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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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29 August 2023

Mikhail Gorbachev: A Transcendent Spirit for a New World Civilization

by M.S. Karlen, Editor, CDAC (Comprehensive Dialogue among Civilizations, Geneva)
August, 23, 2023
Reflections on Mikhail Gorbachev, his life and achievements, one year after his passing
I have been reading countless articles related to Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing a year ago, on 30 August 2022. Among these are research papers, newspaper articles and personal accounts, as well as collections of comments on the death of Gorbachev. While many are not only positive but also insightful, full of substance and uplifting, it seemed to me that a number of his achievements were not given enough attention. My feeling is that many people do not fully understand Gorbachev as a person and do not fully appreciate the broad scope, the many dimensions and facets, of his achievements. I have therefore decided to highlight some aspects in more detail. I have integrated a number of excerpts from the many contributions that have appeared on the late President. I have also added short quotes from Mikhail Gorbachev that accentuate his view on certain aspects.
Personal transformation
Mikhail Gorbachev underwent an astounding transformation process in his life. I believe this aspect of his personal life is most extraordinary and was essential in his coming to the point of starting the reform program.

Mikhail Gorbachev: I needed time to gradually overcome, on the basis of my own experiences in life and discovery of other trends of social thought and opinions, a dogmatic understanding of socialism imposed on us in a closed society from our student days.
I understood that many changes were necessary, and that it was necessary to think about them, even if it caused me discomfort. I began to carry out my own inner, spiritual perestroika – a perestroika in my personal views. Along the way, Russian literature and, in fact, all literature, European and American too, had a big influence on me. I was drawn especially to philosophy. And my wife, Raisa, who had read more philosophy than I had, was always there alongside me. I didn’t just learn historical facts but tried to put them in a philosophical or conceptual framework.

This inner, spiritual perestroika and research was surely one of the main pillars on which his personal, moral and ethical values and world views were based.
Gorbachev was also ready to listen to others’ opinions and suggestions.
Mikhail Gorbachev: I would like to devote special attention to the brief period from March to December 1985, a time that researchers have paid little attention to, as a rule. It was an extremely important period, marked by an intense search for new policy approaches leading to conclusions that became the core of the new thinking.

The very fact that he did embark on the reform process is an achievement that cannot be over-estimated. It demonstrates an extraordinary amount of courage, faith, confidence, determination and resolution to break through the tight grip of the former Soviet system.
Mikhail Gorbachev: Perestroika was not a choice for me: it was a direct extension of my personality, my philosophy, and my moral feelings.
It is hard now to imagine the conditions that were reigning in the Soviet Union at that time. Here are two examples that may give a little insight:
The atmosphere was one of stagnation and gloom, resignation and indifference. Both society and politics had ossified. Survival in the Soviet Union was practically a full-time job, even for diplomats who had privileged access to hard currency stores. Trying to buy anything in a grocery store was a bewildering exercise, with different queues for different products, and a complex system of ensuring that one spent as little time as possible in the shop. There were queues to first check what was available, do a quick mental calculation and join another queue to pay the bill, then back to the original queues to pick up stuff, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for which queue might be moving faster, and then securing one’s place in different queues by marking one’s place with the person in front and behind.
Foreigners were corralled in special buildings, with KGB guards controlling entry and exit. In all hotels, a floor lady monitored the activities of guests and visitors. All local domestic help, and any kind of services (like travel, hotel bookings, home repairs, even tickets to the Bolshoi Theatre) were channelized through a special agency staffed and controlled by the KGB. Most of the Soviet Union beyond a 25-kilometre radius from the centre of Moscow was closed to foreigners, and prior permission was required to visit any of a handful of open cities. Contacts with locals were actively discouraged.
As for the locals themselves, they were shut off from the outside world. Travel to the West was a dream, and only the privileged elite could visit friendly socialist countries. News and information, especially from abroad, was strictly censored, and dissidents were either sent into exile in Siberia or had taken refuge abroad. There was little creativity in the arts and literature. Corruption, absenteeism and alcoholism were rife. True, no one was starving or was homeless, but life was stuck in a deep rut with little hope or prospect of any change for the better. The Soviet Union continued to be ruled by an oligarchy of old men and an entrenched self-serving and self-perpetuating nomenklatura (bureaucracy).
- Rajiv Sikri, Counsellor, Indian Embassy in Moscow from 1984 to 1988, Head of the Soviet and East European Department in the Ministry of External Affairs in India from 1988 to 1991
We know that they are lying, they know that they are lying, they even know that we know they are lying, we also know that they know we know they are lying too, they of course know that we certainly know they know we know they are lying too as well, but they are still lying. In our country, the lie has become not just moral category, but the pillar industry of this country.
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Soviet dissident, author and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature
Political and civil liberties
One of Gorbachev’s most significant achievements was the flowering of political and individual liberties during his rule. Before he came to power in 1985, the democracy-monitoring organisation Freedom House assigned the USSR its lowest possible scores for political rights and civil liberties. After the launch of his program of systemic reform, however, intellectual, political and religious freedom blossomed (and the country’s scores improved dramatically).
The essential meaning of perestroika for Gorbachev and his supporters was creating and acting on alternatives to failed and dangerous policies at home and abroad. Inside the Soviet Union, it meant replacing the Communist Party’s repressive political monopoly with multiparty politics based on democratic elections and an end of censorship (glasnost) and replacing the state’s crushing economic monopoly with market relations based on different forms of ownership, including private property. Both of those liberating reforms, which were directed at Czarist and Soviet authoritarian traditions, were well under way by the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union had already ceased to be a Communist or, as it was often characterized, ‘totalitarian’, system.
- Stephen F. Cohen, 1938-2020, Professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University
By 1991, he had led Russia closer to a real functioning democracy than it had ever been in its 1,000-year history; and the parliamentary and presidential elections he introduced from 1989-91 – in the then-Soviet system – remain Russia’s freest and fairest to this day.
It did not begin with protesters, violence and bloodshed in the streets, or with the overthrow of the existing regime. Instead, it came from above, from inside the ruling Soviet elite and in the person of a man who had spent his entire political career inside that profoundly authoritarian bureaucracy.
When Russians say their country had more democracy under Gorbachev than later, they point out that Yeltsin’s election as Soviet Russian president in June 1991 was the first and the last time in the Soviet Union’s history that the Kremlin allowed executive power to pass to an opposition candidate.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editorial director and publisher of The Nation
Glasnost, the ending of seven decades of Soviet censorship, was Gorbachev’s other signature democratic reform. Here, too, the result was astonishing – virtual freedom of the press, both print and broadcast.
There was no leader in a thousand years of Russian history who did more to try to change the national character and stultifying ideology of Russia and to create a genuine civil society based on openness and political participation than Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Glasnost produced an unprecedented explosion of writing, publishing, filmmaking, performance, and music.

In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev released all Soviet political prisoners, who numbered several hundred at the time. Human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov had been already released by the end of 1986.
The remarks of Professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton University spotlighted Gorbachev’s goal of liberating the Russian people from their repressive past and unleashing their creativity and energy. He asked the primarily Russian audience pointedly: “Where would you be today if not for Mr. Gorbachev?” “How many books would you not have published?” “How many newspaper articles and stories would you not have published?” “How many travels would you not have taken?” He emphasized, with words that were quite eloquent and moving, that Gorbachev had profoundly affected each of their lives and those of their children and grandchildren.
National Interest, Jeffrey A. Burt, retired partner of Arnold & Porter, an international law firm, Washington, D.C., USA

Freedom of choice and the right of self-determination
Gorbachev declared that individual liberty and human rights were universal values, not just Western ones. He stressed the Soviet goal of creating “a world community of states based on the rule of law.” Sounding more like Jefferson than Lenin, Gorbachev spoke of “ensuring the rights of the individual,” guaranteeing “freedom of conscience” and forbidding persecution based on “political or religious beliefs.”
And indeed, as mentioned earlier, Mikhail Gorbachev thoroughly and extensively studied the life and writings of American authors, among them Thomas Jefferson, editor of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States of America. From his student years and throughout his life he was in a “dialogue” with Jefferson. At the 250th birthday of Thomas Jefferson in 1993, Mikhail Gorbachev was invited to speak in Monticello and Virginia. There he confirmed his lifelong interest for Jefferson: “For myself I found one thing to be true: Having once begun a dialogue with Jefferson one continues the conversation with him forever.”
He put this understanding and conviction into practice with the result of freedom of choice and independence for millions of people in Eastern European Countries and the reunification of the two German nations.
Religious freedom – The churches are open again!
For spiritually inclined citizens, the newly acquired right to freely practice their religious beliefs and traditions was a huge, immeasurable boon, one of the most important gains of perestroika.

Mikhail Gorbachev: There can be no freedom without spiritual freedom, without human beings being able to choose. We have to respect our people, and many of them are believers.

The following account shows well what the reopening of the churches meant for many people:
It was an unforgettable evening in Moscow. I was taken by Russian friends to the city’s then largest cathedral which had been closed for decades under Joseph Stalin’s orders.
Amid clouds of incense and the glow of countless candles, a chorus sang the old Orthodox liturgy.
Most of the worshippers openly wept. This was the first time that Russians had been allowed to celebrate Orthodox Christmas mass since the 1930’s.
Though not religious myself, I was swept away by the deep emotions and beauty of the moment.
The new Soviet leader, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, had allowed his nation’s churches to reopen.
This historic act and a host of other liberalisations restored Russia to its cultural roots and brought a dawn to the benighted Soviet Union after the dark Communist times.
- Eric S. Margolis, syndicated columnist, Sun Daily, Toronto, Canada

“Gorbachev, Pope Meet, Agree on Diplomatic Relations”
This was the headline in the Washington Post the day after the historic meeting of President Mikhail Gorbachev with Pope John Paul II that took place at the invitation of the pope on December 1, 1989.
After more than seven decades of bitter ideological rivalry, the leader of the world’s first Communist state and the worldwide leader of the Roman Catholics led to an agreement to establish diplomatic relations between the Kremlin and the Vatican.
- Bishop Michael Pfeifer, OMI, San Antonio Express News

Jewish emigration
President Gorbachev also opened the gates for large-scale Jewish emigration, mainly to Israel and the USA. The number of Jews emigrating began rising year by year, reaching 185,000 in 1990. From 1989 to 1999, over three-quarters of a million Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel alone, according to data collected by Hebrew University’s Mark Tolts.
At the same time, Gorbachev also oversaw the release of the most famous of “refuseniks” and so-called “prisoners of Zion,” or those who had been imprisoned for their Zionist activity, including Natan Sharansky, Ida Nudel and Yosef Begun.                                                                    
Religious pluralism
Since the early 1990’s a wide range of spiritual movements and traditions from various parts of the world have found home in Russia and the Eastern European nations. Today, yoga studios and meditation centres can be found in most Russian cities, just like in the Western nations.
“I am an atheist”
Although Mikhail Gorbachev called himself an atheist until the end of his life and did not practice a formal religion, it is evident that a great inner strength guided his life, his world views, his moral principles, and his practical deeds. It is interesting to note that after 1985 both Mikhail Sergeyevich and his wife Raïsa Maximovna cultivated contacts and friendships with several spiritual figures from different traditions and received strong support from them. In addition to his contact with Pope John Paul II, Gorbachev maintained a close friendship with Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy over many years, co-authored a book with Japanese Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda, and was also engaged in several projects with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan (Bishop) Pitirim.
“This leads to an intriguing intellectual puzzle by way of a conclusion. Is Russia’s spiritual reawakening a precondition to Russians’ acknowledgement of Gorbachev’s essential humanism, or the other way round?”
- Ramesh Thakur, former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, Tokyo, Japan
New political thinking, international cooperation and disarmament
One may ask whether Gorbachev’s role as a world leader was more important than his role as a national leader? I don’t think there is a clear answer, but in my opinion, he has been a greater positive force for the world than any other leader in history. The combination of his governing ideas and vision, his ethical and moral stance, his embracing personality but also his practical deeds and achievements are unrivaled by any standard. Led by his spirit and actions, the world saw unprecedented changes for good in the short span of six years.
For a moment, it seemed that humanity had finally grown up, that a new epoch had started with the underlying basic foundations of trust, cooperation, good will and partnership.
For a twinkling of world history, it even seemed that Emmanuel Kant’s Utopia of “Perpetual Peace” was not forever out of reach.

Mikhail Gorbachev: For me, the important thing is the central idea of shifting from a sense of belonging to a nation to a sense of belonging to the human race.
The new thinking became the basis for all policy – both foreign and domestic – during perestroika. The point of departure for the new thinking was an attempt to evaluate everything not from the viewpoint of narrow class interests or even national interests but from the broader perspective: that of giving priority to the interests of all humanity with consideration for the increasingly apparent wholeness of the world, the interdependence of all countries and peoples, the humanist values formed over centuries.

Gorbachev saw humanity as one family, as one world. He dreamt of the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons. He said that to embark on this journey would mean “to pass humanity’s maturity test.”
In his time, 80 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons were destroyed – an extraordinary achievement.

After the signing of the historic INF Treaty in 1987, Gorbachev outlined this stark choice facing the United States and the Russian people:
Civilization has approached a dividing line, not so much between different systems and ideologies, but between common sense and mankind’s feelings of self-preservation, on the one hand, and irresponsibility, national selfishness, prejudice — to put it briefly, old thinking — on the other.
What matters now is that we cannot let those opportunities pass, and must use them as fully as possible to build a safer and more democratic world, free from the trappings and the psychology of militarism.

Common European home
Gorbachev envisioned a common European home from Lisbon to Vladivostock – an unprecedented vision put down in the Paris Charter (OSCE, Paris, 19–21 November 1990).
Here is the opening passage of the Charter:
A new era of Democracy, Peace and Unity
We, the Heads of State or Government of the States participating in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, have assembled in Paris at a time of profound
change and historic expectations. The era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended.
We declare that henceforth our relations will be founded on respect and co-operation.
Europe is liberating itself from the legacy of the past. The courage of men and women, the strength of the will of the peoples and the power of the ideas of the Helsinki Final Act have opened a new era of democracy, peace and unity in Europe.
Ours is a time for fulfilling the hopes and expectations our peoples have cherished for decades: steadfast commitment to democracy based on human rights and fundamental freedoms; prosperity through economic liberty and social justice; and equal security for all our countries.

But Gorbachev warned in Strasbourg, France, in 1989:
There are no “bystanders,” nor can there be any, in peace-building in Europe; all are equal partners here, and everyone, including neutral and non-aligned countries, bears his share of responsibility to his people and Europe. The philosophy of the concept of a common European home rules out the … very possibility of the use or threat of force, above all military force, by an alliance against another alliance, inside alliances or wherever it may be.

I personally remember well what hope, what enthusiasm – even euphoria – existed after the end of the Cold War. The time for a new architecture of the world, a new world order seemed to have arrived. Besides the Paris Charter, this was also expressed in the United Nations’ Agenda for Peace, which was established in 1992 as a foundational statement of the UN’s role in stabilising the post-Cold War world.

Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed at that time:
We are at the beginning of a long road to a lasting, peaceful era.

Gorbachev is not a tragic figure
In many articles that came out after Gorbachev’s passing a year ago, he is described as a tragic figure. I wholeheartedly disagree with this point of view. The tragedy is much more in the fact that the leaders that came after, both in the East and the West did not follow in the footsteps of Gorbachev, and these doors of opportunity closed again. They did not live up to the hope, faith and expectations of the whole world, and we know with what results. They could have supported Gorbachev and the people of the Soviet Union much more, not only with money but with moral support, manpower and know-how.

However, the values, ideas and ideals that Gorbachev stood for are too lofty to dismiss. They have a universal, timeless character, which is why I am convinced that different times will arrive and new leaders will come back to his world-embracing spirit and vision.

Gorbachev once said: “The times work through people in history.”
(The Nation, 28 October 2009)
Gorbachev must be analyzed and interpreted not only in terms of his thinking concerning world politics, but most important in the transmission of his philosophical and moral values to the sphere of policy.
As a leader, statesman, and moral and intellectual force, Gorbachev’s example and message will continue to serve as a source of inspiration to diplomats and citizens confronting the security, economic, environmental and social challenges of an increasingly interdependent world society.”
Sharyl Cross, Professor of Political Science at San Jose University, California, USA; Igor Zevelev, Professor at the G. Marshall Center for Security Studies, Garmisch, Germany, 1999
Gorbachev was a good and great man and a hero to many around the world. Future scholars will surely conclude that he was on the right side of history. He should be remembered as one of the finest models of value-based leadership in history.

With the passage of more time, perhaps even Russia may be able to revive and implement Gorbachev’s vision of a free and open society. Doors swing in both directions.
Gorbachev’s compelling vision may yet prevail. My recent experiences with students at Moscow’s largest law school is evidence that many embrace that future. Patience, perseverance, diplomacy—and faith in the young people of today’s Russia — will be required in the difficult and perilous period ahead. The potential of this new generation of Russians making his vision a reality is Gorbachev’s lasting legacy.
- National Interest
, Jeffrey A. Burt, retired partner of Arnold & Porter, an international law firm, Washington, D.C., USA
It’s ridiculous, provincial, and unworthy of Russia to ignore or denigrate Gorbachev’s contribution here. But anxious and confused by the changes in their lives, our people may believe for a time what the newspapers and television are screaming daily. But all the rest of the world knows better. There they have an unwavering, genuine respect for Gorbachev and gratitude for what he did. This is simply a matter of historical fact, and his epoch stands out as one of the most remarkable of the centuries.
- Anatoly Chernyaev, principal foreign policy advisor and close aide to President Gorbachev
It seems to me that we are all orphans, but not everyone has understood this yet. Mikhail Sergeyevich is already a historical figure, I would say, a mythological one.
- Alexei Venediktov, former editor-in-chief of the closed Echo of Moscow radio station
Currently, freedom, the rights of self-determination and democratic governance are again under attack in different parts of the world. The terrible nature of war is tragically displayed for all to see. Countless lives and infinite resources are being lost. Alas, the world has still not grown to a level of maturity where conflicts can be addressed and solved in a humane way. Alas, too often we do not see a level of political will and sense of responsibility towards our earth planet sufficient to overcome the imminent threats and overwhelming problems of today’s world.
Gorbachev is an epochal, colossal world figure who showed the world a better way to go. The sooner we can follow in his footsteps and live up to his vision and ideals, the better for each and every one of us, and for all the world as a whole.
And the last word goes to Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev:

“We are one Mankind, we are one Planet!
We must live in peace!
This goal is real and achievable.”