Gorbachev celebrates in London

Why did Mikhail Gorbachev decide to have his 80th birthday party abroad? Stephen Dalziel says its because Russians don’t appreciate him.

For me, the UK has long had a strong and intimate connection with Mikhail Gorbachev. I think I know the reason why—fifteen years ago when I first set foot in London, the first question I was asked was about Gorbachev. On the way from Heathrow, the cab driver showered me with questions about him as soon as he learned that I was Russian. He was so happy with our 40-minute talk about Gorbachev that he refused to take payment for the ride and even invited me to dinner.

In the years that followed I became convinced that, for Gorbachev, the climate in the UK was perhaps warmer than in his own country. Why do the British have such sympathy for him? I put this question to Stephen Dalziel, executive director of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce and a former BBC correspondent in Russia.

Dalziel is executive director of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce. Source: Press photo

Stephen Dalziel: It’s really very simple; it didn’t take a deep knowledge of politics or even great analysis. For us in Britain (and many others in the West) Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader ever to try to show that Russians were normal human beings who didn’t want to turn our country (or the world) into a Communist dictatorship! He was young and dynamic (unlike his predecessors); he had an attractive wife; he looked as if he were genuinely interested not only in improving life for his own people, but also in improving relations with the rest of the world.

Russia Beyond the Headlines: Mikhail Gorbachev is often compared to Margaret Thatcher because both have gained more recognition abroad than at home. Is that a valid comparison?

S.D.: Not quite, although it is not surprising that they are compared, as they were in power at the same time and certainly were strong figures in their own political systems. But I think that, even though Thatcher was heavily criticized in Britain (particularly towards the end of her time in power) many look back at her legacy now with the realization that what she did was necessary to modernize the country. I don’t think there’s the same percentage of Russians who feel that way about Gorbachev; I wish there were! I think it will take another couple of generations for a rational, sober assessment of Gorbachev by Russians for his achievements to be acknowledged properly.

RBTH: The London gala in honor of Gorbachev drew a skeptical and even angry reaction from many Russians, who did not understand why Gorbachev had chosen to mark his birthday abroad. There was some skepticism even in the British press, surprised to learn that one of the key figures in tearing down the Iron Curtain is about to celebrate his 80th birthday among the rather silkier curtains of the Royal Albert Hall, at a gala concert featuring the unlikely combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Major, Shimon Peres, Sharon Stone and Mel C from the Spice Girls. There were more than a few raised eyebrows. It is indeed an unprecedented event. It is hard to imagine Thatcher publicly celebrating her jubilee at New York’s Carnegie Hall or [Vaclav] Havel marking his in Moscow. In your opinion, is it logical and reasonable that Gorbachev chose London for his political Oscar ceremony?

SD: Unfortunately, yes, for the reason I’ve just mentioned. Another aspect, though, is that Russia (and Russians) have still to come to terms with the concept of charitable donations; it’s one of the parts of the legacy of the Soviet Union that has been very difficult to shake off.

Much that Gorbachev has done in the West – and specifically in the UK – has been to raise money for charities, even charities in Russia. It’s still much easier to do that in the West than in Russia. And if he had to chose to have his big celebration outside Russia (which I think sadly he did have to do, because of the continuing negative attitude in Russia), where better than London(grad)?! Many forward-thinking (yes, and also many rich) Russians have chosen to settle here or at least spend a significant amount of time here. It’s a rational decision.

RBTH: You’ve met with Gorbachev. What was it about the man that struck you most?  

S.D.: I interviewed Gorbachev three times between 1992 and 1997. On the first occasion he was still full of his own opinions; it was less an interview than a lecture from him! But on each subsequent occasion it became much more of a conversation. He’d become a better listener. And maybe that was part of his problem, especially in the crucial period (politically) of 1989-1991. However, on each occasion I came away convinced that he was (and is) a sincere man. He sincerely wanted to improve the lot of the Soviet people. He was very rational; I remember on the first occasion asking him if he felt he’d made a mistake in 1987 when he/the Politburo removed Boris Yeltsin from the post of Moscow party boss but allowed him to stay on in the capital as Deputy Minister for Construction. As I said to Gorbachev, if he’d sent Yeltsin back to Sverdlovsk that would probably have been the last anyone at the center (let alone the rest of the world) would have heard about him. But Gorbachev refused to say that he should have sent Yeltsin packing. And as he’s got older I think he’s become more philosophical.


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