Mikhail Gorbachev is dead at the age of 91, and in a way I feel orphaned. I became fascinated by what was still then the Soviet Union in its late years of sclerosis, when one moribund geriatric at the top of the system succeeded another (the dark joke at the time went as follows: a KGB guard stopped someone at one of the state funerals and asked him if he had a pass – ‘oh,’ came the reply, ‘I’ve got a season ticket’). But my early years as a Russia-watcher were during his time as General Secretary, and if my seniors had become used to the idea that the USSR was a stagnant, unchanging police state, for us, the thought that there could be change, even change for the good, was baked into our assumptions.
My deeply unfashionable belief that Russia can change for the better, that it can someday find its way back into the European family of nations, is a by-product of this era. Not because Gorbachev was a saint or a prophet, but because the forces he liberated and which, ironically, eventually did for him, demonstrated the hunger for something different, above all for that sense of public participation.
His new parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, was elected through a carefully-engineered system that ensured it was heavily packed with communists. Nonetheless, when it first sat in May 1989, there were still radicals, nationalists and conservatives, all willing to say their peace, and even communist parliamentarians, emboldened or seduced by the debate, began to break from the party line. The wider population was so enthralled by the sight of a legislature that was more than just a choreographed sham, so glued to their radios and TVs, that economic productivity dipped to the point that they discontinued live broadcasts.
Of course, Gorbachev failed.