The funeral of Mikhail Gorbachev at the weekend truly represented the end of an era in European history. As a teenager growing up in the 1980s, the Cold War was a completely unreal reality, where grumpy Soviet appeared on Lenin’s tomb in Red Square to wave to the crowds and watch the military parades go by, reminding the world of the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction. Then Mikhail Gorbachev appeared on the scene, smiling, gregarious and charismatic, in sharp distinction to any of his predecessors. For the first time a Soviet leader wanted to engage with not only with Western leaders but the population in general.
I know it's a common affliction on social media when a famous person dies to try to insert yourself into the narrative, but on this occasion, I can confidently say that Gorbachev changed my life! Because of his policies of Perestroika and Glasnost, the Russian airline Aeroflot opened, a new route from Moscow and Leningrad to Dublin. That meant that in 1988, as a geeky 16-year-old, I was able to go on a school trip to the Soviet Union. I had never been on a plane before and ironically chose to fly on the Tupolev 154, the most crashed aeroplane in the world! Travelling in April meant encountering a fair degree of snow and ice and the picture of elderly men swimming in the River Neva amongst floating blocks of ice put me off the activity for life!
What we encountered on that trip was a fair degree of misery and stoic resignation among the population at large. Queues were long - in fact, you had to queue three times in order to make any purchase: once to choose your object, once to pay for it, and once to pick it up! Denim was at a premium and so, as a group, we were often approached by Russian teenagers with offers of roubles for the jeans we were wearing. Our official guide, of course, had warned us that we were under constant surveillance, even pointing out the two KGB agents in the hotel lobby who had been appointed to follow our group. We also got the chance to speak with young Muscovites about their experience living on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I remember one particular guy who was in mourning for his best friend who had just been killed serving in Afghanistan. Plus ça change ....
Little did we know as we took in the splendour of the Moscow Underground or the Hermitage Museum that, within 18 months, the Berlin Wall would be toppled and the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe would crumble with it. I went to the Soviet Union as a socialist and I saw how socialism without democracy could go so wrong. The violence, both physical and especially psychological, inflicted on a people already suffering prior to the Bolshevik revolution, was immense and unforgivable. One of the most poignant visits for me was a trip to the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery and Memorial commemorating the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. It is located outside the city at the very point the Nazis reached in their attempt to invade the Soviet Union. For nearly 900 days, the population of Leningrad was cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union and left without vital supplies food. In the end, around 1.5 million died in the siege, including 650,000 from starvation, but they refused to relent and were eventually relieved when the sea froze and supplies were able to be driven in.
Going behind ‘enemy lines’ was a transformative experience. I grew up in an era of James Bond and Cold War thrillers, so it was hard not to see the Soviet Union as the enemy. Experiencing the surveillance state, even briefly, was exhausting, having to keep looking over your shoulder, constantly aware that you were being watched. Engaging with people who were Europeans but living a life that was completely separate from my own was meant having no shared experiences of culture and having to start from scratch. It revealed the power of politics to divide and separate, to demonise whole populations to the point where conflict becomes a real possibility. Encountering people who were struggling, to be sure, but also tenacious and proud, was humbling and convinced me of the need for real dialogue and reconciliation with those classed ‘Other’. It also began for me a passion for travel and experiencing other cultures and tradition which as not abated.
In the 1990s, while studying at Cambridge, I had the extraordinary privilege of attending a concert at Kings College Chapel to launch a new recording of Rachmaninov’s Vespers. Guest of honour at that concert was Michael Gorbachev, long since deposed as General Secretary of the Communist Party and president of the Soviet Union. The music was divine but what I remember most was the spontaneous standing ovation given to Gorbachev as he left the Chapel. It was a heartfelt thank you to a man who had risked – and lost - everything for the sake of a safer and more peaceful world. Here was truly a prophet and like most prophets, was without honour among his own people. He stands in a long line of leaders – FW De Clerk in South Africa, David Trimble in Ireland, Yitzhak Rabin in Israel - who tried to work from within the system to bring change, and only time will tell whether they were successful. All of them began a process not knowing the outcome and all were eventually overtaken by events.
I think it's important that we honour people like Mikhail Gorbachev who saw leadership as a service to a cause greater than himself. If we are to honour his legacy, we Europeans must not allow the Russian people to be cut off from the rest of the continent again by leaders who are more interested in personal status than the welfare of their population. For 70 years Russia was closed to the rest of the world, left to suffer alone at the hands of some of the greatest mass murderers in history. As difficult as it will be, we cannot allow that to happen again.