We had been talking for an hour, enjoying the kind of spirited conversation that used to occur among opinionated people in smoke-filled cafes, when I asked Dimitri Grechenko to put politics aside. I wanted a description of daily life in the Soviet Union since Gorbachev. Grechenko lived there until three months ago. What was life for the ordinary citizens in whom the fate of the Gorbachev reforms now rest?
"Well," he said, "starting in 1988-1989, our family started sometimes even to starve. We made a joke about it. We called it 'forced dieting,' as if Gorbachev wanted us all to lose weight for our health. We ate a lot of macaroni with a little butter and salt on it, and some tea, and that's all.
"Before Gorbachev, you would stand in line for one hour and get all the food you needed for one family for one day. After Gorbachev, you would stand in line for four hours, and then the food would not be very good. Before Gorbachev there was always canned meat and canned sardines and fish, bread and milk and butter, and always fruit. Later, I lived with my family in our apartment but I removed myself from the family budget. I had to. I had a job as a tutor and bought my own food, but only many times potatoes and eggs."
Some days, he would boil the potatoes and fry the eggs, or fry the potatoes and boil the eggs.
That was the life of the young Soviet, Dimitri Grechenko. This was life under Mikhail Gorbachev. This is how the ousted Soviet president became a victim of "diminishing popularity," then a victim of coup.
"In terms of how we lived, day to day," he said, "things were not better under Gorbachev, they were worse."
Grechenko sat at the dining room table of a house in Roland Park. He's the guest of a Baltimore man he met last year in Yalta, just south of Grechenko's home of Simferopol, in the Crimea. Grechenko, who is 22 and Jewish, wants asylum in the United States. His family remains in Simferopol. His mother is a gynecologist, his father a civil engineer.
Of course, there were many good things that came with Gorbachev. Incredible things. Soviet citizens could speak their minds and challenge their leaders; there was more freedom of expression. But you could not eat expression, Grechenko said.
"I am not siding with these guys, with this emergency committee that seized power," he said. "But things were not better under Gorbachev. Before Gorbachev, there was more discipline in the country. People were going on time to work and they were producing; there was always something to buy. But after a while, Gorbachev was talking too much and doing nothing, and his people started to do the same."
There are those who think Gorbachev was a fraud, that he never believed the Soviet system was evil, only inefficient.
"That is right," Grechenko said. "He brought some positive changes for a time. I expected to see an intensification of labor in plants and factories. He was bringing in modern technology. He knew he could not get investment from the West while the Soviet Union was supporting communist regimes all around the world, so he stopped a lot of that. But he wanted to maintain the communist-socialist system."
So he didn't go far enough fast enough?
"Going 'far enough' was never in his plans," Grechenko answered. "Gorbachev is the victim of the system he preserved. He didn't have the power to reduce the military. He was the good guy breaking down the walls of the Cold War, but at home he had to keep spending money on the military. The military people had a good standard of life, and Gorbachev didn't satisfy them that he'd maintain their standard of life. So . . ."
Gorbachev, this young student of politics said, had something in common with George Bush. "He went abroad and the people were at home starving, and you know, the average citizen looks at that and says, 'What are you doing? You should take care of your domestic problems,' which is exactly what people in United States say about Bush."
Now the hard-liners have seized power.
"I think [the coup leaders] will succeed," he said. "They'll feed the people, calm them down. There are 200,000 who might protest with Yeltsin, but most of the people are passive. They are not willing to barricade. There will be repression again, the people will have a worse life maybe, but at least they will have a life."
And a Second Coming for Mikhail Gorbachev remains in doubt. Not that Dimitri Grechenko would desire one. "This [military coup] is not how I would have got rid of Gorbachev," he said. "I would have liked to vote against him."