INSIDE Chico State
0 October 19, 2000
Volume 31 Number 5
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Gorbachev's Future: The Best of East and West

President Manuel A. Esteban with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
President Manuel A. Esteban with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mikhail Gorbachev, Nobel peace prize winner, former leader of the USSR, and current president of Green Cross International, brought a Russian history lesson and hopes for a brighter Russian future to Chico on October 8.

Gorbachev also brought his considerable charm, to the delight of those who met him. Pat Kopp, director of University Public Events, accompanied him on a walk through the campus at his request. He apologized for the change in date and expressed a genuine interest in and curiosity about Chico and the university. On the walk, he stopped before a huge oak and asked, "How old is this tree?" He asked about the number of books in the library and the number of departments at CSU, Chico, about the students and history of the school. "He was one of the most personable and charming guests I've had the privilege of hosting," said Kopp.

Kathy Kaiser, Sociology, asked a question from the audience about Gorbachev's late wife, Raisa. He talked of how they had met when he was 19 and she 18 years old and how they had been together 46 years. "She was a woman of deep feelings and response to all that was going on around her. I found on her desk, after her death, the outline for a book titled What Aches My Heart [What Pains My Heart]," said Gorbachev. "We shared many of the same concerns. One of the reasons I work so hard is that working on issues we both cared about is how I survive without her."

Gorbachev's speech was a change from the anticipated talk about his work with the environmental group he developed, Green Cross. He explained in introductory remarks that Gerald Ford had been in an audience several days before in Anaheim and made remarks about recent Russian history that were, in his mind, in error and would do injustice to the historical record. He focused his Chico lecture on Russian history, with most of his attention on the last 15 years.

The polluted Volga River serves as a main artery in Russia, with about half of all Russians living near it. Cleaning up the Volga has been a Russian goal for many years, and recently an extensive plan was developed. Because Russia is currently in dire financial straits, the plan has only partial funding. The river is now cleaner, but, Gorbachev said, "not so much as a result of that project, but as a result of the fact that 50 percent of the industries in that area are idle now because of the difficult economic situation and are not polluting."

The combination of horrendous environmental conditions and incremental improvements, of despair and hope that is the story of the Volga is also the story of a thousand years of Russian history. Gorbachev emphasized the necessity of understanding the long past as a base for understanding perestroika ("restructuring"), glasnost ("openness"), and Russia's uncertain future.

Gorbachev characterized the first thousand years of Russian history as a path of development, domination, serfdom, revolution, and a continuous engagement with other countries. The centuries of Mongol domination "affected the development of Russia by slowing down the dynamics of Russian development. It also affected the mind-set of the Russian people," Gorbachev said. Russian "expansion began after the liberation of Russia in 1380 from the Mongol domination."

Russian expansion from 1380 to the 20th century created a vast country that could only be ruled by a highly centralized government. Gorbachev said that centralization is still necessary because even today's smaller Russia spans 11 time zones. From the 17th century to the 19th century, Russia's system of serfdom retarded development. By the early 20th century, "the development of industry in Russia required that the government change," Gorbachev said. When the tsars did not make the changes, the Bolsheviks did.

After the revolution in 1905 and two in 1917, Lenin led Russia toward an idealistic future. "They attempted to build a utopia," Gorbachev said. "It was a reckless attempt." The Communists got rid of the old ways without instituting new ways, and the result was a time of upheaval and civil war. Seeing this "crisis of ideology and policy," Lenin made changes, allowing small measures of freedom and private property. His economic reforms took a country near collapse in 1922 and brought it to near pre-World War I levels of production by 1926. After Lenin's death, Joseph Stalin came to power and began a brutal, repressive totalitarian regime.

During Stalin's reign, Russia had many cultural, educational, and scientific achievements that allowed the country to fight Nazism during the second World War, but "the achievements came at a very heavy cost," Gorbachev said. Beginning in the 1930s, the Stalinist state took "total control of every school, every house, every family. And it was clear that this was totally contradictory to the sentiment and the wishes of the people."

By the 1970s, the USSR had improved economically, but "the system became intolerable for people, and people started to react and question the entire system." Nikita Khrushchev and other leaders' attempts at reform were met with quick reprisals from the entrenched bureaucracy. After the years of Brezhnev stagnation, something extraordinary happened. A new generation of leaders came to power. Gorbachev said, "Revolutionary reforms in Russia could only begin from the top." Learning from the past, he understood that although he wanted to democratize the country, he would have to be careful or risk being sent to Siberia. He started perestroika with a public announcement of political reforms, "which enabled our people to see political pluralism, to have free elections, freedom of faith, freedom of thinking, freedom of choosing. I had started the process of freedom and change throughout the country. This is when the real profound perestroika began."

Perestroika, from 1985 to 1991, was a policy of democratizing the country and restructuring economic, political, social, and cultural patterns of life in the USSR. Gorbachev believed all of this could be accomplished only with open and free discussions among the people. "Glasnost was the key to perestroika," he said.

Gorbachev blamed Boris Yeltsin for the interruption of perestroika and the current Russian economic morass. Today, about 75 percent of Russians live at or below the poverty level (set at $30 per month). But Gorbachev ended on a note of hope, urging support for President Putin and a new world order in which Russians and Americans enjoy good relations. He believes the "future society will be a society that integrates the positive achievements of liberal capitalism and also the positive achievements that existed under socialism." Like the Volga, the flow of Russia's future can be clear.

Gorbachev's visit was sponsored by the Office of the President, A.S. Chico, AT&T, KPAY, Chico Performances, City of Chico, The Group, PG&E, Butte College, and Financial Network.

Barbara Alderson


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