It's first class in here, comrade: Once he had a fleet of Zils, but these days Mikhail Gorbachev is happy to travel by BR. Michael Fathers sat next to him

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WASN'T quite the Finland Station, though the man who alighted from the train at Bristol Parkway is believed to have changed the world just as decisively as the waxen corpse which is now about to lose its place of honour on Red Square.

There seems to be a special link between the railways and Russian Communist leaders, and one certainly felt it on the 10.00 train from Paddington to Swansea on Friday morning. In this case, though, it seemed that Mikhail Gorbachev was going away from, rather than towards, his destiny, unless receiving an honorary law doctorate from Bristol University counted as a step in the march of history.

It is fashionable to knock Mr Gorbachev. He has nothing fresh to say, he has had his time, he did his bit, now make way for the next one. He certainly doesn't like Boris Yeltsin, the man who replaced him as president. He told our captains of industry at a CBI breakfast in London on Wednesday that the Kremlin's latest occupant led a bunch of neo-Bolsheviks.

Gorby's answer, if you can stay awake through his windy public speeches that take you across the 'current politico- economic-sociological-environmentalist landscape' is a new dawn at the bottom of the Big Rock Candy Mountain. You won't necessarily find lemonade trees there but you'll certainly come across Baroness Thatcher.

Over dinner at the Guildhall, after a bad day with Presiley Baxendale QC at the Scott Inquiry, the baroness was two seats from the man she told us she could do business with, cheering him on. It was only the interpreter between them that stopped them getting closer.

So what is there between them? Lady Thatcher, if I remember correctly, once said it was chemistry. On the Swansea train, Mr Gorbachev was rather more specific. He said they were attracted by each other's glasnost. He made it sound rather hormonal.

'I regarded her - I still do - as a very important person with great credibility and authority,' he said. 'The motivation behind this relationship, however, was that Great Britain is an important country. When we began to work together we found there was one thing we had in common - our candour and frankness. Despite our differences we respected each other's views. Of course sometimes we had some very sharp exchanges, and I will be discussing these in my book.'

Whenever you get down to the nitty-gritty with Mr Gorbachev, you run into his memoirs. When you ask him what he would have done differently, the book is thrown at you. Did he have any regrets? Same again. Perhaps when you are on a pension of 54 pence a week, you need to hold something back to try to improve your financial position. Someone had clearly told him about the pounds 3.5m Lady Thatcher had got for her memoirs.

Mr Gorbachev doesn't like to talk about money. Jon Smith, the impresario who organised this, his first British lecture tour as Citizen Gorbachev, said he had been sworn to secrecy. He had promised not to reveal the fee he paid to the Gorbachev Foundation for economic, political and medical research. A figure being bandied around was pounds 200,000. 'Let's just say it's much smaller than you would think,' Mr Smith said.

Away from a public platform, Gorby is an immensely likeable man. The jargon falls away, he stops pontificating, he enjoys a joke, he teases. He likes sharing experiences. Raisa, his wife, joins in from time to time to add detail to some anecdote.

Fifteen minutes from Bristol Parkway, he confessed. The most joyful moment in his life . . . well it wasn't being chosen General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or being made President. Marrying his wife, perhaps? Surviving the 1991 coup? All wrong. It was passing his licence to drive a combine harvester at the age of 14 in 1945. 'I had grown up and become a man,' he said.

He takes his farmyard skills very seriously indeed. The first entry in the jobs category of his CV reads: 'Assistant combine harvester operator 1945-1950.' According to keepers of the Marxist conscience, every good Communist had 'tractor experience'. Gorbachev was lucky to get a big one.

For a man who will be remembered for what he did as an adult - bringing down the walls across eastern Europe - Mr Gorbachev's most memorable experiences seem to go back to his youth in the Stavropol region north of the Caucasus mountains. They seem highly emotional. His father's return from the front in 1945 was one of them. He says he remembers running to meet him, 'crying and whooping with enthusiasm'. Another was being cheered by his colleagues at secondary school when he won an 'important state decoration' for an essay on Stalin. Then there was the telegram which said he had won a place at Moscow University. Sitting on his combine harvester, it never crossed his mind that he might one day be running the country. His reformist beliefs, he said, evolved over the years; there was no Road to Damascus. There were several people who had inspired him - last century's tsars Alexander I and II, for example. He was also rather fond of Napoleon.

Of recent Russians, the greatest influence had been Khrushchev, the Communist Party leader who denounced Stalin and was crushed by the old bear Leonid Brezhnev for his attempt to reform the system. Khrushchev was followed in number two slot by Mr Gorbachev's mentor, Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief and party boss.

Mr Gorbachev does not like revolution. He likes gradual and well-controlled change. At Oxford Town Hall he gave students who had stayed on after the term ended a ramble into the future.

His idyll would take the best of capitalism and socialism. It would reject confrontation as a way of solving problems. Co- operation would replace competition, tolerance would prevail and diversity would be encouraged. Exploitation of the environment would cease.

Listening on the platform was Norman Stone, Oxford's Professor of Modern History and sometime speech-writer of Lady Thatcher. Professor Stone said the Gorbachev view of the world reminded him of Lenin's 'useful idiots' - those idealistic men and women from the West who flocked to Russia after the revolution to see the new dawn. They just got in Lenin's way, and anyway the dawn was eclipsed.

Perhaps Mr Gorbachev should go back to the thing he likes doing best - mowing the steppes of Russia. You can imagine him in old age with Raisa by his side, her hair in a red scarf, sitting together in the cabin of their harvester.

Maggie might be with them making a pot of tea. That's how I would like to remember Gorby, instead of the sight of his private plane taking off from Bristol Airport with a stiff westerly to help him on his way back to Moscow in time to vote in today's election. After all, he said the poll was a bit of a hoax.

(Photograph omitted)