subjective and even distorted values.
I encounter this nearly every day in my work, or in the news I read.
And I find myself wondering where a man like Gorbachev found the courage to stand up for something so different.
Agree with it … disagree with it … even to imagine some of what he imagined was no less than a crime against the state. And he went far beyond imagining it.
Looking back at everything that has happened since 1989 reminds me of how far we have come, but also how far we have to go. It reminds me that we live casual moments – like crossing into East Berlin on the wrong metro line, or watching a crowd of people striving for freedom and self-expression – and suddenly these moments transform into the long river of time and decisions that constitute a career, a life, our collective history.
Gorbachev was one of those rare individuals that changed the world through the power of his convictions. A rare personality indeed.
Rest in peace.