From Cold War to cool reception Mikhail S. Gorbachev: Lionized in the West as a peacemaker, the former Soviet leader stands virtually no chance in his quixotic run for the Russian presidency.

Sun Journal

March 02, 1996|By Will Englund and Kathy Lally | Will Englund and Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

When he was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail S. Gorbachev introduced a new word into the Russian language: "konsensus." But people got so tired of hearing about "konsensus" that it became a sort of running joke.

Now, in the fractured body politic of Russia, where the splinters have splinters, the idea of bringing people and ideas together seems unimaginable. But if there is a consensus about anything, it is this: Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev -- the man who brought an end to the Cold War, made democratic elections possible and yesterday declared his intention to run for president -- stands virtually no chance of being the people's choice in the presidential election.

And -- Communists, nationalists, democrats and monarchists agree -- deservedly so.

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, he is revered and respected in the West. He is wildly popular in Germany, where the Berlin Wall came tumbling down after he signaled that Moscow would do nothing to prop it up. To Westerners, he seems to be a recognizable form of politician -- accommodating, low-key, free of bombast. In fact, a consensus builder.

In Russia, though, he is seen as a poorly spoken hick, a waffler, a man who was blinded while in power by his furious desire to humiliate a certain upstart by the name of Boris N. Yeltsin.

He is reviled for having bungled perestroika, managing to set loose forces that would bring the Soviet Union crashing down while doing nothing to create a worthy successor.

"He speaks with a heavy southern drawl. His language immediately reveals him," Yevgeny Kiselyov, one of Russian television's most popular journalists, said recently during a visit to Washington. "He speaks in the perfect language of the party apparatchik who somehow got educated at a higher Moscow school."

Like George Bush, Mr. Gorbachev has a penchant for getting into sentences and not being able to find his way out of them again. His spoken Russian was perhaps unique in that great language's venerable history: It gained something in translation.

"Gorbachev's popularity in the West," Mr. Kiselyov says, "should be shared by his brilliant interpreter."

That may be harsh, but it reflects the way most Russians think.

Mr. Gorbachev hails from Privolnoye, a small village near Stavropol in the southern wheat-growing region of Russia. As a teen-ager, he was energetic and ambitious, one year winning a tractor-harvesting award that would only go to someone of exceptionally reliable political thought. He was the kind of bright and shining example, in other words, who would naturally attract the quiet scorn of those around him, even as he got ahead.

Unlike Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Gorbachev never had a circle of trusted friends -- no one other than his wife, Raisa, who could give him some quiet and sensible advice. He cold-shouldered his brother, rarely returned to Privolnoye once he had gone to Moscow, had (( little to do with his mother.

Russians sensed this. He is a man without ties, in a culture where life's web of connections is as natural as the air.

When he became general secretary of the Communist Party, on March 11, 1985, there was however a sense of something new.

At the age of 53, he stood for youth, vigor, the ascent of the postwar generation. Mr. Gorbachev understood that the old regime was tottering on rotten supports. He tried various cosmetic reforms in the usual Soviet mold, and then in 1988 unleashed glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("rebuilding").

Glasnost swept the Soviet Union. Speech and inquiry had never been freer.

Perestroika was a different matter.

At best, Mr. Gorbachev moved in fits and starts. He never managed to move on comprehensive reforms. Jack F. Matlock Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the time, says that Mr. Gorbachev should nevertheless be credited for laying the groundwork that eventually allowed a market-oriented and at least nominally democratic Russia to emerge.

Mr. Gorbachev himself has argued that he was not the strong dictator that Russian reformers imagined he was. He was constantly maneuvering around the conservative elements of the party, he says, bringing the Politburo along with him only with a great deal of cunning and cajoling.

He was particularly bedeviled by the ethnic aspirations that blossomed from the Baltics to the Caucasus to Central Asia, and that seemed to have blindsided his regime.

Mr. Gorbachev claims he was hemmed in by forces beyond his control. Mr. Matlock questions whether he ever had a good sense of what was going on -- again, that lack of trusted advisers who could give him good information.

Mr. Gorbachev certainly did not appear to know what was going on during a pivotal moment in recent Russian history. In August 1991, after some of his most trusted advisers tried to take control of the country in a coup, Mr. Gorbachev emerged from four days of captivity remarkably unchanged.

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