A Laggard in the Race, but a Leader Nonetheless

That Russia is holding its first presidential election at all is a tribute to candidate Mikhail Gorbachev

When the history of the 20th century is written, not many leaders will have played a more influential role than the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. The man who presided over the collapse of communism and the winding down of the superpower arms race - who arguably brought more freedom to more people than anyone since decolonization - is now battling at the bottom of the Russian electoral heap in his quest for the Russian presidency.

How could this Nobel Peace Prize winner, who helped nurture this quasi-democracy, lag so far behind an unknown eye surgeon, a faceless Communist apparatchik, and a man whom Mr. Gorbachev himself lifted from the obscurity of Moscow's town hall? It's a reminder of how revolutions consume their creators.

With the world nervously focused on Russia's uncertain future, it seemed a good time to ask a few questions. We arrived in Moscow during the home stretch of Russia's first presidential campaign to tape an interview for the long-running PBS series, "Talking with David Frost."

We found that Moscow cab drivers have a different take on Gorbachev than the world's diplomatic elite. They speak dismissively about the man who had replaced a rapid triple succession of Kremlin hard-liners. Blame flows mercilessly (and recklessly) in Gorbachev's direction: the loss of an empire, the rise of the deadly Russian mafia, dwindling state subsidies for the elderly. Not even high schoolers, who blithely rollerblade in black hip-hop clothing around the periphery of the Kremlin walls, seem to have a touch of indebtedness to the father of glasnost and perestroika. Indeed, it almost seems impossible that one person could be blamed for so much. Gorbachev's poll ratings hover at 2 percent.

Since Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day, 1991, his personal empire has moved about eight miles from the 13th-century Kremlin to a sixth-floor, mock Athenian-style building at 49 Leningrad Prospekt. It is here that the Gorbachev Foundation, an ecological think tank, is discreetly housed in the second floor of a building that was described to me as a financial accounting institute. A dreary, Russian-speaking soldier stood at the front door holding a machine gun.

Our production team was led upstairs. Only a hanging 4-by-6 foot map of the world hinted at the stature of our host.

We were soon joined by Gorbachev's translator, Pavel Palazchenko, the once-famous mustachioed aide who shadowed Gorbachev at superpower summits in Geneva; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Washington. Our researchers told us that Pavel was one part translator, two parts confidant.

Gorbachev burst into the room minutes late. His eyes were alternately steely cold and warm. If nothing else, he exuded power and magnetism. Candidate-style, he walked up to each of the three cameramen, exchanged a few words and even a joke.

As I looked at Gorbachev, my mind pulled up dazzling images of him in Reykjavik, his address to Congress, and the ecstatic throngs just down the street from the White House. But the candidate was getting impatient with small talk, unaware that this was a well-honed and intentional stratagem intended to buy time for the technicians to tweak lights and adjust sound levels.

"Let's go on. Let's begin," he said with the firmness of one accustomed to giving orders.

With Pavel and Sir David's own translator in place, Sir David began with the upcoming June 16 election. On President Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev did not mince words:

"Originally, I thought that Yeltsin was the man I needed badly and later I figured out that Yeltsin was a dangerous person," Gorbachev said. He added that he suspected fraud in the upcoming elections, placing the blame squarely on Yeltsin, who controls the election commissions. With a trace of anger, he talked about how Yeltsin took away his government phone - "that rank-and-file businessmen get" - and was even now placing bugs. "I guess they're tapping us even now, so make sure you are sending this interview as soon as possible."

Gorbachev quickly turned to the leading Communist in the race, Gennady Zyuganov. His tone was dismissive. "He has never been a statesman. He has never held serious posts.... The only kind of experience he has is in ideological work." Gorbachev went a step further: "The people who are around him are the people who were behind the 1991 coup d'tat. Democracy is not safe at all."

Of right-wing nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Gorbachev said, "He's just a gambler, an actor." Even in his criticism, Gorbachev showed none of the angst of a reaching politician. Only once - when he complained about how Russian media routinely underestimate audience size at his rallies - did he sound like someone on the hustings. What he was suggesting was clear: The others are simply bit players in a sweeping saga. If Russians don't understand that, they will pay the price for years to come.

Though the race was still more than a fortnight away at the time of the interview, Gorbachev seemed to have a fail-safe eye on history. "I only lose when and if the election does not take place. Should the election take place, consider me a winner. If a representative of the democratic coalition wins the presidential post, I win twice."

Sir David pulled Gorbachev away from the upcoming elections to history, and to the equally unpleasant secrets of the so-called Evil Empire. Gorbachev spoke expansively on the secret 1939 protocol between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia in 1939. "It was obvious from this telegram that indeed there was a secret protocol." He trashed Stalin again and again. Asked about whether there was a link between Lee Harvey Oswald and the KGB, Gorbachev said he had nothing new, then rushed in with a caveat. "The CIA and KGB live in their isolated worlds, sitting in their ivory towers. They remain classified and closed even to their respective presidents."

He confirmed earlier reports that he was without the nuclear codes during his three days under house arrest in the Crimea in 1991. Those codes, he said, were in the hands of the fellow plotters back in Moscow.

"It must have been terrifying," Sir David said.

"Yes. Yes it is," Gorbachev answered solemnly.

He delivered former President Ronald Reagan the kind of compliment that American presidents never get from Soviet-era leaders. Explaining how it was Soviet - not American - leadership that had made a quantum jump from understanding the abstract madness of nuclear war into "real politics," Gorbachev reconsidered his claim. "And I have to give credit to my partner Ronald Reagan for that. Single-handedly, I wouldn't have been able to do it."

In the interview, Gorbachev was a man in charge of his brief, reeling away at high velocity. No, he didn't think there were prisoners of war left from Vietnam. Yes, Russia was on the road to giving the Kuril Islands back to Japan. No, neither China nor a united Germany were imminent threats to Russia. On one question, he drew a blank. "Was Alger Hiss," Sir David asked of America's favorite riddle, "a spy?" "I don't know who he is," Gorbachev said with a hearty laugh.

Gorbachev appeared to enjoy himself but never lost his sense of time, nor his dignity. At one point, he challenged Sir David: "It's been two hours," Gorbachev said, though the clock only registered 1 hour, 20 minutes. Sir David responded, "Three minutes, just three minutes."

"Done deal, no problem. Four minutes," Gorbachev said. He roared with laughter.

As the final minutes ticked away, Gorbachev returned to Yeltsin. He said Yeltsin was following him everywhere "to create obstacles." But then Gorbachev seemed to pull back, as if to say he didn't want to get caught up in all this pint-size child's play. Smiling, he said, "I am perfectly fine. I feel great. I can see everything."

Gorbachev Speaks Out on:

Yeltsin -- the man I needed badly but later figured out was a dangerous person.

Communist candidate Zyuganov -- He has never been a statesman, never held serious posts.

Right-wing nationalist Zhirinovsky -- a gambler and an actor.

American POWs from Vietnam -- There are none left.

Kuril Islands -- Russia is on the road to giving them back to Japan.

Reagan -- 'My partner' Ronald Reagan helped to end the danger of nuclear war.

CIA and KGB -- They remain classified and closed even to their respective presidents. And, as if to prove that, his answer to the question 'Was Alger Hiss a spy?': 'I don't know who he is.'

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