What was your greatest fear as children, o Readers?
Mine, between the ages of six and twelve, was nuclear war. In the early Eighties the eventuality was a heavily discussed subject in the news and everywhere. Besides, a career officer father and a whole family very keen on international politics meant that I heard a lot of mealtime discussion of what the USSR and the States might do to each other over our heads. In addition there was a spate of fiction and nonfiction stories about it – and I had a knack for watching and reading what I should not. Oh, the nightmares I got out of watching The Day After! And I saw those Soviet leaders on the news, so hard-eyed and grim, and they rather looked like people who’d have little qualms in destroying the world… At one point I even wrote a letter** to the then General Secretary of PCUS Andropov, explaining to him how bad it was, and could he please not bomb us? Yes well – but I must have been eight or nine.
What I failed to understand then was that, while the eventuality definitely existed, it wouldn’t happen at the drop of a hat. I was genuinely terrified that, at any moment, we’d be forced to hide in the vaults, and be prepared to drive the neighbours away*, and if we ever emerged alive, the world would never be the same again. The day I heard on the news that I don’t know what negotiations had failed, I remember spending a sleepless night wondering why we weren’t getting our shelter ready, and how many of my stuffed animals I’d be allowed to bring with me. You may wonder what my parents were thinking – but I was not an especially talkative child, and the fact is, they never realised how pervasive and deep-seated my fear was.
And then came Gorbachev.
I was all of eleven when he succeeded to Chernenko, and like everyone else I saw at once that he was… different. Younger for one thing, and he smiled! And he had an equally smiling, stylish wife, and most of all, he talked to the West. From the beginning it was clear that the man meant to open another, entirely different era. And he succeeded, too. I have this very vivid memory of Gorbachev and Reagan shaking hands and smiling under a white porch in Reykjavik: that’s the exact moment when my fears dissolved.
So yes: at twelve Gorbachev was my hero.
That was in 1986, and it was not long before I began to see things in larger terms than my own personal fears. The world was changing rapidly, walls were falling, geography was shifting, history was happening – and Gorbachev was a key actor in all this glorious turmoil. I admired him enormously, and I remember tearing up, in 1991, when he boarded that plane with his wife: a tragic figure of a great man undone.
Later I made friends with a bunch of Ukrainians – and I was surprised to see how much their opinion of Gorbachev differed from mine. “To us, to the West, he was a kind of Man of Destiny,” I explained, only to be told, rather coldly, that yes, to us he would seem so. When I traveled to Russia, I found more of the same: some blamed him for destroying the USSR, those who didn’t, mostly, thought he had not finished what he’d started…
And yes, of course it is different seen from there, and there is no doubt that Gorbachev made mistakes, and things took directions he definitely had not meant. Still, the Man of Destiny in so many ways.
And now he’s dead, and what can I say? I’ve teared up again on learning of it, thinking of the courage it must have taken to do what he did, of the decisions he made, the things he accomplished, the weight he must have borne, the regrets, inevitably, the memories, the fears, the triumphs. A long illness, they say. I wonder what his awareness was this past half-year or so. I wonder what he thought of this war – the man who, half a life ago, closed the door on one world, and heralded in a new one.
* This one I blame on a BBC documentary on how to survive a nuclear attack that the Italian TV helpfully showed.
** It was addressed to Signor Yuri Andropov, Cremlino, Mosca. I filched a stamp and posted it in secret on my way to school. I never heard about it again – but probably never traveled very far. As a child, though, I found it rather unfair that Mr. Andropov should answer – with great media fanfare – the American little girl who later did the same – and not even send a little note to me.