I recently received an email from Sharon Tennison, President of the California-based Center for Citizen Initiatives, a grassroots organization promoting, “citizen diplomacy.” Tennison has just returned from a trip to Russia where she had a two-hour long meeting with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Tennison offered to forward any message I may have to Gorbachev. I took advantage of her offer, and sent the following message:
“I have been a columnist for the Virginia Gazette, one of America’s oldest newspapers, for the past 38 years and before that, way back, a foreign correspondent based in Prague, during the Communist regime.
“My wife, Jaroslava, and I, escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1954 and immigrated to the United States in 1958. Here, I became foreign news editor of the Hungarian Daily, in Cleveland, Ohio. Thus, I remained closely connected with events in Eastern Europe.
“It was, and remains my conviction that without the decisions made by you, as president of the Soviet Union, the Cold War would have continued on for another 10-20 years.
“During the Second World War I have witnessed the capacity of the Russian people for suffering, and in spite of all the economic problems that were plaguing the Soviet Union, I believe, it would have not succumbed to outside pressure.”
I included my contact information in the message, but have received no response yet.
In 1993, Gorbachev, the last president of the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union, appeared as a guest speaker at the prestigious Richmond Forum. He was expected to shed light on one of the great mysteries of our time.
Namely, what made him, a dedicated, lifelong Communist, unleash the social forces that led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism?
Getting an answer to this question was not unreasonable, since Gorbachev’s speaking engagements commanded up to $100,000. But his lecture in Richmond, as elsewhere, in the country, lacked this revelation. Nanci Bond, of Williamsburg, was right to ask what made Gorbachev so different from the Soviet leaders who preceded him?
The answer seems to be that Gorbachev, early on, had grave doubts about the ideological underpinning of the brutal and cynical rule of the Communist Party. But it was an encounter with a Czech exchange student in Moscow that may have most influenced his thinking and ultimately his actions.
Zdenek Mlynar, from communist Czechoslovakia, was Gorbachev’s roommate at Moscow University Law School, and his closest friend. Significantly, Mlynar, later emerged as one of the leaders of the reform movement in Czechoslovakia, with the aim of creating “socialism with a human face.” Alas, the Czechoslovak experiment was crushed by Soviet tanks in 1968, and Mlynar was forced to seek asylum in Austria.
But Gorbachev’s thinking later was influenced by Eduard Shevardnadze, a former KGB boss in Soviet Georgia who had firsthand knowledge of the real state of affairs in the Soviet Union. He told Gorbachev, “All is rotten through and through in our country. But we don’t have to live that way.”
Another influence on Gorbachev’s views was Alexander Yakovlev, Soviet ambassador to Canada. During Gorbachev’s first visit to the West, Yakovlev outlined his vision of perestroika and glasnost. He also advised Gorbachev how best reach accommodation with the West.
As William and Mary Professor Marcus Holmes points out in his new book, “Face-to Face Diplomacy,” President Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev, over the course of several summits, cultivated an excellent relationship. It set the stage for the end of the Cold War.
On Dec. 2-3, 1989, President George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev met at a Summit in Malta where they declared an end to the Cold War.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place”, the compilation of his selected columns. The Book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com