Out in the cold
They don't like Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia, but on the world stage he is still a hero. Twenty years after perestroika, Sophie Arie finds its architect troubled by America's plans for the Arab world and standing up for Vladimir Putin
'Good evening", I say, feeling as if I'm standing in front of a bull. Mikhail Gorbachev, the 74-year-old hero of 20th-century politics, is running late. For a moment he gives only a formidable, expressionless stare. Then it breaks into a broad smile, and he charges straight into me. Amid a flow of Russian I find myself being hugged by Gorbachev and I grab on to his tum as he practically carries me down the corridor.
Things aren't exactly going to plan. But somehow, after some negotiation through interpreters and his bodyguard, he is convinced to turn back.
Gorbachev only got to bed at 3am after his flight to Rome as a guest of honour at the World Political Forum was delayed. All day he has been the belle of the ball at an event which brings together cold war-era leaders, freedom fighters and thinkers to celebrate the 20th anniversary of perestroika. There's Lech Walesa, Poland's Solidarity leader, tapping away on a tiny laptop, Eric Hobsbawm, historian, Lord Geoffrey Howe, Margaret Thatcher's deputy in 1989, Milos Zeman, former prime minister of the Czech Republic, and Helmut Kohl.
All day, amid the wooden paneling, marble busts and gold-framed portraits of Turin's military club, hosting the event, this steam-roller of a man has greeted a constant stream of admirers and flashing cameras, hardly stopping for breath.
Surrounded by many more wrinkly and frail contemporaries, some fiddling with hearing aids and canes, he looks strong and energetic He is dressed in a plain, dark suit with a blue striped tie and gold watch. His face is calm and strong. It hasn't changed much in the past 15 years except the double chin is slightly more noticeable and the hair on either side of the trademark wine-coloured birthmark has retreated and turned pure white.
There's a sofa but he chooses to sit on a hard chair. Everything this man does is firm and to the point: he does not shake your hand, he grips it; he does not walk, he strides; he does not chat, he proclaims. As he himself confesses, he does not eat the banquet laid on in his honour, he hoovers up every scrap on his plate.
"I am keeping extremely busy," he says, when asked how he maintains such a pace. "It may sound stupid to you, but I still go to bed at 2am like I did in those days when I had so much work to do. If I were to slow down I would feel worse."
Late nights, early mornings, an "intense" one hour, six kilometre walk followed by hot and cold showers, these are all part of the continuing regime. "That disciplines the body."
He attributes much of his physical and mental strength to his childhood in a peasant farm in the southern region of Stavropol. "From very early on, I did a lot of physical labour," he says. "Even though the food was nothing special, it was all natural and the air was pure."
One third of the residents of Gorbachev's village Privolnoie starved to death during the famine of the 1930s brought on by Josef Stalin's rapid collectivisation of Soviet agriculture. Both of Gorbachev's grandfathers were arrested arbitrarilyby Stalin's secret police.
This didn't put Gorbachev off joining the Komsomol, (the Communist Youth League) in 1946. "In school they kept choosing me to be the leader," he smiles. He stayed in the Stavropol region for another four years, driving a combine harvester on a state farm and winning a state medal for his work bringing in the harvest.
While at law school in Moscow he met Raisa. They married in 1953, and in 1955, when he graduated, the couple moved back to Stavropol. There he rose up through the local Komsomol, specialising in agricultural issues and becoming first secretary of the regional party committee in 1970. In 1980, he became the youngest member of the Politburo and five years later he was elected leader of the Communist party. In 1985, he introduced the social reforms - glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) - for which the world would come to know him and would eventually contribute to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In his "post-presidential" life, he has made himself a full-time job out of campaigning for environmental protection and an end to the arms industry. As founder of the Geneva-based Green Cross International, he travels around the world, and, in Moscow, he heads a thinktank called the Gorbachev Fund. He says he has been issued "one of those government mobile phones" so policy makers can call him for advice.
Only now, he says, is he emerging from the "big blow" of the death of his wife Raisa from leukemia in 1999. "I now feel that I should live and work for both of us," he says.
Does he think the world is a safer place today than it was 20 years ago? "Yes," he replies, without hesitation. "There are many things of concern and a lot of instability in the world today. But given we have avoided the threat of a nuclear war, I think yes."
Like the grey-haired cold-war veterans nibbling on stale biscuits in between their speeches, Gorbachev has a sense of disappointment that instead of the end of the cold war leading to global peace, new conflicts have quickly emerged and people's minds are still being "militarised".
"There are some people who are mentally hard-wired for violence," he insists, launching into a long tirade. "Unfortunately there are too many political leaders who don't like dialogue. Who cannot do dialogue. Who cannot do diplomacy.
"Some people just like to shoot a little bit. Maybe the military need to shoot from time to time. They have all those weapons and shells and missiles. And the defense industry has to keep producing them. So maybe that is the logic ... But that approach has never really solved problems."
While Gorbachev believes "democracy will in the end fit the needs of every nation", he is not getting too excited about recent signs of change in the Middle East.
"It will take time. It will not take tanks it will take time," is his response to the recent elections in Iraq. "If democracy is imposed from the outside on a part of the world where there is Buddhism or Islam ... If attempts are made to impose in a mandatory way all the requirements of western democracy, let's say American democracy, on these parts of the world, well, I don't think that will work."
When it comes to talking about Russia itself, Gorbachev gets edgy and irritable. His eyes widen and he flaps his hand downwards to swipe away a question about the dominance of Vladimir Putin in today's Russia.
"The world does not seem to understand. You can write all kinds of things in the media," he almost shouts. "But Putin has to deal with the reality."
Despite his concern over "an assault on the media", Gorbachev says the fact that two thirds of Russia is living in poverty means that "sometimes specific, limited authoritarian steps may be necessary".
Unlike Putin, Gorbachev is not popular in his own country. On the world stage, he enjoys hero status and basks in the glory of his Nobel Peace Prize. At home, he is still seen by many struggling with poverty and instability as the man who crippled Russia. In a disastrous attempt at a political comeback in 1996, he won less than 1% of the vote.
As his Soviet-era secretary biographer Andrei Grachev puts it: "It turned out to be a much easier thing to transform the world than to transform Russia." Has it been hard to accept that he is more popular with foreigners than his own people?
"That was not hard," he says, leaning forward, his large freckled hands on his knees. "I know why it happened. What people got here (in the rest of the world) was the end of the cold war. The start of nuclear disarmament, free travel, open borders. Of course the Russians got that too. But at the same time Russia had to go through a very profound change. That is a painful process. It affects millions of people. Nevertheless, time changes people's appreciation and judgment. So I am not resentful. In the big scheme of things, I would say I have had a uniquely happy life. I need to thank God for that."