I remember, as a boy growing up in Duluth, Minnesota, hearing the song “Russians” on my bedside clock radio. “We share the same biology,” sang Sting, “regardless of ideology/ Believe me when I say to you/ I hope the Russians love their children too.”
Even as kids, we knew who that meant: Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He cut an unmistakable figure, with that fascinating birthmark and appealing smile. Terrified of the prospect of nuclear war, I was heartened when the evening news showed him meeting President Reagan for summits. This is great, I thought. They can just sit down and work out their differences.
Only as an adult did I come to understand how those talks were hamstrung by Reagan’s insistence on the freedom to develop a satellite-based missile defense system that was, and has remained, entirely science-fictional. In his new book What Is At Stake Now, Gorbachev is still trying to get the world to come down to earth.
“I have always believed,” he writes, “and continue to believe, that former leaders should not remain silent, that they have every right to put forward proposals and issue warnings.” That sounds a little defensive, but it’s coming from a man who rose to power in a system that didn’t have a lot of respect for the role of distinguished former statesman. Today, simply in modeling the role, Gorbachev’s implicitly inviting Vladimir Putin to step into it when his term as President of Russia expires in 2024 — an outcome that’s far from certain.
What Is At Stake Now doesn’t criticize Putin too directly; one would like to think a world-famous 89-year-old Nobel Peace laureate wouldn’t fear being murdered by goons, but then, there are a lot of things one would like to think aren’t true in 2020. Gorbachev is such a one, and his short but wide-ranging new book serves as a concise précis of roiling global calamities — from climate change to the rise of authoritarianism to, oh yeah, COVID-19.
Understandably, the book reads as an elegy to a more optimistic time in world affairs. While Gorbachev repeatedly touches on the greatest hits of his time in office (“America needs its own perestroika”), What Is At Stake Now also reminds readers of the broken promises that go beyond arms treaties.
Remember the Earth Charter of 2000? Yeah, me either, but the UNESCO-backed manifesto was a pet project that Gorbachev spent much of the ’90s helping to develop. He quotes the charter’s principles in full, filling a page and a half of his book with eminently reasonable ideas that now seem woefully optimistic.
Among them: “Secure Earth’s bounty and beauty for present and future generations,” “Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner,” “Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels,” “Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.” If Donald Trump has a copy, it’s only to remind himself of what he needs to undo.
The current American president only gets a few mentions in the book, because of course from a global long view, our present dilemma is much larger than Trump. For Gorbachev, it goes back to the end of the Cold War. “Three decades ago, no one doubted that the end of the Cold War was our mutual victory,” he writes. “Instead of acknowledging this, the West declared itself the victor.”
That meant that Russia was disgraced and isolated as its economy collapsed under the inept leadership of Boris Yeltsin after Gorbachev was forced from power amid noisy dissent over the irreversible steps he’d taken to loosen Moscow’s grip on the constituent states of the U.S.S.R. Russians’ understandable grievances fueled the rise of Putin, who now threatens civil society around the globe — not least by tampering with U.S. elections in what Trump, who was conveniently aided by Putin’s 2016 shenanigans, likes to call “the Russia hoax.”
Gorbachev has always found a ready audience in the west, who appreciate his role in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end. Just as Joe Biden’s made his case for election by acting the role of an alternate-universe U.S. leader this year, Gorbachev continues to occupy the world stage as a model of what a Russian leader might sound like if the world had progressed toward peace and mutual aid after the fall of the Iron Curtain — instead of inaugurating a unipolar new world order.
That pole has now fallen, but Gorbachev is still standing. What Is At Stake Now calls on the world to “enable all its peoples and individual denizens to live in safety and security, in judicious union with nature, and in accordance with the demands of reason and morality.” Sadly, that now sounds like science fiction.