Monday, November 11, 2002
TIMOTHY COLTON: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am Timothy Colton, a Professor of Government, and Director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
I am most pleased to welcome you here today, and especially to welcome our honored guest, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former President of the Soviet Union. It is fitting that this meeting take place on an international day of remembrance of historic events. Our focus here is not World War I, which the country commemorates today. Nor is it the Russian Revolution of 1917, which also had an anniversary this month. Or even at perhaps a different level of historical gravity, the anniversary of the death of Mr. Brezhnev, the last of the old time Soviet leaders who, by coincidence, died 20 years ago yesterday.
Our focus, instead, is the remarkable chain of events that began with Mr. Gorbachev’s selection as leader of the Soviet Union in March 1985. And that, in less than seven years, led not only to the liberalization and partial democratization of the USSR, and not only to a first wave of economic reforms, but also to the end of the Cold War and, indeed, to the end of the Soviet Union as a unified state.
We have, today, a special chance to hear reflections on the era of Perestroika from the man who, more than anyone, made it happen. Our format will be straightforward. President Summers, of our own university, will introduce our speaker. Mr. Gorbachev will deliver prepared remarks for approximately 45 minutes, after which he will entertain questions from the floor.
I will moderate the Q&A, and will bring the program to a close at 5:30 sharp. I ask you, please, to be sure to turn off all cell phones, if you haven’t already. And also to consult the fine print on your tickets about rules concerning photographs and tape recordings.
It is now my privilege to introduce the President of Harvard, Larry Summers. President Summers studied at MIT and Harvard Universities. Rose like a rocket in the economics profession. And became a full Professor of Economics at Harvard at the age of 30.
In 1991, he took leave to work as Chief Economist to the World Bank. His stay in Washington was extended for the rest of the decade, as he served in succession as Under Secretary, Deputy Secretary, and then Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton Administration. He returned to Cambridge in 2001 as the 27th President of Harvard University.
During his time at the Treasury, Larry was an integral member of the team that helped develop American policy toward the now 15 states of the Former Soviet Union. He and others in the Administration worked in cooperation with pro-reform forces in Russia and other countries, with an eye to accelerating and consolidating the transformation to a more open and more market-based economy that was begun under the leadership of our guest this afternoon. President Summers. [Applause]
PRESIDENT LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS: Thank you very much, Tim. And, I want to begin by thanking you, by thanking the Davis family, by thanking all of those associated with the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies not just for the remarkable opportunity that the University has today, but what has been accomplished over a very long time.
I see here Professor Bergson, Professor Pipes, Professor Fields. These are men whose learning, whose study, whose understanding of developments in the Soviet Union, in Russia, have contributed immeasurably to the progress that the world has made in not just understanding history, but in shaping history.
I don’t know which of them, and at what point, could have imagined the developments of the last 15 years with the end of the Cold War. Students here are too young to remember what the world was like at the height of the Cold War. Let me just remark that my elementary school had fire drills. And it had civil defense drills. And it had them with roughly equal frequency because of the Cold War.
It is not given to any of us predict how history will be written two centuries from now. But I think it can fairly be said that there are few people who strode the world stage during the last quarter of the 20th century who are as likely to occupy a prominent place in those history books as our guest today, Mikhail Gorbachev. For history shaped Mikhail Gorbachev. And Mikhail Gorbachev shaped history.
Born in March of 1931 in the Stavropol province of the Soviet Union, he attended Moscow State University, and graduated with a law degree. He rose through a variety of senior government and Communist Party positions. Became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1972. Became the youngest member of the Politburo in 1980. And ascended to the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, and held that position for six extraordinarily significant years, until December 25th of 1991.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost set in motion dynamic changes in the shape of the world that have meant opportunity, that have meant a chance at freedom, that can mean greater prosperity for hundreds and hundreds of millions of people.
And Mikhail Gorbachev did something that has been done rarely, if ever, in history. He set in motion such a transition without the tragedy of mass violence. We do not have memorials to the end of the Cold War in the way that we have memorials to the dead of World War I or to the dead of World War II. And that is a tribute to many men. But it is very much a tribute to the remarkable efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Tolstoy once wrote that “the vocation of every man and woman is to serve other people.” Mikhail Gorbachev has served his country. He has served his era. And he has served humanity. It is a great honor to welcome him to Harvard University. Mikhail Gorbachev. [Applause]
MIKHAIL GORBACHEV (Translator): Thank you very much. Thank you all for having come here. And, thank you for your interest in me and my work, but particularly for your interest in Perestroika, your interest about the time that was mentioned here, the period that was mentioned here by President Summers, the period that has had a tremendous impact on the developments in my country, in Europe, and in the world, a period that, indeed, changed dramatically the relationship between our two nations.
And that new relationship had tremendous importance, tremendous impact on all further developments in the world. It made it possible to take decisions that meant a new approach to world affairs, a new approach to cooperation. I believe that it was a preparation, to some extent, a preparation for our common work, our common concern, to be well-equipped for a new century, the 21st century.
Professor Marshall Goldman, yesterday–by the way, Professor Goldman whom I’ve known for a long time, and known well for a long time, who is one of the leading scholars in the Davis Center. And I also would like to recognize the work of this Center that has been studying our country for several decades.
Professor Goldman, yesterday, showed me a clipping from your University newspaper. And, it shows the line of people lining up for invitations, for tickets, to this lecture. So, I have to thank you all for this interest. The line reminded me of something. [Applause] It reminded me of the lines queuing for vodka during the anti-drinking campaign.
My life, my already long life, included 50 years in politics. I went through all the steps on the ladder of the political career. And that included leadership positions at a municipal level for ten years. I was the head of what we call a region, what you, here in this country, call a state. So, I was the equivalent of a state Governor in my country. But I was not an elected leader.
Following that, I worked for seven years as a member of the Politburo. For four years, I worked together with Brezhnev, then with Andropov and Chernenko. So, it was a long political road. And I knew our whole political system inside out. And it was that long path, and that long experience that ultimately resulted in certain conclusions that I drew. And those conclusions were at the basis of my policy during the years of Perestroika.
I think I was a reliable partner. Had I not been a reliable partner in that party nomenclature, I would have been kicked out. And, a song has all the words. And, this was part of my song. I liked to take the initiative. And I liked people who acted independently, and took the initiative.
Let me tell you, very frankly, that so far as the party career is concerned, it was not, so to say, a big deal for me. I didn’t have a passion to accomplish a big career. Some people want a big, a successful career so much that their head begins to swim.
I actually wanted, three times, to leave Soviet politics. And, on one occasion, I was ready to go into the academic world. I passed the exam. And I was ready to go into that academic world. But then I was elected First Secretary of the Regional Party Committee. And, when I decided to remain in politics, and from that time on, all my forces, all my knowledge was aimed at doing something in that area.
For me, an extremely important matter was the issue of dignity. And, I never agreed with anyone who tried to humiliate me, to humiliate my dignity. I am a person who is ready to compromise. But, compromise should not be at the expense of the values and goals. And compromise should not include a loss of self-esteem, a loss of face, a loss of dignity.
In all situations, I remained cool. I don’t know where that came from. Maybe it’s just a natural ability. The thing I hate most is betrayal. And I have been betrayed many times. I am naturally committed to a Democratic approach. I’ve always valued a Democratic atmosphere in relations between people. And I never tolerated loose and irresponsible attitudes.
I’ve always thought that if people unite for some objective, for some goal, they should act without being nudged, without being pushed. They should take the initiative. They should take responsible initiative.
My creed has always been to select a team of strong individuals, not to be afraid that one of them will become a competitor to me. Of the people who worked with me, in different years, five became the secretaries of regional party committees, deputies to Supreme Soviet members of the Central Committee.
I wanted to say to you, as an introduction to what I have to say, that all of these things are important. This is how I view myself. I think that this, in a way, defined my subsequent decisions and activities. And, another important thing is the impact of Moscow University. Perhaps, had it been another university, not Moscow University, it would have been different. It was Moscow University that had a defining impact on me.
I have said that I lived in different eras. I remember the pre-war era. I remember the years of repression, the years of summary arrests. My family, too, was affected by repression. I saw the war firsthand. I lived in the territory occupied by the Nazis, by the Germans. And then I saw how people worked to rebuild the country. And, therefore, there is a big patriotic charge in me.
I represent a generation of people who were shaped and who became mature individuals after World War II, the people who were better educated, the people who were profoundly impacted by the 20th Congress of the Communist Party where Khrushchev criticized Stalin for the first time. This was, for us, a breath of fresh air, a breath of freedom. And that breath of freedom remained with us for all time. Those who started in politics at that time had a critical approach, and retained a critical approach to everything.
I have to say that my party career, even though it was quite long, was quite successful. And, telling you all this, I would like to not only give you some facts of my career, but also to help you to understand why a person who grew within the system, within that system, could come to thoughts and conclusions that ultimately shaped the concept of Perestroika.
Even today, some people are still debating whether Perestroika was inevitable, whether it was necessary. I must say that we, in the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow, decided to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the beginning of Perestroika. And, we decided to do it by conducting an opinion poll.
The Russian Academy of Sciences helped us to conduct that poll in the various regions of the country. We asked the Russian people whether reforms were necessary, whether they ought to have been launched. At that time, 42% said yes, absolutely, reforms were necessary. Forty-five percent, however, said no, no, they never should have been started. So, this shows the attitude ten years after the beginning of Perestroika.
Nevertheless, I believe that this is very positive, that the response is actually very positive. Half the people of the country, half the population agrees that Perestroika was necessary. And that was happening, by the way, the poll was happening in 1995, in 1995 when people had been badly affected by the breakup of the country, by the shock therapy, the destructive impact of the cowboy method of economic reform, when most of the people in Russia lived in poverty and hardship. Nevertheless, 42% said yes, Perestroika was necessary.
And, even more than that, in that poll, I was affected by other replies. For example, people were asked what they thought about the rescinding of Article Six of the Soviet Constitution, under which the Communist Party was the leading force, the dominating force in the country. People were asked what they thought about political pluralism. People were asked what they thought about the Democratic changes, what they thought about the freedoms and rights of the individual.
For the first time in Russia’s thousand year history, there had been free elections. So people were asked what they thought about that, and also about freedom of religion. And to all those questions, 60 to 70% of the people answered positively, answered yes.
And I believe that this, in a way, is an endorsement. And this is ground for hope that, after a period of hardship and difficulty, after learning how to use the new Democratic freedoms and rights, the new Democratic tools, the people will be able to pull the country out of the crisis, out of the continuing crisis, and to build a new Russia, to build a free and Democratic Russia.
Over the past few years, the same polling organization, the Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, has been conducting polls. And, they have been asking people what kind of Russia would you like to live in. Eighty percent of the people, every year, reply, “We want to live in a free and Democratic Russia.”
So, from this standpoint, we can say, even today, that Perestroika has succeeded. People don’t want to go back. The clock cannot be turned back. There is no force that could succeed. And this is particularly true among young people.
A few days ago, I had a meeting with the students of Moscow University, the School of Economics. And, I have been talking to them. I was talking to them for about 40 minutes. I told them about my path in politics. And then I answered their questions for two hours. And they had about 100 questions that I had to answer. And I saw that the young people in Russia are really interested and concerned. And all their questions assume that we need to continue to move forward by preserving our freedoms and our rights by preserving the Democratic gains of Perestroika.
I faced an audience of people like you, 20, 22. Fifteen or 17 years ago, they were still toddlers. Today, they live in a different country. They were shaped by a different country. And they have a different vision. And I believe this is extremely important. They will be shaping Russia, the Russia of the future.
Perestroika was needed, was necessary, first of all, because of our own domestic reasons. But there were also important international reasons why we needed Perestroika. In the very first years of Perestroika, our famous writer, Chinkisa Matov(?) organized a conference in Kirghizia to which he invited outstanding people from many countries, including America, including American academics and artists.
And I had a meeting with them soon after my meeting with President Reagan in Reykjavik. And, the discussion with those outstanding thinkers prompted me to make a statement about what is of priority importance. I said, at that time, that, of course, there are class interests, group interests, and national interests. But I said there are also universal human interests.
I remember, years ago, Professor Kliman, who was the lecturer in Criminal Law in Moscow University, he sometimes had problems with his throat when he spoke. He really had a bad throat. And so, he had to drink a lot of water during his lectures. And, on one occasion, he didn’t have water on the podium when he was speaking. And, when finally they brought the water in, and people laughed a little bit because they knew that he needed the water, Professor Kliman looked at us. And he said, “Dear Colleagues, even the best lecturer needs a little water.” So, this is my water here. [Applause]
So, at that time, in that statement, I said that universal human values and interests, at a time when the world faces the threat of nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons that throw into question the very existence of mankind, at a time when mankind is facing the global challenge of the environment, when mankind is undermining the environmental basis for its own existence, at this time, I said, “We should give priority to the universal value of all mankind and the interests of all mankind.”
And I will tell you that, certainly, this should be what the politicians of today should bear in mind. I think that when I emphasize universal interests, it doesn’t mean that I don’t respect national interests. I believe that, when you emphasize and give priority to universal interests, you, at the same time, give credit to the national interests properly interpreted.
The truth, I am sure, will ultimately prevail. And this idea will be properly understood by the new generations of political leaders. At a time when we are still facing the threat of nuclear weapons and the pollution of the environment, it is the destiny, the future of all mankind that is at stake.
I believe that Perestroika started at a time when it was necessary, and when the country was ripe for Perestroika. Not only objective conditions were in place, but also the subjective conditions were in place for Perestroika. Perestroika could not have started because of the initiative from below. It could not have started outside the Party system.
And, sometimes I feel that it is really ridiculous– Well maybe ridiculous is too strong a word. But it’s funny that some people say that reformers, when they were finally in power, did not have a real plan, a real concept of Perestroika.
Well, it would have been funny had those reformers been able to develop a concept of Perestroika under the Soviet system when everything was controlled, when everything was under total control. All of those who tried, even attempted, to show different views, or dissident views, were either jailed or exiled from the Soviet Union.
And, therefore, in the Soviet Union, Perestroika could only have started within the system, within the Party itself, at the moment when the Party and the country was finally led by people who were ready to take the initiative and to take the responsibility for reforms. Not only in our society, but within the Communist Party, finally, we had the people. We had the forces that were ready to take responsibility.
I would say that the country was ready for Perestroika because of all its past sufferings, because of its yearning for reform. But, we needed the courage. And we needed to be able to take a tremendous risk to start this kind of reform in the Soviet Union. People are asking today whether Perestroika still has a future, or whether Perestroika is all in the past. If you look at Perestroika as a concept, as a strategy, as a strategic choice, then I believe Perestroika is still all in the future.
After my resignation, after I stepped down from the Presidency of the Soviet Union, someone said the era of Gorbachev is over. And I replied, at that time, and I still reply that the era of Gorbachev is just beginning. [Applause] This is because the choice in favor of freedom, Democracy, market economics, in favor of a more humane society, in favor of political and intellectual pluralism, this is something that we are still mastering, that we are still developing.
The goals, the objectives are still in the future. And when I was being accused of not being resolute enough, I said that we would need at least 20, up to 30 years to put Perestroika on track, and to make Perestroika embrace the entire society.
And again from this standpoint, and also from the standpoint of the new thinking on which we based our foreign policy, everything is yet ahead of us. And I see that even today, the concepts, the approaches to international politics that we adopted are very relevant. Today national interests are often being hyped, and some people are rejecting our approach. We were saying that yes, national interests are important, but we should look for a balance of national interest. We should not impose our interests on all other countries.
We recognized the need for equal, equitable cooperation. We said that no nation can dominate, and no nation should try to govern the world from one center. Again, all of these things are still quite relevant. We are learning to live with these principles, and it’s very important to watch the developments underway now.
If you look at what is happening with respect to Iraq, from a narrow perspective, I look at it from a broader perspective. And I am asking whether we will emphasize military force and imposition, or whether we will work based on the rule of law, based on international law, and whether we will work through the Security Council. I, therefore, welcome the outcome, the agreement in the Security Council that was the result of very long protracted negotiations.
And in this context I would like to talk a little bit about what probably is the most important issue. And that is the pace of change. The pace of change will be an issue that will be very important in the 21st century. And you, as the leaders of the 21st century, will have to address that because the international community will have to change because of the challenges that it is facing. The pace of reform, the pace of change is a very crucial issue. If you try to insist on realistic pace of change, if you insist on that and impose an unrealistically rapid pace of change, then it is reckless, and could have very bad consequences.
Professor Marceau of France once asked me whether I thought that the criticism that I was working too slowly, that I was taking decisions too slowly, whether that criticism was valid. And I said, “Well, I think that indeed sometimes we work too slow.” She replied, “I believe that, in fact, you took a very rapid pace of change and society couldn’t digest change so rapidly.”
And I agree with this. I believe that we were facing a country that was so vast where there were 200 ethnic groups and nationalities and languages, different religions, different cultures where there was a lot of militarism, heavy industry, monopoly, a total monopoly of one political party in that country. This is what we were facing, and this is the country in which several generations of our people lived for more than 70 years. We had to bear in mind that this was a very difficult country to reform. We, I think, bore it in mind, but we did not fully know our country, we did not know our country. And, therefore, we had sometimes to put a break on developments.
And whenever we did that, the media complained Gorbachev is acting too slowly. He is being influenced by the conservative forces, etc. etc. Well, what can I say? I can only say to you, as young people you will be, as Harvard graduates I’m sure, that you will be people who will be in very important positions in your country and in the world. And I suggest that sometimes you need to take the blows, and you cannot listen to every kind of criticism. You cannot hope to be good for each and every person. This is unrealistic. You should not react to everyone sneezing, so to say.
You have to listen. You cannot afford to be deaf to your society. You cannot afford to be deaf to its pulse. That could result in many blunders and mistakes. And something else I want to say is, again, the issue of the page of reforms is still a very relevant issue. Today the new president of Russia, and the new generation of citizens and politicians, are facing this question.
So, at this point I would like to say, people are coughing, it’s probably my daughter. I would like to recognize her. And she is hinting that it’s time for me to wrap things up. (laughter) We have this connection.
I would like to talk about the impact of Perestroika on my country, on Europe and on the world. But, of course, all these judgements are very relative. I would like to quote someone, a person whom you may have word of, Chou En-lai, the former Prime Minister of China. He was talking to a delegation from France. And that delegation, people asked him what he thought about the impact of the French Revolution on the world, and also on China. And Chou En-lai, I think, responded very well. And he didn’t take too much time to answer.
He said, “You know, I think it’s too early to tell.” (laughter) So, whenever you’re told that someone knows all about Perestroika, and about the underlying reasons for Perestroika and what kind of change happened, what kind of lessons we must draw from Perestroika in our huge country, well, let us say we should wait, and we will find the answers in the future. The Gorbachev Foundation, of which I am President, is working to study Perestroika. We have the library and the archive of Perestroika, a public affairs center. We hold conferences and workshops and meetings, working together with other think tanks and academic centers. We are studying what happened during Perestroika, and how Perestroika is still influencing what is happening in the world.
In the 20th century, for Russia it was a century of search. There was the era of Lenin. The totalitarian period of Stalin. The period of Perestroika. But, there is no firewall, there is no wall of China between these different periods, because even though the country and the people change, it is still the same country. And it would be both immoral and historically wrong to totally negate any part of our history, any part of the work of generations. This was what history willed. And every generation tried to do its best. Some succeeded more than the others. It depended on many factors. So, I call upon people to know history, to learn from history, to learn from the mistakes and also from the positive experiences.
One thing is clear, particularly for Russia. You cannot force history; you cannot impose anything upon history. You cannot push the process artificially. And from this standpoint, I would say that a very important issue always is the cost of reforms, the price that people pay for reforms. And based on this criteria, I would evaluate the results of reforms, I would evaluate the results of certain periods in history.
During the years of Stalinism, during the years of the totalitarian system, our country was alive, our country was building itself. It industrialized, it created a science and a culture that were outstanding. But, too many people perished, too many people died because of repressions, because of collectivization, because the peasants, many peasants were regarded as almost the enemies of the people.
So, based on that criteria, we also evaluate the results of the Yeltsin reforms. This was a time when we saw some positive changes. We also saw that many democratic institutions were preserved. The country was moving toward market economics. People understood that they should not expect the government to solve all their problems. That they have to take the initiative, and that they have to live their own life. For people formerly of the Soviet Union, that was very important. They used to depend on the government.
Also during those years, businessmen, young businessmen became a factor in our society, particularly those businessmen that were not plundering the country. But, there were also many more negative aspects in how those reforms were conducted. The result was that two-thirds of the people of Russia lived in poverty and hardship. It was too high a price.
So, to conclude, I think that if you ask me today whether I am happy, whether I am pleased with the way things are in my country, in the world, in Europe, whether what is happening today is in conformity is consistent with the ideas that we tried to implement, it would be wrong for me to say that nothing is really changing, has been changing over the past years. But, I have to say that a lot of things are very alarming to me out of deep concern to me. When the Soviet Union broke up, once again geopolitics became the name of the game, and once again an attempt was made to re-divide the world into spheres of influence. The charter of Paris for the future of Europe was forgotten, even though it was a very good blueprint for European security. We saw many conflicts. And the countries in transition, the countries that had ended their totalitarian regimes saw models imposed on them from outside.
And some people from Harvard who were in Russia, who were active in Russia, helped Russia in a way that wasn’t really appropriate. But, we’re not blaming Harvard, we’re not blaming others. We are blaming ourselves, because we tried to imitate instead of developing what is good for us. So, again, we’re not blaming Harvard; it was just a few people from Harvard who tried to impose a model that was too radical for Russia, that was too laissez-faire for Russia.
I think that a lot of things could have been done differently after Perestroika. And a lot of things could have been done differently during Perestroika. But, there are no “ifs” in history. I think that we could have done more to build a new world order, a world order that will make it possible to have some kind of global governance, while at the same time preserving the cultural and ethnic diversity of the world. After the end of the Cold War, George Bush and I both said, and all of us said, “We need a new world order.” Too little has been done to create this new world order. We were not ready to address the process of globalization. The process of globalization that has shaken the world, and that has, I think, negated many theories including the famous Washington consensus that has now to be abandoned.
Under President Clinton, the government actually played a very important role in the economy, and that role was quite different from the so-called Washington consensus. The government played an important role in science and education and innovation. I believe that President Clinton, in that sense, the Clinton period was a period of great progress, and of great movement in those important areas that will define the future of America.
So, to conclude, a lot of opportunities have been missed. Political leaders are often lagging behind the events. And that’s why I am now undertaking a new project, a new project together with a number of other former and current presidents, my two co-chairman are former President Clinton, and former President Cardoso of Brazil. We are working to create a world political forum, because we believe that politicians, political leaders need to be equipped with a new vision, with a new knowledge. So, life goes on. Thank you. [applause]
COLTON: So, we will now have an altogether too brief period for questions and answers. We have tried to anticipate dealing with this room, which is large and wide. And we’re asking people to go to microphones. We won’t be able to have an awful lot of these questions. I’m going to get President Summers, who specifically requested this. The first question, and then I’ll go to the microphones and do my best through the glare to recognize questioners. So, let’s start with President Summers, question number one.
SUMMERS: Thank you very much for a splendid, and inspiring address. I wonder if you might look back and address the performance of the international community in its interactions with Russia, going back to the time when you were in government, London Summit of the G7, and move forward, and talk a little bit about what the more constructive alternatives that you think could have been pursued.
You’ve been quite critical of the shock therapy type approach. Say a little bit more, if you would, about what approaches you believe would have been more appropriate for the international community and its interaction with Russia.
GORBACHEV (Translator): — happening in our country. We are 90% responsible for what happened. We should not blame others. But, let me answer the question of where perhaps we made mistakes, what could have been done differently.
I am sure, and I have said that many times, that we, the reformers, acted too slow to reform the Communist party. It is that party where the idea of Perestroika was first broached. But, it is also in that same party that there were forces that tried to impede Perestroika. It was in that same part that there were forces that undermined me as President, that undermined reforms. And it was those people who organized a coup that failed, but nevertheless the coup undermined my position, the position of the supporters of Perestroika, and it pushed forward the process of disintegration in the Soviet Union, and made possible the reckless decisions to dismantle the Soviet Union and our economy.
Our second mistake was that we acted too late to reform our union. Of course, eventually we did decide to start those reforms. And even though it was a struggle, we were able to develop a new treaty between the republics for a new union of republics. And it was the coup plotters and the conservatives who were afraid of that new union. And that’s why they organized that coup one day before the treaty was supposed to be signed.
But, we should have started to rebuild our union a lot earlier. That probably would have made it impossible for the conservatives to stand in the way. We also should have done more to stabilize the consumer market in the Soviet Union. We failed in that respect. As a result of this, people had more money because we paid better wages and benefits. But, they didn’t have anything to buy with that money. It was something that we needed and could have addressed. We could have done this by taking, let us say, ten to twenty billion rubles out of our defense budget, out of our military sector. And this would have solved the problem of the consumer market.
Again, we tried to do it, but we acted too slowly. And that failure was very costly. People tend to make their judgement of reform, and make their judgement of the political leaders based on what they see in the stores, based on what they see in the consumer market. And because of our mistakes, the entire country was standing in lines. And actually, some of the conservatives were trying to make things even more difficult. And the result was that people were wondering.
And they were asking maybe Gorbachev is not the best leader, maybe there would be someone else who could succeed where he failed. So, those three big issues, big problems had we addressed them more successfully would have made it much safer for Perestroika, and we could have continued with that.
As for the position of the western countries, the attitude of the western countries, in the very beginning many western leaders were saying, “Well, he is just another General Secretary, another Communist leader. He is young. And so I was, by the way, 54, but they said, “He is a young leader.”
But that, of course, depending on the background. And so they thought well, this man could use his energy in order to better confront the West. They were suspicious that I would continue Communist policies, so to say, based on Communist concepts. I must say, on the other hand, that President Reagan, I would like to give President Reagan his due. I was told by the former Foreign Minister of France, Mr. Demoix(?), that at a G7 meeting in Houston, in Houston the Foreign Ministers of the G7 were expecting President Reagan’s address. And this was right after I became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. And the French Foreign Minister recalled that they all expected President Reagan to say, “Well, you should be very firm. You should not submit to any blandishments from Gorbachev to any attempt of Gorbachev to influence you, to charm you. He is another Communist leader, etc. etc.”
But, then he recalled President Reagan said, “My view is that he is a new General Secretary. He represents a new generation. Let us see this as an opportunity, an opportunity to change relations between our countries and the Soviet Union.” I believe that this is very important.
So, even though, in the beginning of Perestroika, there was a lot of inertia of the past, things began to change. In Geneva, after our first meeting, I said to my people that Reagan was a real dinosaur, and he called me “a real diehard Communist.” But, then a little later, he said, “Let us start on a first name basis. I’ll call you Michael, and you call me Ron.” So, the situation was changing, and our relationship improved. Because we were able to take important decisions together. We had to show restraint, but we ultimately were able to solve many issues.
I believe that relations between the leaders of the Soviet Union, and of the United States, that continued to improve also under George Bush, that relationship also influenced the position of other leaders. So, I believe that ultimately we had more and more mutual understanding. All of the western leaders wanted us to change more rapidly.
Indeed, absolutely. The Soviet people want things to happen like in a folktale. I say, “Change,” and everything will change. They need not change, but things must change; life must improve. Our film director, Nikita Mikhalkov says that “our people are from the folktale.” But, people are changing. But, we are still far from the objective of changing the entire mess of people, people who represent different cultures. It is still a long way to go for our people to become real citizens.
Some people are still saying that the West had a plan to undermine the Soviet Union, to damage the Soviet Union. Well, I can only respond to this that indeed some people here had plans how to weaken the Soviet leadership. And some people in the Soviet Union wanted to weaken the position of the United States and the world. This was the Cold War. Billions of dollars and rubles were spent on propaganda and on the Arms Race. Hundreds of billions of dollars were used for the Arms Race.
I think that for too long the main western leaders did not really believe in Perestroika, did not believe that Perestroika may succeed. I think it was a mistake on their part. And I was receiving information that western leaders did not particularly like the fact that the Soviet leaders were very active in international affairs. But, that again, is quite normal. There should be nothing surprising about this. Thank you.
MICHAEL ROSENBERG: Thank you Professor, and thank you President Gorbachev. My name is Michael Rosenberg. I’m a student here at the college. And you spoke today of nationalism, which is why I suppose my question is more of a hypothetical.
If you, sir, were President of Russia today, what would you be doing about the situation in Chechnya?
GORBACHEV (Translator): I have just had a chance to answer the same question at the Boston Globe at a lunch with the editors of Boston Globe. If I were the President of my country, there wouldn’t have been this war in the first place. (applause)
Now, about the current situation, what needs to be done in this situation. I think that President Putin wants very much to solve this problem. It’s a difficult problem. In Chechnya, one part of the Chechnyan society is working there to rebuild Chechnya. Today schools are open, and hospitals are open, and the Chechnyans themselves are running the schools and the hospitals, and the municipalities, event though there are some federal representative sin Chechnya. But, there are also militant fighters, there are still militant fighters who want to continue to fight. And their position is getting tougher and tougher. And there is also, among the Russian politicians, and the Russian military, a certain group of people who probably would like to see the current situation continue indefinitely.
I think that even in the West, there are some people who would like to see Russia bogged down in Chechnya for years and years to come. I have made my position very clear in Russia and abroad. We should do more, and we have an opportunity– we should do more to put things on a political track, toward a political solution.
As for the status of Chechnya, it should be a republic within Russia. But, it should have a special autonomous status, a status that would take into account the history, and the mentality of the Chechnyan people. So, this is my position.
COLTON: The aforementioned Marshall Goldman.
GORBACHEV (Translator): Marshall, you had so many opportunities to ask questions. Give a chance to the students. (applause-laughter)
MARSHALL GOLDMAN: A quick question then. Would you say something about the origins of Perestroika. Where did you come up with the idea? Did you have academic advisors? You said you’d served a long process in the government, in the party, and you seem to be doing everything that other party leaders did. What made you spread out and do something so radically different?
GORBACHEV (Translator): Well, certain it was not some kind of revelation on my part, that as soon as I became the leader of the country I had some revelation and started Perestroika. I tried to explain in my speech that my previous years in politics, in Soviet politics, showed to me that we had a system that stifled and ignored the initiative of the people. And I saw that without people being able to take the initiative, they will never be able to produce more and better, because people did not have incentive.
I saw that many problems had to be addressed by new laws, by new rules of the game. That we needed to change the laws. Even when I was working in Stavropol I saw how the nomenklatur in Moscow ignored the initiatives from below, in agriculture, in industry, in public health, in government, in finance. So, all initiative was rejected by the system. People wanted a better life. People wanted to earn more. And this was actually condemned by the system. The system condemned any kind of private property, any kind of private ideology. A country that was able to launch sputniks into space, that was competitive in outer space, could not give people enough to eat and good clothing. People were standing in lines to buy things, particularly imported goods. I felt that it was a shame, it was a scandal, it was a scandal that this was happening in a country where there’s natural resources and educated people.
So, I felt that the system needed to be changed. So, this was how this understanding of the need for reform began. When Chemko died, and we were preparing for the Communist party … (inaudible), there were a number of people within the Politburo who wanted the Politburo to decide on the next leader then and there. But, I said, “Let us not rush. Let us discuss this tomorrow in the Politburo and in the Central Committee. Let everyone think and consider, because I know that we will need great changes.” And, therefore, we need to select a person who will be supported. I understood even then that we needed tremendous change, profound change, and very risky change. So, I really was not very enthusiastic about taking the job.
We all understood how much needed to be done, and how difficult the change will be. We understood that change will be difficult. If you read my speeches even before Perestroika, when I spoke about domestic and international affairs, even those early speeches, we spoke about the need for change. There was a speech in December 1984 in London when I spoke about the need for a new political thinking. And for three hours we had a very lively debate with Mrs. Thatcher about the state of the world, and about our future cooperation.
So, again, life itself nudged us toward this moment when we took responsibility for change and reforms. I also think that my travels, my previous travels in different countries such as Italy, France, Canada, Belgium, this made me see many things. And this too had an impact on me.
COLTON: There’s no more thankless role than being the one who says to people who have lined up to ask questions that they can’t ask them. But, the problem is simply that we’ve run out of time. The hall is reserved for a student group at 5:30, and our President will deal very sternly with us if we keep them waiting. Perhaps you can come up and ask one or two questions probably at the end. I’m afraid we are going to have to stop. (applause)
I declare the meeting over. Thank you very much.