Flashback

A Lonely Visionary

A fantastic encounter with the Marked One.

By From the December 1987 issue

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“Sorry to bother you, but haven’t we met before? Aren’t you…what’s his name?”

“I doubt you’d know my name,” he said. “Nobody does these days.”

There was a trace of bitterness in his voice, just enough to prod my curiosity. On the whole, he was quite an ordinary looking old man, around seventy-five I would guess, with a flabby face and a bald head. But there, right on the top of his forehead, was the painfully familiar huge purple mark resembling the outlines of some exotic land on the globe. Perhaps South America, or even India…. I could swear I’d seen him before.

We were sitting in a bar on Fisherman’s Wharf, the most crowded spot in San Francisco, where you can run across anybody from this or the next world. California, as you know, has the reputation of a weird planet: if there are ghosts, this is their homeland. There is no way of knowing who you might see across the table. Was this fellow one of Hollywood’s old faces, a character from a great but unjustly forgotten movie? He looked a bit like Edward G. Robinson, or someone from The Untouchables.

“Have I seen you on television?”

“Yeah, sure, television.” He was obviously annoyed. “Plenty of times. And even on the cover of Time magazine. All you people know here is television and Time magazine. And if by some chance your face doesn’t appear on television for two weeks, you’re as good as dead. Finished, forgotten, condemned to oblivion. Don’t bother to recall my name, young man. I know, it’s beyond your ability anyway. But don’t say you don’t remember the story. THE STORY! I am the one and only General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ever to defect to the West. Does this ring a bell?”

To say I felt ashamed would be a gross understatement. I was devastated. How could I not recognize him? There he was in all his glory, Comrade Gorbachev, sitting right in front of me, drinking a vodka-tonic and in a very angry mood. That mark on his forehead…. What an idiot I am. Defection. How many times have I told myself never to speak to strangers in California?

Of course I remembered every detail of that spectacular affair, as if it took place yesterday. Was it fifteen years ago, or seventeen? No, it had to be more. Right, it was 1988, the last year of Reagan’s presidency. It happened at the Gorbachev-Reagan summit meeting in Washington, D.C.: the “first Soviet couple” suddenly asked for political asylum right in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. There was total confusion, complete chaos. Reagan first thought it was a joke and repeated it (off the record) to reporters—those crazy Russians with their black humor! But the couple insisted and refused to leave, hiding away from their own retinue somewhere inside the Old Executive Office Building.

Then there was great embarrassment and even panic: what about East-West relations? Above all, who the hell was going to sign the arms control agreement that was the whole point of the summit? Those damn Russkis! Couldn’t they have waited until the deal was signed? Under pressure from Congress, Reagan’s cabinet split over whether to accept the defection, and for a while the official version had it that the guests had fallen ill. The Soviets naturally offered to send their own medical team with intensive care equipment to set things aright, but the couple barricaded themselves in one of the OEOB offices together with Nancy, who came to negotiate a peaceful solution.

Meanwhile, the press got a whiff that something really big was going on, particularly after a security guard leaked the story to the Washington Times for $1 million. Infuriated by the cover-up, reporters demanded explanations and practically besieged the White House. Nobody could get in or out without being closely examined by the reporters. A huge crowd gathered outside, blocking all traffic, and grew into the thousands by sundown. The bets were one in ten that the couple would stay.

By morning, seeing the cat was out of the bag anyway, the Soviets claimed their leader had been abducted and they threatened to retaliate. Both sides went on nuclear alert, but a showdown was averted just in time: the defecting couple, pale and trembling, appeared before the press, hand in hand, and confirmed that they had indeed “chosen freedom.” This is how the world saw them on the news that night.

For a while, they were all over the place, on every talk show and news hour. They were incredibly popular. There was a pop song, “Gorby’s Gonna Stay,” by Huey Lewis; there were T-shirts, badges, even a fantastic docudrama called Escape from the Kremlin. Gorbachev was played by a magnificent young blond with blue eyes and a California suntan, though his role was secondary to that of his wife Raisa, played by Jane Fonda, who was clearly the main figure in the Kremlin and the mastermind of their escape—done, as she convinced the slightly dull but honest Gorby, to save humanity from nuclear holocaust. All he had to do was knock off a few of his colleagues from the Politburo, which he did in style. The ending was truly touching: the two of them, young and beautiful, appear on the steps of the White House before a jubilant crowd. I was quite moved the first time I saw it.

But then came the presidential elections with their usual razzle-dazzle and our “first couple” soon became yesterday’s news. Somehow, they never did explain properly why they defected. Surely not because of the swimming pools Reagan had shown them during a helicopter ride over suburban Washington.

“You see,” the old man now told me, “by the time we left for Washington, my reform was in a state of chaos. You may remember that it had three parts: perestroika (restructuring), uskorenie (acceleration), and glasnost (openness), and they were designed in precisely that order. In reality, we did achieve dramatic uskorenie, but we did not quite manage to pull off the perestroika—and all this, mind you, in an atmosphere of complete glasnost. Now, can you imagine what that meant? Who needs uskorenie without perestroika, when glasnost allows every fool in the country to see it? It’s like pedaling a bicycle without wheels, faster and faster, in the middle of a jeering crowd. And why, you may ask, did we fail? Because, on the one hand, the Party wanted only uskorenie and did not want to hear anything about either perestroika or glasnost. On the other hand, the military and the technocrats wanted perestroika, but nothing else, while the people were all for glasnost, and to hell with perestroika and uskorenie.

“So, it is easy to see that, given this correlation of forces in the country, we finally got uskorenie of glasnost, instead of uskorenie of perestroika. Although it might have pleased the people, it was certainly bad for the Party and the military and, therefore, very dangerous for me. On top of that, there was this damned arms control agreement with Reagan after which there was no hope for perestroika, while we stuck with uskorenie of glasnost. I simply could not go back home after signing my death warrant. “But how on earth could I explain any of this on a talk show or news program? Usually, I would barely have enough time to introduce the Marxist idea of basis and nadstroika (superstructure), and the show would be over. Yet, without any such explanation they simply couldn’t understand that uskorenie of glasnost is just a perestroika of nadstroika, or should I say, a restructuring of the superstructure, while real progress is impossible without a perestroika of the basis. So I gave up. Raisa would chat with them about fashions and diets, and I’d just smile and nod.”

“Wait a minute,” I protested, “there were some serious TV programs in those days.”

He smiled sardonically.

“Yeah, sure. Serious programs. I did find one, on prime time, one hour for all subjects. Ridiculous! I needed at least four hours, like at the Party Congress. But even that was better than the talk shows. Two wizards were leading the program: Mr. Indeed and Mr. Neither, Jim and Robin. Good evening, Jim. Good evening, Robin. They were doing all the talking. Who were they? Did they read Lenin? Did they know about basis and superstructure? No, but each had his own opinion. Very polite, very democratic: you have your opinion, I have mine. Idiots! I don’t have opinions, I have knowledge. I told them what I knew. Do you agree, Jim? Neither do I, Robin. Indeed, Jim. Indeed, Robin.

“It was even worse with the so-called experts! They never argue, but if your opinion differs from theirs, they simply ignore you. Well, they say behind your back, he has a chip on his shoulder. He is a defector, isn’t he? How can a defector be objective?”

“Amazing, isn’t it? When I was General Secretary, these very same people were all for ‘talking’ with me, for ‘understanding’ me, for ‘building bridges’ with me. Yet the moment I started to live among them, free to talk, they stopped being interested in understanding me, or talking with me, or building bridges. Am I different just because I am here?”

“When I was General Secretary, they called me ‘liberal,’ they found me ‘charismatic’ and ‘well-educated,’ they praised my every word. Now, I am ‘un-democratic,’ ‘dogmatic,’ and ‘unpleasant.’“

“Why didn’t you write another book?” I asked.

“What’s the point? You either write for a wide audience, and then it’s trash, or you write seriously, and then nobody reads it except those who ‘disagree’ with you. I did write three volumes, explaining everything, but I still don’t have a publisher. Anyway, Raisa wrote a book for both of us, My Life in the Kremlin, and it was a best-seller. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not complaining. We’re quite rich, we have a nice swimming pool. But I wanted to explain. Except nobody would listen . . .”

He was getting drunk and maudlin. I looked around. A couple of elderly joggers passed by, wheezing and coughing—the last survivors of a twentieth-century craze. On the waterfront, a group of naked girls were noisily protesting against equal rights for women, as they do every day. All around us, a festively dressed crowd was eating fresh crab and shrimp.

“Do you regret what you did? Would you go back? They’d shoot you if you did, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. But at least they remember me. And will remember, not like here. Anyway, what’s the difference? I’m already buried alive.”

“Why haven’t you tried, then?”

“I have. But they don’t want me back precisely because they have a good memory.” He looked at me and smiled: “Don’t you read the papers? They are about to sign another arms control agreement with the Americans.”

Indeed, there had been something on television the day before about a new era of “absolute frankness and honesty” in the United Soviet Republics of Europe, but I hadn’t paid much attention. Who the hell cares about those damned United Republics? 

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About the Author

Vladimir Bukovsky is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.