I’ve written dozens, if not hundreds, of better stories than the story about my 2002 interview with Mikhail Gorbachev. But the photo that my Omaha World-Herald colleague Kent Sievers gave me after that interview has long been one of my favorite photos of me on the job.
As you can see above, Gorby and I both have very serious looks on our faces and I’m busily scribbling his words in a reporter’s notebook.
I think I asked Kent at some point (no doubt before I had a scanner) for a digital copy of the photo. He couldn’t find it, so I got the photo scanned and posted it wherever I wanted online.
Well, Kent is archiving some of his old photos and found his shots of me with Gorby. I got an email this week with other photos from that day.
When Mimi saw the photo of us shaking hands, she said, “Look at all that hair! Look how thin you are! Look at the pens sticking out of your pocket.” Yeah, thanks, honey, I get it. That was a while ago.
I was interviewing Gorby at an Omaha hotel, before a speech there. I can’t remember whether it was a public speech that a colleague covered or a private gathering with no press access. I know he was in Nebraska for a speech at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to be covered by a colleague in the Lincoln bureau.
I had to show up a half hour or so before our appointed time at the hotel conference room where I would interview Gorbachev. I knew he would have an interpreter with him. The room had a couple of plush easy chairs flanking a lamp on an end table. Several standard padded conference-room chairs were scattered around the room, too. I carefully arranged the two easy chairs cocked at a slight angle to each other, facing me in a standard chair.
After that handshake, I gestured for Gorby to sit in one of the plush chairs. Ignoring me, he grabbed my standard chair. The interpreter sat in one of the plush chairs. I pivoted my chair slightly but spent the whole interview sitting in an awkward position between the man I was interviewing and his interpreter.
Gorbachev’s interpreter, Pavel Palazhchenko, translated his comments simultaneously. When one person is talking to you in your own language and one is speaking a language you don’t understand, the natural reaction is to look at the person you can understand. I did that for a question or two, but quickly realized I was having no eye contact and little engagement with the subject of my interview. When I turned to look at Gorbachev, while listening to Palazhchenko, the interview started going much better.
Generally when I blog here about old stories, I discuss how I’d do the story differently today, often explaining how I’d use video in the story. I’m sure Kent would have been able to do a good video of Gorby’s visit to Nebraska, but the interview, with simultaneous interpretation, would not have made good audio, because of the confusing audio of people speaking simultaneously. It might work with a lapel mic on Palazhchenko, so his words would be louder and clearer than Gorbachev’s.
Hell, the interview went well enough that Gorby signaled a touchdown.
Thanks to Kent, one of the best photographers I’ve been privileged to work with, for sending along the photos. Kent’s also an accomplished writer, author of the novel Little Man.
What I remember most from what Gorbachev said in the interview was how moved he was by his visit to Ground Zero. Reading my stories 12 years later, I wish our nation’s leaders had heeded his advice in 2002.
Below is my first story, banged out quickly for the evening edition of the World-Herald on March 14, 2002 (as I discussed yesterday, reporters at evening newspapers get adept at turning a story around quickly for a late-morning deadline). Thanks to World-Herald librarian Jeanne Hauser for sending me these stories:
Ex – Soviet president visits Omaha
The United States must continue to work with other nations in the war on terrorism, rather than taking unilateral action, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said Wednesday.
In an interview before the first of two Nebraska speeches, Gorbachev criticized President Bush’s characterization of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”
“Barbecuing countries and lumping together countries that are so different is not proper policy,” Gorbachev said. “It is more like literary rhetoric.”
For instance, he noted that secular leaders in Iran are in a power struggle with the Muslim clerics who have ruled since the late 1970s. “When the Iranians hear that they are part of an ‘axis of evil’ this could unite them in the face of danger,” Gorbachev said.
Speaking through an interpreter at the Doubletree Hotel in Omaha, the former Soviet leader urged the United States to continue working through the United Nations to seek inspections to verify that Iraq is not producing weapons of mass destruction.
“Let us not start by bombing, by waging war, by doing battle,” Gorbachev said, gesturing for emphasis. “If we go recklessly into war, this could lead to a situation that could go out of control completely.”
Gorbachev, who twice visited the World Trade Center in New York, was deeply moved by his visit Monday to Ground Zero.
“It brought back very vividly what happened on Sept. 11,” he said. He watched on television in his Moscow office as the plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. Gorbachev did not leave his office until 4 a.m., almost 10 hours after the attack.
“It was something incredible and unreal, like a Hollywood movie.”
He was especially moved in Monday’s visit by photographs of the victims and their families, especially those who left behind young children. “One could imagine the trauma that these people are living.”
The visit reinforced his support for military action against the al-Qaida terrorist network and for long – term action to fight poverty, which he said is the ultimate cause of terrorism.
He also noted the many nationalities of the people who died in the World Trade Center and stressed the importance of international action against the terrorists.
“It’s very important,” Gorbachev said, “to preserve the unity that emerged out of this.”
Gorbachev to U.S.: Don’t be reckless
In an emotional visit to Ground Zero on Monday, Mikhail Gorbachev noted the many nationalities of the people who died at the World Trade Center.
“The workers there represented practically the entire world,” Gorbachev said Wednesday in an interview before the first of two Nebraska speeches.
Photographs of the victims of the Sept. 11 attack underscored his belief “that we needed to unite in the face of this kind of attack, this kind of merciless aggression by international terrorists.”
The last president of the Soviet Union discussed the war on terrorism and other world issues in a half-hour interview at the Doubletree Hotel in Omaha, with translation by his aide Pavel Palazhchenko.
Gesturing frequently for emphasis, Gorbachev praised the United States for developing international support for the war on terrorism and encouraged Americans to continue working with other nations as the fight proceeds.
“It’s important to preserve the unity that emerged out of this,” he said. “I think the solidarity helped the American people to go through this trial.”
Gorbachev twice visited the World Trade Center when it was a symbol not of tragedy but “of the achievements of America.”
Monday’s visit, on the six – month anniversary of the attack, “brought back very vividly what happened on Sept. 11,” he said.
He had watched on television in his office at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow as the plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. Gorbachev did not leave his office until 4 a.m., almost 10 hours after the attack. “It was something incredible and unreal, like a Hollywood movie, and it was a shock.”
He was especially moved in this week’s visit by seeing photographs of children whom the victims left behind. “One could imagine the trauma that these people are living.”
While Gorbachev supported the military response against terrorists, he cautioned against “what I call a victory complex, a superiority complex.”
In the apparent victory in Afghanistan over Taliban and al-Qaida forces, “The United States played a decisive role, but it was not alone,” Gorbachev said. “It would be better to be affected by a different complex, a partnership complex.”
He criticized President Bush’s characterization of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”
“Barbecuing countries and lumping together countries that are so different is not proper policy. It is more like literary rhetoric,” Gorbachev said.
He noted that secular leaders in Iran are in a power struggle with the Muslim clerics who have ruled since the late 1970s. “When the Iranians hear that they are part of an ‘axis of evil,’ this could unite them all in the face of what they would feel is danger.”
Gorbachev said Bush’s statement might hurt efforts to unite North and South Korea.
Gorbachev urged the United States to continue working through the United Nations to seek inspections to verify that Iraq is not producing weapons of mass destruction.
“Let us not start by bombing, by waging war, by doing battle,” he said. “If we go recklessly into war, this could lead to a situation that would go out of control completely.”
The war on terrorism must go beyond military battles and attack the root cause, Gorbachev said.
“It is very important to put an end to the situation where half of the population of the world lives in dire poverty. If we think that we can fight poverty with the help of aircraft, tanks, missiles and artillery, that we can defeat terrorism just by waging war, that is wrong.”
With end of the arms race, he said, “we released resources that we hoped after the end of the Cold War would be used to fight poverty and backwardness.”
Instead, he said, a recent U.N. report showed that “the number of poor people has not diminished. It has actually increased, and the gap between the rich and poor countries has grown significantly.”
Gorbachev was disturbed by news reports last weekend that the Pentagon is developing plans for possible nuclear – war scenarios involving Russia and six other nations. He cautioned against reacting too strongly to leaks and partial information, and he said the disclosure could harm relations with other nations.
“On the one hand,” Gorbachev said, “the United States and Russia and other nuclear powers demand that other countries don’t develop nuclear weapons. The United States wants nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the United States in this way is brandishing nuclear weapons.
“It smacks of the Cold War again.”
And here’s one more story, the Sunday story I wrote in advance of his visit:
Gorbachev reviled, revered for role in Soviet Union’s fall
In the friendly heart of America, admirers snap up tickets to hear Mikhail Gorbachev as though he was a rock star, not the former leader of the “evil empire.”
In his chilly Russian homeland, though, Gorbachev won less than 1 percent of the vote when he ran for president in 1996.
The final leader of the Soviet Union, who will visit Nebraska this week for two speeches before packed houses in Omaha and Lincoln, is a paradox in his own time and in history.
“Most people in the United States view him as a hero,” said James McClelland, retired University of Nebraska - Lincoln history professor. “But most people in Russia view him as a failure.”
More than a decade after his fall, Gorbachev stands virtually alone in history: universally regarded as a giant of his age but one who presided over the collapse of a great power rather than its rise or dominance.
“He unleashed currents that he couldn’t control,” said Peter Tomsen, ambassador-in-residence at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Many Russians still blame Gorbachev for their nation’s economic woes, but the Soviet economy was in disarray when he became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985.
The two aged leaders who served short tenures after the 18-year reign of Leonid Brezhnev did nothing to improve the mighty empire’s many crises: factories that actually detracted from the value of raw materials, an agricultural system that could not feed the population, a protracted war in Afghanistan, a costly arms race.
Recognizing the need for change, but unable to imagine the transformation that lay ahead, the Communist Party leaders chose the 54-year-old Gorbachev as their next leader.
“The Politburo turned to the youngest member, and they got a joker who wasn’t going to play by the usual rules,” said Tomsen, a career diplomat who served in Moscow in the late 1970s. Tomsen was ambassador to the former Soviet republic of Armenia in the 1990s and was stationed in Beijing when Gorbachev visited in 1989, during the famed demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
Charles Timberlake, Russian history professor at the University of Missouri, said if U.S. leaders had compiled their wildest-dreams wish list in 1985, they wouldn’t have included everything that would happen under the new Soviet leader: ending socialism, halting the arms race, withdrawing from Afghanistan, dropping support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, stopping censorship and breaking up the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe. And, finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Nobody could even possibly have imagined a wilder scenario than that, even in the CIA,” said Timberlake, who lectured annually in Russia from 1992 to 2000.
Gorbachev’s early reign included the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that killed thousands and exposed millions to radiation. He later said the government was “short of information” about the disaster. Critics said he suppressed information.
“To those who were exposed to radiation, that remains a reason to hate him,” said Cathy Wanner, a Penn State history professor who was in the Soviet Union during perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness).
To attract Western investment and divert resources from arms production, Gorbachev had to end the Cold War and the arms race with the United States. “He had to convince the West that he was a leader that could be trusted,” Timberlake said.
Gorbachev charmed President Reagan, who had condemned the Soviet Union under Brezhnev as an “evil empire.” Gorbachev and Reagan negotiated actual reductions in nuclear arsenals.
At home, Gorbachev sought to unleash the productivity and creativity of his nation’s oppressed people. Through perestroika and glasnost, he took initial steps toward allowing free enterprise and expression.
The Soviet reformer thought that he could loosen the reins of totalitarianism but still maintain a grip. “He wildly misjudged the extent to which you can have a little censorship,” Wanner said. “For those who were aching for reform, his reforms were seen as not going far enough.”
To communist hard-liners, the reforms were heresy. Much of the time, observers feared Gorbachev’s demise. He survived, McClelland said, by “playing the party apparatus like a violin.”
Citizens loved the taste of freedom and hungered for more.
McClelland recalls studying in Moscow under earlier regimes, when Russian friends feared visiting him or talking to him on the phone. “During glasnost, my friends visited me in my hotel room. We just talked about anything, not in whispers and not looking around.”
To his admirers, Gorbachev’s greatest achievement was his restraint as the Berlin Wall came down, Eastern European countries ousted communist leaders and Soviet republics pushed for independence. Past Soviet leaders used the Red Army to smash efforts to reform communism in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“Gorbachev could have brought out troops to try to keep the union together and he did not,” McClelland said. “That’s one of the miracles of his whole rule.”
Tomsen noted, “This is one of the few times in history, and certainly the most significant, when you had the collapse of one major power bloc without a major war.”
Hard-liners tried to regain power in an August 1991 coup while Gorbachev was at his vacation home. Russian President Boris Yeltsin thwarted the coup, but the demise of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev’s power was by then inevitable.
By the end of 1991, Tomsen said, “Gorbachev was without a government and without a country.”
I did a timeline sidebar for that story. Today, of course, we’d use a tool such as Timeline JS to put together an interactive timeline, incorporating photos and videos.
Man of history
1952: Mikhail Gorbachev joins Communist Party.
1978 – 1985: Serves as agriculture secretary of the party.
1985: Becomes general secretary of the Communist Party.
1986: Initiates a period of political openness (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika).
1987: Signs arms limitation treaty with United States.
1989: Ends Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
1990: Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
1990 – 91: Serves as president of the Soviet Union until its disintegration.
1992: Becomes president of the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (the Gorbachev Foundation).
1993: Founds nonprofit organization, Green Cross International