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Last Updated: Friday, 19 December, 2003, 18:11 GMT
'Forgotten' Gorbachev speaks out

By Hugh Fraser
BBC World Service reporter in Moscow

There was a touch of 'Sunset Boulevard' about meeting the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

Mikhail Gorbachev
Gorbachev: Largely ignored by the people of his own country.
In the words of Norma Desmond, the fading actress in the Hollywood movie: "I am big. It's the pictures that got smaller."

If Mr Gorbachev were to use similar words, he might have a fair point.

No leader since Vladimir Lenin changed his country so profoundly.

And yet, despite his achievements, at 72 and in good mental and physical health, Mr Gorbachev is largely ignored by the people of his own country.

Blame Yeltsin

Mr Gorbachev's faithful assistant, Pavel Palazchenko, who translated for him throughout the great power-summits of the 1980s, likes to refer to his boss as "The President".

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev
General Secretary, Polit Bureau, Central Committee, Communist Party of the Soviet Union - 1985-1991
Unleashed free enterprise and competition
Allowed newspaper and broadcasters to criticise their leaders
Ended the Communist Party's monopoly on Power
Ended Soviet occupation of Afghanistan
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Sanctioned the fall of the Berlin Wall

But while awaiting the arrival of "The President" in the fireside room at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow, the small talk with Mr Palazchenko did not go well.

A joke about seeing a bar in the corner of the room was greeted with a stony face.

Mr Gorbachev was famous for his virulent campaign against alcoholism, but Mr Palazchenko insisted: "The President is not a teetotaller."

He added that in the mass unpopularity caused by the closing of alcohol shops in Moscow was the fault of Boris Yeltsin, then head of the Communist Party in Moscow, not Mr Gorbachev.

"Yeltsin often had a tendency to go too far," he said.

The view that Mr Yeltsin was to blame for a lot of things proved to be theme of the interview with Mr Gorbachev.

Mr Gorbachev cut a friendly and avuncular figure, his baritone voice filling the room.

Every answer began slowly and deliberately, and his regional accent remained strong: Mr Gorbachev was born in southern Russia, near the border with Ukraine.

His accent was much mocked by Soviet comedians in the time of perestroika, Mr Gorbachev's period of change.

But the very fact that they were allowed to make fun of the Soviet leader on national television was a huge tribute to the liberal policies he introduced during his presidency.

Persistent talk

Mr Gorbachev was famous for his lengthy speeches.

He still likes to give lengthy answers to every question, considering the issue from all sides.

Great figures like Shevardnadze never withdraw entirely from political life. Perhaps his star will shine less brightly in the constellation, but it will shine none the less
Mikhail Gorbachev
When asked about Eduard Shevardnadze, his former foreign minister who has just been ousted as president of Georgia, he responded with an account of the history of Georgia since 1917.

Any attempt to interrupt him with additional questions would be met with a huge, raised hand, like that of a policeman telling the traffic to stop.

Again, Mr Gorbachev concluded that Mr Yeltsin was to blame, that the mess in Georgian politics was largely the fault of his meddling in the region during the 1990s.

Shining star

But what about the current leadership?

Does the father of glasnost (openness) approve of the way the current President, Vladimir Putin, brooks little or no criticism in public?

Yet again, Mr Yeltsin was blamed.

Mr Gorbachev's argument went a bit like this: Mr Yeltsin created chaos in Russia. Now Mr Putin must use some repressive means to establish democracy.

So what about Mr Gorbachev's old friend, Mr Shevardnadze - is his political life over?

"Great figures like Shevardnadze never withdraw entirely from political life. Perhaps his star will shine less brightly in the constellation, but it will shine none the less," he says.

And for a brief moment, it seemed as if "The President" was also talking about himself.


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