Mikhail Gorbachev: 'I'm so ashamed of Roman Abramovich'

As he marks his 80th birthday this Wednesday, the Soviet Union's last president is lauded in the West but remains distinctly undervalued in Russia. Matthew Bell meets Mikhail Gorbachev

Funnily enough, the world's most famous birthmark isn't the first thing you notice about Mikhail Gorbachev. The big red tap with the three drops – a gift to Spitting Image and anyone who struggled to tell their Soviets-in-suits apart – is much less striking than the outstretched hand, soft and podgy to the touch, the one he once gave Ronald Reagan and, so, ended the Cold War. The hand moves to my shoulder, guiding me through the utilitarian corridors of his Moscow headquarters, to a table. This, once we're arranged, he bangs, the podge momentarily an iron fist, indicating it's time for business.

"Well," I begin. "Well!" he hits back, "When you say 'well', I immediately remember Reagan. He often said 'well', which meant: 'Let's move on'." I'm glad the former president of the Soviet Union is in the mood for banter. Everyone said Gorby was a bit of a waffler, the sort who tells an anecdote to answer a question. And who could blame him? He turns 80 on Wednesday; his beloved wife, Raisa, died 12 years ago; and his personal memory bank is loaded with experiences stretching from Stalin's prime to the collapse of Communism. The fact that he doesn't mind being called Gorby suggests there may be a touch of the Richard Whitely about him, but actually he's sharper than many who are 30 years younger, rat-tatting his answers back, fast as you like.

Gorbachev has earned a few headlines recently, after speaking out against the Vladimir Putin administration, calling it a sham democracy. To Western observers, that's no revelation; but in Russia, where freedom of speech remains an aspiration, any criticism is noteworthy. For the man who introduced glasnost (openness) – reforms aimed at lifting the Soviet suppression of speech and ideas – that must be saddening.

"Well, there have been certain roll-backs, but there has been also progress," he says. "There are still independent newspapers and magazines, they do exist. But as for television, the situation is not as good. It's one of the main problems. I would say, as regards the development of democracy, of democracy laying down roots – that is something that Russia still needs to address."

One of the few dissident newspapers is the Novaya Gazeta, of which Gorbachev owns a joint 49 per cent share with Alexander Lebedev, the proprietor of this newspaper. In 2004, before she was murdered, Anna Politkovskaya of the Novaya Gazeta wrote: "We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance... if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death."

Why then, did Gorbachev support Putin as recently as the 2007 election? "When Putin came to power, the situation in Russia was extremely difficult," he says. "The country was on the brink of disintegration. At that time, the name of the game was stabilisation. Putin acted, sometimes using authoritarian methods, sometimes making mistakes, but nevertheless the assessment is that the good outweighed the bad, and the country supported Putin, and so is my assessment of Putin. I was with the people, I was with my country."

When he talks in speeches, you can see the party man of old, but Gorbachev is no automaton; he can step back and reflect on his past. "I think that today, just like I did at some stage of perestroika [reconstruction], I became overconfident. Today, our leaders, too, are overconfident. Sometimes it's difficult to accept, to recognise one's own mistakes, but one must do it. I was guilty of overconfidence and arrogance, and I was punished for that. I was punished by subsequent events. I am sharing my experience with [Prime Minister Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev], because I don't want them to go astray by making similar mistakes."

Perestroika and glasnost are about the only words I can pick out as he talks. Gorby doesn't speak a word of English – except "well", apparently – so interviews are conducted through Pavel, his trusty translator. Pavel is such a pro that they speak almost simultaneously, and the effect is mesmerising, two voices booming at you from either side, with Gorby eyeballing you all the while. No wonder Ann Leslie said he was the sexiest man she ever interviewed.

He keeps returning to perestroika – the rebuilding of the economy by freeing the people from the tyrannies of their Soviet past. It meant making the individual more important, to create a new, democratic, social order. But it also meant the end of guaranteed employment. And the sudden rise in joblessness made him unpopular very quickly. These reforms also led to the unravelling of the Soviet Union, as countries such as Lithuania and the Ukraine, annexed to Russia by Stalin, were given the freedom to say what they wanted. And what they wanted was independence. Historians remain undecided over whether Gorbachev was fully aware of the consequences his reforms would have; it's safe to say change came quicker than he expected.

Today, Gorbachev remains frustrated that he didn't get the chance to finish the reforms he began. But, as events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are showing, people who are unexpectedly freed from an oppressive regime are in no mood to hang around. Gorbachev can see a similar uprising coming to Russia, and told a recent interviewer that "here, it could end far worse". Not surprisingly, for a lifelong communist who, almost as soon as we sit down, cites Lenin as a role model, Gorbachev disapproves of Russia's ostentatious moneyed classes. "I read in Novaya Gazeta a list of all the properties owned by Roman Abramovich, and it's incredible. I'm ashamed."

The distribution of wealth in Russia seems little different from how it was before the 1917 revolution, I say. Is it time for a new revolution? "I don't think we need a revolution, but certainly our society must work in a different way. That is to say, we need more justice, we do not need the kind of gaps that we have, in term of the standards of living between people of different backgrounds. I certainly would not want to propose something like a fight between the rich, or to fight the wealthy. No. But I do believe that incentives, clear financial incentives, should exist. Because that's important – to motivate people to work to achieve more and to realise their interests. But the cast of billionaires we have in Russia is a result of what happened during [Boris] Yeltsin's period. There was a minister of finance who said something that many people still quote, which is: "You must share with others." As simple as that. And I think this phrase is still very valid. They must share with others. We must remind them. I think that we must have laws to regulate on these things, and the way to work it out is through the tax system."

If not a revolution, then, he is calling for fundamental change of some sort. The old days of top-down government must go, and he believes the days of countries as superpowers are over. Even if Russia could be a superpower again, he wouldn't want it. "I don't think Russia is setting this as a goal, I don't think this should be Russia's goal," he says. "I think even the United States doesn't need to be a superpower. China doesn't need to be a superpower. It's a different world. Relations in the world are different. When certain people arise and get power, with such ideas of superpowership, I think such people should be rejected. They should not be allowed to have the mandate of support. I think we need more young people, we need to elect young people to government, we need to give them a chance, in the media, in politics, in democracy. I think the young people should be the main force that will set in motion our society in the right direction."

Mikhail Gorbachev came from an agricultural family in south-west Russia, where he operated combine harvesters, before joining the Communist Party at university, and working his way up the party ranks. Smart Muscovites have often disparaged his simple country ways, and I'm told he speaks Russian with the equivalent of a West Country accent. In his position, and with his influence, he could have made a lot of money for himself, but he chose not to. Even today, he earns his keep, giving lectures in America and writing books.

"That's the way I was brought up. I think I'm a normal human being, and I don't do it for show. I work to earn my living, and now I earn my living by giving lectures." He has just polished off the manuscript for his latest book, a series of essays called Alone With Myself. He is talking to publishers, and when he says the world rights are for sale to the highest bidder, he jokes that this "is my capitalist approach". If the title is a touch ponderous, what distinguishes Gorbachev from other statesmen entering their wistful winters is that he never grew complacent. "I am continuing to rethink the past," he says, something it's hard to imagine Gordon Brown or Tony Blair saying.

One of his regrets about the Soviet Union was its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, part of a doomed policy to bring communism to all corners of the globe. The war lasted 10 years, but Gorbachev had doubts from the outset, keen to withdraw as soon as he came to power in 1985. In the event, the last Russian soldier didn't leave until 1989. The parallels between that situation and the one David Cameron is in now are striking. What would his advice to Cameron be?

"Well, the most interesting thing is that, in their own time, the British, before the Soviet Union, put troops into Afghanistan. The British said, particularly afterwards: 'Why haven't you consulted us?' They said: 'We spent almost 100 years in Afghanistan. The Afghans are a very special people, they live according to their own rules, and you should not intervene.' And I think that now we have seen more proof of that. Because, even when they had a king, the authority of the king did not extend beyond Kabul. In the provinces, they decide everything themselves; they live according to their special rules, they have their regional plans, they have their culture of doing their own things.

"When we came in, we understood that it was a mistake. But how do you correct the mistake? Do you flee in panic? No. You need to work together with others, with your friends, but also with the opposition, and we did contact the opposition, and we did reach certain agreements. Now, I think that the goal should be to leave Afghanistan. This is what I said to the Americans – the sooner you leave, the better. So, I am using your newspaper, and this interview, to appeal to the Prime Minister to go in the right direction on Afghanistan. So, I am appealing to him to set that goal. And I am not saying that he should do it exactly the same way we did. But he should certainly take heed of what those British were saying to us when they said that we shouldn't have intervened, and when they recommended that we withdraw."

Gorbachev is a popular figure in the States. Famously, he got on with Reagan and speaks favourably of Barack Obama, but he is not afraid to offer criticisms. Most astonishingly, he describes Amerca's current battle with Islam as a problem of its own making, referring to the US's secret funding of Islamic extremists in Afghanistan during the 1970s and 1980s, as part of its fight against its main enemy of the time, communism.

"[The Americans] should accept their part of the blame. Let them say so. We talked to them all the time, we were telling them that we want Afghanistan to be an independent country, that we are leaving, we are withdrawing from that country. But at that same time, our partners were working in secret with those forces with whom they are now fighting. It's called the historical and political boomerang. I think God has some mechanism that he uses to punish those that make mistakes."

Margaret Thatcher said Gorby was a man she could do business with, and later he said he was a Blairite. Now, he's a fan of our new Prime Minister. "I welcome David Cameron's work. This idea, or programme, that he describes as a Big Society, as I understand it, means that the gaps between different groups of people should be bridged. I think this is a very democratic idea, and I support that. So may Britain have its own perestroika. But I'm sure the British will not accept the word perestroika, they will find their own way of calling it."

Next month, his 80th birthday will be marked by a gala evening at the Royal Albert Hall, where the London Symphony Orchestra, directed by the Russian maestro Valery Gergiev, will accompany artists from East and West, including Bryan Ferry, Katherine Jenkins and Shirley Bassey. Gorby80, the company running the event, has also launched an annual Gorbachev Award, which every year from now will honour those who have made a significant contribution of some kind. Some, though, have asked why Gorbachev is celebrating his birthday in London, not Moscow (where he continues to live and work), though, as he points out, he will be in Moscow for his actual birthday this week.

There is, though, a startling disparity in the esteem with which Gorby is held in the West and his reputation at home. His reforms were well intentioned, but in the short term meant unemployment, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and political unrest, which he recognises. "Lenin once said – one must have dreams," he says. "And Lenin is still for me an authority. The world is changed by idealists. I may be a few years older, but I still believe that."

The next day I visit Lenin, who still lies in state outside the Kremlin, 87 years after his death. In the gift shop, I buy a Putin teapot, and a set of presidential Russian dolls. Peeling back the layers, you get a Medvedev, a Putin, a Yeltsin, Brehznev, Krushchev and a Stalin – but no Gorby. It's an enigma of the Russian people that they don't rate him like we do. The first sentence of his book, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, is: "We want to be understood." Yet how can we understand a people who do not value his commitment to democracy and freedom, a leader who was never corrupted by power? Gorbachev doesn't like to talk about his legacy; but if, one day, his own people were to recognise these achievements, I'm sure he wouldn't mind.

www.gorby80.com

Curriculum vitae

2 March, 1931 Born in Stavropol, in Russia, to peasant farmers.

1952 Enrols at Moscow State University. Joins Communist Party. A year later, he meets and marries Raisa Titorenko.

1985 Elected as general secretary of the Communist Party. Sets about introducing perestroika and glasnost.

1986 Meets Ronald Reagan at Reykjavik Summit on banning nuclear missiles. They hit it off, but deal collapses.

1987 Signs INF Treaty in Washington, precipitating end of Cold War.

1988 Reduces Communist Party control of the government.

1989 Holds first free elections since 1917. Elected head of state. Withdraws last Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

1990 Awarded Nobel Peace Prize for contribution to ending the Cold War.

1991 Deposed in a coup led by Yeltsin.

1992 Creates Gorbachev Foundation.

1996 Runs for president. Fails. Launches the Social Democratic Party of Russia.

1999 Raisa Gorbachev dies.

2006 Sets up the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation for the elimination of leukaemia in children.

2011 Launches Gorbachev Award.

Matthew Bell

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