Mikhail Gorbachev, the final president of the Soviet Union who died last night, was remarkable both as an international politician and as a domestic reformer. I first met him when he came to London in December 1984, when Mrs Thatcher said that she liked him and could do business with him. He was open, friendly, and spoke without notes: the opposite of his predecessors. Some of Thatcher’s own officials suspected that he was merely an old-fashioned communist who had learned new tricks, and that his charm was seducing her from her clear view of the Soviet threat.
Thatcher was right, and the sceptics were wrong. By that time, the Soviet system was in serious trouble. It could just about keep up with American military technology. Its economy was reeling, unable to give ordinary people what they wanted. People in Eastern Europe and even within the Soviet Union were increasingly ready to take to the streets. The old men in the Politburo saw all this perfectly well: they were not stupid. They chose Gorbachev to put things right because he combined youth, energy, brains, and administrative skill. Their mistake was to believe he was as orthodox as they were.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Gorbachev was loath to spill blood or to send in the tanks. He genuinely understood the way ordinary people felt: he and his peasant family had nearly starved to death in the postwar famine. He started with the old Soviet remedies: rhetoric, discipline, new technology, and a ban on alcohol to exorcise the ancient Russian curse of drunkenness. None of it worked. He turned to more radical measures: a half-hearted loosening of the planned economy, a genuine increase of press freedom, and in March 1989 a remarkable stab at a kind of democracy.