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The XXI century will be a сentury either of total all-embracing crisis or of moral and spiritual healing that will reinvigorate humankind. It is my conviction that all of us - all reasonable political leaders, all spiritual and ideological movements, all  faiths - must help in this transition to a triumph of humanism and justice, in making the XXI century a century of a new human renaissance.

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12 December 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev remembered by Pavel Palazhchenko

Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan exchange pens as they sign the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, with Pavel Palazhchenko, centre, interpreting, 1987. Photograph: Bob Daugherty/AP

 2 March 1931 - 30 August 2022
The former Soviet leader’s longtime interpreter remembers an optimist who wanted to achieve his goals by persuasion, not force, and knew that he was a man of history.

It’s become a kind of a stereotype that Mikhail Gorbachev was wildly popular in the west, and totally unpopular in Russia. It is more complicated than that. When he died, huge numbers of people wanted to say farewell to him at the Hall of Columns in the centre of Moscow. The state organisers of the funeral had told us we shouldn’t allocate too much time for the farewell. But thousands upon thousands of people did come. Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina, said that she would sit in that big hall, where he was lying in state, as long as people still wanted to come. She was there for many hours.

I started working as Gorbachev’s translator when I was 36, in 1985. I was with him through all the negotiations on ending the cold war and the nuclear arms race. But the real friendship between us started after he had stepped down in 1991 and I continued as his translator and adviser for international and media relations. He didn’t travel with a huge retinue of people. So for nearly 30 years I was involved in just about everything, from checking in at the hotel, to meetings with US presidents and the British prime ministers. I witnessed him, too, as a husband and a father and grandfather at the heart of their wonderful family. And I saw him practically every day in the office, until his health began to decline. Even until the end of last year, he was still active from his hospital room, responding to requests for articles, reactions to events.

He never stopped being a politician, and he never gave in to despair. He wrote several books, some of them with help from me. One of those books was called I Remain an Optimist. It looked back on his 1987 book Perestroika and reflected on what happened afterwards. Despite everything, he never believed that the Russian people should give up on the prospect of democracy. The American author William Taubman wrote what I think is an excellent biography. But I told Bill that I disagree with his main conclusion that Gorbachev was a tragic figure. I think a tragic figure must have a tragic mindset. But Gorbachev never thought of himself as Hamlet. Gorbachev was a person who believed that there was always a chance to resolve problems politically, to move forward.

Personally and politically, he was never a control freak. He actually wanted to give people a chance to have a say in their country’s future. Politics was nonexistent in the Soviet Union before him; individuals never had a say and he gave them that.

One result was that after 1989 events took on their own momentum. It is true that he wanted a more orderly process of change, and he certainly didn’t want the Soviet Union to dissolve. It was only after the elected parliaments of the republics, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus ratified the agreement to end the existence of the Soviet Union that he finally decided to step down. Before that he continued to fight. But he would never have thought of, for example, arresting Boris Yeltsin or the other leaders who signed the agreement to dissolve the Soviet Union. His instincts were always for dialogue.

Because of that he understood the importance of language. He chose the words perestroika and glasnost carefully. Both were very difficult to translate. Perestroika was originally translated as “restructuring” or “reform” but it is more than that. Perestroika is the whole process of change. I think it was a good decision when journalists just used that word in English. I would say that this was one of the first times that a good Russian word came into other languages. Not “gulag” not something that scared people. Similarly, glasnost, which meant not just freedom of speech but something like the willingness and the readiness of government to be open. And Gorbachev represented that. He could spend hours talking to people, to hear their concerns.

People have described that as humility but that’s not the word I would use. He recognised his worth. He understood that he was a man of history. He liked the Russian word for respect, and I witnessed how he projected that in speaking to foreign leaders and ordinary people. He found it easy to break the ice in conversation; he did so not with humility but with charm, and with an openness and simplicity.

Though you could argue that with his speech to the UN in 1988, he started all the historic turbulence, he never wanted credit for himself. He actually always made a point of emphasising that, for example, the peaceful process of German unification happened partly because all the leaders who were involved in that – including President Bush, Prime Minister Thatcher and President Mitterrand – really stepped up to their responsibilities. I saw how he believed very strongly in personal rapport. Though they had major philosophical and ideological differences he particularly valued the role of Margaret Thatcher. Even when things were difficult in US-Soviet arms negotiations she would make a point of calling Reagan and urging him to continue the engagement. He didn’t like Nato enlargement, but he believed dialogue had to continue, to maintain a kind of dignity and decency in relations. He really believed that was an important end in itself.

For all those reasons he was very shocked by the news from Ukraine. His health was such that by then I could only talk to him on the phone. There were many Ukrainians in the region of Stavropol, where he was born and raised. His mother and his wife, Raisa, were Ukrainian. He was never totally at peace with Ukraine’s decision to become independent, but he absolutely accepted and respected it. And I can say that events this year were so bewildering and shocking for him, it was like a knife in his heart.

Some of what was written about him suggested he had failed, but I don’t believe that. Gorbachev is the example of a Russian leader, a Soviet leader, who wanted to achieve his goals politically, by persuasion, rather than by coercion or force. That example will continue. And I think that there will inevitably be a moment in Russia’s history going forward, when people will want to try again.

The Guardian