Opinion: A Georgian remembers Gorbachev

An UGA emeritus professor explores what might have been and what may yet be.

The passing of Mikhail Gorbachev stirs thoughts about the past and future. As a college freshman in October of 1962, I learned that two men — John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev — could end human life as we had come to know it over a dispute in Cuba . When I joined the UGA faculty, I learned the rest of the story.

Dean Rusk — a native Georgian and U.S. Secretary of State — was at President Kennedy’s side through the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Also a new UGA professor, he told my class in 1970 that “We and the Russians were on the precipice of nuclear war.” Fortunately, the Russians agreed to remove their nuclear-tipped missiles from Cuba (and we quietly removed ours from Italy and Turkey). Cooler heads prevailed in 1962. But both countries kept (and still have) massive nuclear arsenals aimed at one another.

My research, teaching and service for UGA took me regularly to Russia and other parts of the world. In the mid 1970s my wife and I walked into Moscow’s Red Square and were asked by a Russian “Where you from?” Georgia in the USA, the state of Jimmy Carter, I replied. The Russian rejoined “We all know about Jimmy but tell me about Billy!”

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

The Russians and others behind the “Iron Curtain” were curious about Americans. Most wanted what we wanted — a family, an education, a good life. But international competition and “-isms” (communism, socialism, capitalism, etc.), the political forces behind and the leaders who represented them, often got in the way. We and our allies were committed to our values and the communists to theirs. And they and we invested precious resources in a costly nuclear arms race.

Decades after Khrushchev was ousted — and members of the Soviet gerontocracy repeatedly died on the job in the 1980s -- a younger, vigorous Russian appeared on the scene. Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was a dedicated and ambitious communist from the provinces and was suddenly propelled into the top position in the Kremlin.

Margaret Thatcher met him soon after in London and observed “This is a man we can do business with.” She recommended him to the dedicated anti-communist, U.S. President Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that Wall!”). Reagan and Gorbachev met, sat face to face, came to know and understand one another and agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.” In Reykjavik in 1986, they came close to agreeing to eliminate all of their nuclear weapons. Working together, they and others brought an end to the Cold War.

On the home front, Gorbachev recognized that Soviet communism was failing. He introduced “glasnost” (openness), “perestroika” (reforming economics and politics) and new thinking in foreign affairs. Although remaining a communist, he tried to bring positive change including “a new moral atmosphere” and elections to the USSR. But in December 1991, he was pushed aside by those on both the left and the right. It is uncertain what would have transpired if Gorbachev’s experiment could have continued, but it appears today that it would have been better than what we witness under Vladimir Putin.

Unlike previous Soviet leaders, Gorbachev was open to new ideas and thinking. In 1987 he published the book “New Thinking for Our Country and World. He wrote “It is my conviction that the human race has entered a stage where we are all dependent on each other. No country or nation should be regarded in total separation from another, let alone pitted against another.”

In 1999, UGA brought Gorbachev to Athens to share his new thinking with students, faculty and the broader community. Some 13,000 squeezed into Stegman Coliseum to hear him speak about international relations and environmental challenges. We learned from a world leader — by then the founder and president of both the Gorbachev Foundation promoting “democratic values as well as moral and humanistic principles” and Green Cross International promoting “global ecological law.”

No one can deny that Gorbachev stimulated hopeful new thinking and helped bring a peaceful end to Soviet communism and the Cold War.

In 2001, we brought Gorbachev back to Atlanta and presented him with UGA’s Delta Prize for Global Understanding. In his acceptance speech he said, “I want to salute the University of Georgia and Delta Air Lines for creating the prize and to express my appreciation for this recognition.” He met with our students and talked with all who wanted to meet him.

Earlier that day, he met privately with Sam Nunn and Ted Turner. I also met alone with Gorbachev, his daughter Irina and his longtime interpreter Pavel Palazhchenko. Gorbachev came across as a decent, warmhearted and curious man. He asked me about Georgia, our UGA students and my classes on international relations. He expressed his hope for a better world and moral, democratic change in Russia.

I pray that the wisdom Gorbachev shared in Atlanta, in Athens and worldwide will someday be realized. Russians, Americans and all of humanity deserve a better world.

A University Professor Emeritus, Gary Bertsch taught at the University of Georgia from 1970-2010. In 2014, he received the President’s Medal for longstanding and extraordinary contributions to UGA.