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Михаил Горбачёв

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Dmitry Semenido

My Mikhail Gorbachev

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU Mikhail Gorbachev on the XVIII Congress of the CPSU. Photo by Boris Kavashkin and Dmitry Sokolov /TASS Newsreel/.

On August 30th Mikhail Gorbachev died, the last General Secretary of the last CPSU Central Committee, the first and only president of the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that for the last 30 years Mikhail Sergeyevich had led the life of an honorary pensioner, his death has stirred up the media space and, as usual, split society into two camps. The first camp was expected to exude curses: "finally!", "rust in peace!", "burn in hell!", the other camp praised Gorbachev as "a ray of light in the dark kingdom", "the father of Russian democracy", "the mind, honor and conscience of the nation", "peacemaker" and in general "the most humane human."

It always seemed to me that both poles were equally far from reality. And that is why I also decided to write something. However, I did not want to write a boring analysis of figures and facts, or a laudatory ode. Since I am in some way a "living witness" of the Gorbachev era, I decided to "interview myself" and recall what it was like for me and our family.

Farewell to Stagnation*

I was lucky to catch the last years of a relatively stable era, in which, as Nautilus Pompilius** sang, "poverty was guaranteed." When Brezhnev was buried, I was only one year old. Mom was watching TV, holding me in her arms. The funeral went on so slowly that we dozed off. Then there was a loud crash (they say the coffin was accidentally dropped), and we woke up.

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

Leonid Brezhnev's funerals on November 15th of 1982

The epochs of Andropov and Chernenko flashed by so quickly that they were not deposited in memory. After all I was too young to remember anything. Later I was even surprised to know there were such rulers because their names were never mentioned.

*In Gorbachev era it was common to call "Stagnation" the previous historical period (aprox.1964-1982) of Leonid Brezhnev when the dramatic inefficiency of the Soviet economy was compensated by high oil revenues.
** a Soviet rock-band known for its acute social themes in songs

A young man in a gray hat

But I do remember the excitement caused by Gorbachev's appointment (there were no national elections of the General Secretary). His first visit as a leader of the Soviet state he made to my home-city Leningrad, where he uttered the historical phrase: "we all need to rebuild, all of us!".

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

Dialogue with the people on Victory Square in Leningrad, May 1985.

That time many Soviet women found him charming.

"He's so young!" said Grandma. At the time of coming to power, Gorbachev was 54 years old, he had a bald spot, and he was gray-haired. That's how I understood the essence of the theory of relativity. For me, Gorbachev was a grandfather, but relative to other general secretaries (Andropov died at 69, Chernenko at 73, Brezhnev at 75), he seemed unusually young and active to the people.

Also, women were impressed how much he loved his wife Raisa Maksimovna — it was indisputable. They walked together, holding hands, like teenagers. At the same time, Raisa herself was rather disliked. People called her "Rayka", for some reason she annoyed many of them with her appearance alone.

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachevs, mid 80s

Every evening I saw Gorbachev on the evening news program "Vremya" ("Time"). Like a character of a political reality show, he appeared in a gray hat or in a funny forked fur hood.

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

Two Gorbachev’s outfits

In summer, he went bareheaded, and sometimes the wind blew his hair up a lot. But he was not afraid to look funny because that way he looked natural and people feel false very well.

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

Wind of Change

The new Leader regularly practiced going to the people, gathering factory workers, miners, or just passers-by around him. At first, such a direct dialogue was a novelty. Questions from the crowd were shouted out spontaneously, sometimes two or three at once. They were covered with loud laughter (he knew how to light up the audience!) and applause which created the effect of a live dialogue and not a rehearsed performance.

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

Gorbachev in Helsinki, Finland, September of 1990

Gorbachev answered every question so long and thoroughly that when he fell silent, everyone already forgot what they were asking him.

"He didn't say anything!" my grandpa was getting angry, trying to hear some specifics in his words.
"Talker," Grandma echoed.

Soviet stand up comedians vied with each other to parody Gorbachev's specific manner of speaking. I confess, I also repeatedly tried to speak like Gorbachev — making soft "g" and replacing "v" with "u" with characteristic intonations, but, of course, we all were terribly far from the original!

"There is no such word as thinkin’!" - my grandpa whose ancestors lived in empire Saint-Petersburg felt irritated when Gorbachev, whose ancestors were simple farmers at the South of Russia, pronounced words in wrong way.

In the same time, to make his speeches seem significant, Gorbachev used lots of scientific terms. From his submission, the Soviet usage included: "pluralism", "consensus", and "intensification".

When Gorbachev spoke on congresses, he gesticulated so vigorously that our cat Katya, tried to catch him, sitting on top of the TV.

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

Mikhail Gorbachev at the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR

His birthmark was discussed too — there was a rumor that in Bible there is a prophecy that the last ruler of Russia will be a "marked prince". However, it was impossible to verify this information, since the original source was not available for sale. To me, this spot always reminded of a small island on a geographical map and seemed pretty cool.

Live history

The Gorbachev’s antialcohol campaign did not affect our family - no one drank at home, but there always was vodka. It was stored into the piano - for doctors, plumbers and other craftsmen — as a "currency".

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

Right on the eve of Chernobyl, my dad, who worked as an engineer at the Krasny Khimik ("Red Chemist") plant, was sent on a business trip to Ukraine. The authorities were silent for several days about the fact that there was a catastrophe.

Grandpa, who listened to "enemy voices"* at night, was the first to learn about the explosion at the nuclear reactor. But since there were no statements on television, Dad didn't believe him.

"Your father is always talking nonsense," he said angrily to my mom, packing his suitcases. But then the radioactive cloud reached Sweden, and the Scandinavians shouted so loudly to the whole world that the Soviet authorities had to admit what had happened. To hush up the trouble longer would be a crime.

Now, walking around the market, my grandma persistently asked "where the fruits came from." Chernobyl apples have become a joke, as the best "cure" from an annoying mother-in-law. The cans from Belorussian factories also became a taboo. Radiation affected that republic very strong.

*In USSR the Western radio stations that spread anti-Soviet propaganda (e.g. BBC Russian Service, Voice of America, Radio Liberty) were traditionally called the "enemy voices". To prevent Soviet people from getting alternative sources of information, KGB used jamming stations that interfered with the frequencies of the enemy voices.

"Gorbachev sold your mothereland to hang out nicely!"*

The significant part of the time Gorbachev spent abroad, and from the outside it really looked like some kind of "hangouts" of the world elite. The names of Reagan, Thatcher, Mitterrand and Kohl sounded endlessly on TV. Despite years of propaganda, which, it would seem, was supposed to instill in Soviet people a persistent hatred of Western leaders, there was no negativity towards them. There was great interest and a joyful feeling that the country was opening up to the world.

I must say that Gorbachev looked very decent on TV. He always smiled openly and broadly, having the interlocutors in advance. My mother's gaze noted that he always wore a suit perfectly fitted to his figure.

Without delving into world politics, children quickly made Gorbachev and Reagan the heroes of jokes. The character of one of them could not get into prison in any way. In despair, standing in the middle of Red Square, he shouted: "Gorbachev and Reagan are digging in the garbage!". Reagan looked out of the dumpster and said, "Misha, we've been spotted."

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

Gorbachev 'hangs out nicely' with Reagan in Geneva, Switzerland

Now I understand that there was nothing to envy here, and these hangouts for Gorbachev were not fun at all. There he begged for loans for the Soviet Union, seeing in response the sour faces of Western colleagues who set him their conditions, sometimes impossible. But all this remained behind the scenes. If now every word spoken at the highest level is documented and widely discussed in the media, then we saw only the external side - briefings in palaces in front of TV cameras, wide smiles, strong handshakes, friendly pats on the shoulder. Who would like this: the country is a mess, and he does not get out of abroad?

*a taxi-driver’s remark from a popular Russian movie "Brother-2" by Alexei Balabanov from 2000.

The Pozner-Donahue TV bridges

Another symbol of detente was TV bridges ("Space bridges" in English) — now an almost forgotten kind of TV show, where two studios worked simultaneously — one in Moscow, the other in America, each with its own audience. Viewers from both sides of the ocean had the opportunity to send greetings to the "parallel universe" and ask questions to "aliens". That time Vladimir Pozner's star has risen on Central Television. His overseas colleague had a somewhat discordant for Russian ear surname "Donahue". They were perceived as one whole, and were called in one word "Poznerdonahue".

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

Vladimir Pozener at a TV bridge, 1987

I didn't understand anything about TV bridges myself, but when I couldn't sleep during a "quiet hour" in kindergarten, I often heard the teachers asking each other: "Did you watch the TV bridge yesterday?". In the evening, when our parents came for us, they also discussed TV bridges. In terms of ratings, TV bridges on Soviet television have overtaken even figure skating!

May Day without Lenin

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

I remembered the May Day demonstrations as something very fun - music was playing, the sun was shining, children were carrying balloons and red flags "Miru Mir!" ("Peace to the World!"). On each house hung a red flag with a blue stripe — the flag of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

Our parents took us for a walk around the festive city, buying ice cream - yellow lemon popsicle. Street orchestras were playing everywhere. And in the evening there was a festive fireworks. No one brought up communism, Marx or Lenin, for most people it was a celebration of spring, the joy of its onset! Red flags, balloons, music greeted the awakening of nature.

When later our parents regretted that it was gone, I understood they had nostalgia for their youth, for the times when life was simple and when the onset of spring still brought joy, and not because the role of Lenin was revised in Russia.


Another Gorbachev innovation was cooperatives — an early, transitional form of business, permissible under socialism. To distinguish cooperative kiosks from state stalls, they wrote "КООП" ("COOP") on them.

Compared to the beginning of the 90s, when almost all the free space was filled with stalls and kiosks, in the 80s there were not so many — probably one at each bus stop. Sometimes they sold goods that were not available in state stores. As a kid, I was mostly interested in bananas. I loved them very much, but they did not sell them anywhere. Only once I saw them in the window of our vegetable shop on Krasnoputilovskaya Street.

- Yay! Bananas! I exclaimed.
- This section is only for war invalids, - grandpa objected, - we need to go to Uncle Leonid and take his certificate to buy them.

In cooperative stalls, bananas were sold without certificates, but they costed way more. Also they were completely green. Without waiting for them to get yellow, I gnawed them as they were.

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

A lonely cooperative kiosk in Leningrad, late 80s

The prices of the cooperators were higher, which caused fierce hatred among people who had been accustomed to fixed prices for many years. The word "cooperators" quickly became a curse, it was pronounced through clenched teeth, sometimes adding "damn".

In one of these stalls I saw bubble gum for the first time. The guys from kindergarten have told me before that they tried the Czechoslovakian bubble gum "Pedro" on summer break in Crimea, now I finally saw it with my own eyes! There were two kinds: Donald (from Western Germany) and Turbo (from Turkey), the rest of the kiosk's assortment did not interest me.

Hello, school!

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

In September of '89, I went to the first grade. In each classroom, a typical portrait of Lenin hung above the blackboard. I liked to look at the rhombs on his tie. Another Lenin, a plaster one, was standing in the recreation area. There were ceremonial events held near it.

Brought up in respect for Soviet traditions, I looked at the young pioneers with mute awe, their red ties seemed to me unusually bright and beautiful. "The pioneer is an example to everyone", he speaks only the truth, helps the elderly and studies perfectly… Soon two of them pinned me and my friend in a corner and searched our pockets, kicked us away.

A month later, we were initiated into Little Octobrists* at the local Palace of Culture named after I. Gaza. For the sake of such an occasion, my mother took time off from work. Mom's boss didn't want to let her go:
"They don’t initiate into Little Octobrists anymore!" he insisted.
"No, they do. And for my son it’s an important day" – objected mom.

When I was called to the blackboard for the first time in my life, the teacher asked me to write the word "communist".

In April of the following year, we celebrated the 120th anniversary of Lenin at the solemn assembly. A month earlier, the III Congress of People's Deputies abolished the leadership role of the Communist Party.

Мой Михаил Горбачёв

A solemn assembly in our school, 1990. There should be me somewhere in the crowd

*Little Octobrists (in Russian "oktyabriata") a term that appeared in 1923–1924, and at that time referred to children born in 1917, the year of the October revolution. Later, the term was used as the name of a youth organization for children between 7 and 9 years of age. After the initiation Octobrists used to wear a little metal pin looking like a star with a portrait of young Lenin on their jackets. After the age of nine, in the 3rd grade, Little Octobrists would typically join the Young Pioneer organization. Pioneers also had pins but with adult Lenin with a flame on background and wore red ties represented as parts of the big red flag.

End of Chapter 1


фото Михаил Горбачёв
Основная информация
ИмяМихаил Горбачёв
Полное имяМихаил Сергеевич Горбачёв
Дата рождения2 марта 1931 г.
Место рожденияПривольное, Медвеженский район, Северо-Кавказский край, РСФСР, СССР
Дата смерти30 августа 2022 г.
Место смертиМосква, РФ


Виды деятельностиСоветские политики

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