Mikhail Gorbachev: Russia's elder statesman still at home with power

Almost a generation after leaving the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev blames himself – for reforming the Soviet Union so fast that it couldn't survive. Mary Dejevsky meets him

It is almost 19 years now since Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation as President and, with it, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But even after all these years, and everything that has happened in between, there is still something surprising and almost unreal about greeting, and being greeted by, Mikhail Gorbachev in his sun-lit suite at a London hotel. He's a bit heavier now, less nimble than he used to be, and there's just a hint of the weariness that I first saw as he returned to Moscow after surviving the coup attempt against him in August 1991.

How things have changed. Foros, the small Crimean resort where he was placed under house arrest by the conspirators, is now in Ukraine. Today's Russian presidents make do with more stolid residences further east at Sochi. Gorbachev, out of office for the best part of a generation, has been elevated to the ranks of the global great and good.

At the same time, there are still the kindly eyes, the direct look and the avuncular manner that gave the last years of Soviet communism their human face, and there is still the same aversion to being interrupted that I well remember from long hours spent at party congresses and the Soviet Parliament. The late Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, was not wrong when he quipped that Gorbachev had "a nice smile", but "iron teeth". This is an elder statesman still at home with power.

The former Soviet leader was in London for an event that is now almost an annual pilgrimage: the summer gala held in aid of the charitable foundation he set up in memory of his late wife. The Raisa Gorbachev Foundation funds cancer care for children. It has a purpose-built clinic in St Petersburg where up to 80 young patients can be accommodated at any one time. It provides care, Gorbachev tells me, that would otherwise be accessible only to the children of Russia's super-rich.

Raisa, who died of leukaemia in 1999, drew controversy in the Soviet Union for her prominence as an almost American style "first lady" and her fashionable wardrobe, at a time when most Soviet women had a dearth of choice. But she also used her position to promote voluntary giving in a country where state provision was supposed to have rendered charity unnecessary. The dire state of many children's homes became a particular cause.

The couple had met at Moscow University and been inseparable pretty much since – unusual in a land of early marriage and early divorce. Her death, after several years of ill-health, left Gorbachev bereft. He lives in Moscow, has not remarried and finds solace with his daughter and grand-daughters. He would not be coaxed to talk about Raisa, except fleetingly in the context of the charity.

He was in an altogether more political, more self-justifying, mood, sparked perhaps by my own reference to having reported from Moscow as the Soviet Union collapsed and his many personal anniversaries that have come around this year: the 25th of his accession as Soviet leader and architect of perestroika; the 30th of his admission to the Soviet Communist Party Politburo; the 20th of his inauguration as the USSR's first executive President; the 20th also of his Nobel Peace Prize.

He launched straight into answering a question I hadn't actually asked – how he reconciled his long-time membership of the Communist Party with his subsequent embrace of democracy. "I'm a democrat," he insisted, "a social democrat, I would say." He had joined the party while still at school, regarding communism as a great current of world thought. He had asked his father whether he should join, and his father – just back from the war – was an old party member, as was his maternal grandfather, and both said yes. He was duly proposed for membership. But, he adds, "I was a different person then".

He was, though – as he still is, his 79 years permitting – an enthusiast, who immerses himself in all he undertakes. His rise, as he summarises it now, was almost effortless. "I first entered the Komsomol [the party's youth arm], then moved into bigger politics, then even bigger politics, and then arrived at the very top."

Like so many Soviet and Russian reformers, Gorbachev traces the first major change in his outlook to Khrushchev's 1956 denunciation of Stalin and the cultural "Thaw" that followed. He says he gravitated to the ranks of Russia's Shestidesyatniki (Sixties generation), craving change, and came to realise that serious reform was not "just a matter of people, but of the system".

Those were the conclusions he took to the Kremlin when he became head of the Communist Party in 1985. Today, Gorbachev says, he would turn to social democracy because of its ability to "bring together capitalism... and social priorities". But he is far from dismissive of capitalism. "It acts as a stimulus; it has serious achievements to its name and shouldn't be rejected just like that."

Deep down, I suspect, Gorbachev also retains something of the Leninist he was as Soviet leader, while admitting that Lenin's relationship with democracy left something to be desired: "The way he seized power was not exactly democratic, to put it mildly." But among Lenin's great merits from his point of view, was the "wisdom and decisiveness" with which he recognised the early mistakes of the Bolsheviks and changed course. "Imagine, in the heat of everything, when it was all going awry, he said: 'We've taken the wrong course and we've got to reorientate ourselves towards socialism.' That's what I tried to do with perestroika; that's the example I followed."

For Gorbachev, it is clear, the battles he had to fight in pursuit of perestroika and glasnost – with the conservatives of the party hierarchy to one side, and the bombastic Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, to the other – rankle almost as much today as they did then, in the late 1980s. He cannot forgive Yeltsin, not just for his stubborn refusal to compromise as the Soviet Union collapsed, but for the "chaos" that, in his view, the Russian President unleashed on the land once he held power: the "wild capitalism", the "privatisation at a stroke" that led to what Gorbachev still deplores as the "plundering" of the country.

But for the collapse of the Soviet Union, he also blames himself. In the end, he says, "we" – and I think he means his small band of Kremlin reformers here – "should have prevented it". He goes on: "Mostly, though, I reproach myself, even today." "We called free elections, carried out political reforms, tried to build a modern Parliament... and the reality was that the Communist nomenklatura could not withstand the test of democracy and freedom."

Self-critical Gorbachev may be, but some more recent judgements by outsiders seem to wound. "People criticise me for indecision," he says. "But, in general, I think we went too fast. A country with our history should have taken an evolutionary course. I said reforms would need 20 or 30 years... But such passions were raging, as glasnost and perestroika gained pace, and the calls were mostly to go faster, faster" – he thumps the table in time – "to go on, go on."

Does he then agree with today's Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who, as President, described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as "one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century"? Well, says Gorbachev, "I think his language was a bit extreme, but the destruction, the dissolution of the Soviet Union is something that's worth discussing". It wasn't an empire in the classical sense, he says; it came into being gradually, and there were "real achievements". "We have 20 per cent Muslims, and communities professing all the world religions, so it wasn't that simple. But all that talk of 'friendship of the peoples' wasn't idle chatter. It existed. I thought it would act as a restraint." He sees the Soviet demise as a "great misfortune".

So is he disappointed with how things have turned out, especially the slow progress in modernising Russia? "No, that's not what disappoints me," he replies. "I'm disappointed with the way the next administration [Yeltsin's] abandoned evolutionary change and launched 'shock therapy' with the result that everything disintegrated: state structures, the army, culture, medicine, education... everything. Destabilisation became the number one problem."

Russia, he judges, is still in the throes of democratic transition. "There's much still undecided, and there've been mistakes. I would say we're half-way along." And he has praise for Putin's first presidential term: "I think this was a chapter of our modern history that should be seen extremely positively."

But there is a sting in the tail. "He should have exploited the stability he established to go further along the path of democratisation," he goes on. "Instead, they started digging up the history of countries, ours above all... to prove that modernisation succeeds best under dictators, tsars, kings and the like. This was a mistake."

It is only just now, he says, that Putin has acknowledged that nothing can be done without democracy. "If he acts accordingly, then he'll be on the right track." But he is not underestimating the difficulty. "We can't modernise the economy in isolation from all else, we have to modernise society generally... and that's very difficult, very difficult to do."

Gorbachev's disappointment, then and now, extends to the role of the West and those he saw as "friends and partners". Here he recalls the G7 summit of June 1991 in London, where he sought – some would say, begged for – financial help. "Only Thatcher," he notes with a trace of bitterness, "said: 'listen, you've got to support him.' Andreotti, agreed... But George Bush, then Kohl, then Japan's prime minister said No." Bush, he said, went around "warning people publicly not to do anything that would undermine Gorbachev. But all these people – Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Gates, US defence secretary today... decided to bet on Yeltsin. I think they miscalculated when they dropped Gorbachev for someone else."

And now? Well, the former Soviet leader has fingers in many pies: ecology and global policy forums; his own political think-tank in Moscow, as well as the Raisa charity, and a new political party, the Independent Democratic Party of Russia, set up jointly with Alexander Lebedev. He thinks the West is still making mistakes, not only with the expansion of Nato to Russia's borders, but with its failure, still, to broach a transatlantic security system to include Russia.

I remind him that in his Nobel Peace Prize oration, delivered in the tense days of 1991, he described himself as an optimist. Was he still? "Of course," he replies, "how else could I have been a politician?" He also insists that something crucial has been achieved amid all the conflicts and setbacks of the past 20 years. In Russia, and across East and Central Europe, "people have gained their freedom; now they must learn to cope with it." It's not always easy, says Gorbachev, but everyone decides their own fate now.

Our time has run out. I snatch a last question. Who will Mikhail Sergeyevich be supporting for the World Cup, given that Russia is out? The diplomat kicks in. "You [England] have a chance; probably the Latin Americans or the Germans. It's just a pity ice hockey doesn't have a World Cup."

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