Classmates Report : Gorbachev in College: Bold and Critical
Chopped liver was served, pickles and shredded cabbage were passed around, a few toasts with vodka were drunk and the reminiscing about Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’s college days began.
Photos and anecdotes from the old days were once again exchanged over dinner in a small Moscow apartment last month, as they have been each year since this small group of about 15 of Gorbachev’s classmates graduated from the Moscow University law school in 1955.
For five years, these people had taken the same courses, shared the same dormitories and waited in the same lines for tickets to the ballet and theater. They have kept in touch over the years, and Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, had joined them at previous reunions, though this time other duties intervened.
These friends knew the Soviet leader during the formative years of a new Russia as well as a new Gorbachev. It was the period during which Josef Stalin died and Nikita S. Khrushchev began his rise to power; a period during which a rube harvester driver from the grain regions of southern Russia came to Moscow with his one good suit, learned as much as he could about the larger world, and returned home five years later--still in that same suit--to launch a political career that now brings him face to face next week with the President of the United States.
Just how did the stagnant, conformist Soviet society produce a leader apparently committed to reform? Is Gorbachev’s preoccupation with change a public relations device designed to woo Western audiences and lull the Soviet public, or is it real?
Definitive answers are elusive. Soviet leaders traditionally are secretive about their private lives. But talks with Gorbachev’s classmates provide a rare glimpse of the party chief’s personality during an important period of his life. Their firsthand knowledge of his subsequent career is, of course, limited to occasional personal contacts.
The Guy They Knew Then
On one point, however, his college mates--not all of whom agree with every aspect of his current program for restructuring Soviet society--are unanimous: The guy in power today is the guy they knew back then. Their only surprise is that someone with Gorbachev’s qualities could make it to the top. And some fear he may not be able to stay there.
The people who lived with Gorbachev in his youth are not surprised by his bold behavior now. They recalled his toughness in openly criticizing the professor in their class on Stalin’s writings, his tendency to scoff at official propaganda’s overblown claims and his loyalty to friends under political suspicion during Stalin’s last years.
One of those friends was his closest, Vladimir Lieberman, a Jew eight years his senior, who came under attack during the anti-Semitic hysteria generated when Stalin fabricated charges that a group of Jewish doctors had conspired to poison him.
Lieberman, a former Red Army colonel and decorated war veteran, was a member of the same party unit as Gorbachev. He recalled the incident this way: “Some comrades, sniffing the wind, tried to criticize me. I was the only Jew at the law school’s Communist Party meeting. Gorbachev had entered the party right before this event, but it was he who tried to prevent the attack on me and did so very sharply, using some unparliamentary words. He called one of our old and respected ex-soldiers ‘a spineless animal.’ That just stopped them.”
Is a Western reporter permitted to hear all this because of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness) or is he being fed a line by people who remain fearful of the next turn of the wheel of state power?
An Exile in Vienna
“It’s glasnost, " concluded Zdenek Mlynar, who has no need to fear. Mlynar, a Czech national, had lived across the hall from Gorbachev during college and regarded him as his closest friend. He is now in exile in Vienna, one of those who tried to reform Czechoslovakia 20 years ago as, in his view, Gorbachev is attempting to do now in the Soviet Union.
“I can remember the day when it was reported in the papers that the Jewish doctors had been arrested,” Mlynar said during a recent interview in Vienna. “I was walking with Gorbachev and some others, and they were talking about it. Somebody from the group said, ‘Today, I don’t want to be in Lieberman’s shoes.’ Gorbachev said to be silent. Gorbachev and I had a very high opinion of Lieberman. He wasn’t a Jew for him, but somebody to look up to as a typical Communist.”
According to Mlynar, he also personally benefited from Gorbachev’s personal loyalty.
Rumors of Arrests
“It was important that you could depend on him as an individual. For example, I can remember in the year ’51-'52 there were the political trials in Prague and I was criticized in the Czech Moscow party group as a potential party enemy. When the general secretary of the party in Prague was arrested, there was a rumor that I would be arrested, too.
“I remember that I could talk openly with Gorbachev about these matters but that it never affected him and we stayed friends. Gorbachev didn’t withdraw from me, and that wasn’t simple in those days. If I had been called back to Prague, it could have been unpleasant for Gorbachev as well.”
Debates and Dancing
But for Mlynar, Lieberman and others from their university circle, Gorbachev’s formative years were not simply the bad old days. In fact, Westerners are surprised to hear that their recollections of that time center not on purges, but on the joys of friendly political debates, exploring Moscow and learning ballroom dancing.
Gorbachev met Raisa at such a dance class, where he had gone to heckle Lieberman, an enthusiastic student of the waltz.
In the fading photos from that time, Gorbachev is handsome enough with thick hair covering the now famous red birthmark on his forehead. His secret weapon with women was that he was, in the words of an English-speaking friend, “nice--not the typical Russian domineering male.”
Some who were present at his marriage to Raisa in 1954 remember that she was considered quite a catch, and Mlynar says she was attracted to Gorbachev by his “lack of vulgarity.”
“A real Russian man is authoritative, domineering and the woman is partially an object for him,” said the former Czech official. “Gorbachev was never that type of person. Their relationship was always a partnership, which would be normal elsewhere.”
Gorbachev’s other college friends clearly are proud that Gorbachev, who also holds a degree in agriculture, is the best educated Soviet leader since Lenin. They also recall that Raisa, who has a doctorate from Moscow’s Lenin Pedagogical Institute, played a key role in broadening Gorbachev’s interest in Moscow’s cultural life.
“Raisa had a much stronger grounding in literature and Misha (the diminutive form of Mikhail) was very eager to become familiar with that world,” said Nadezhda Mikhaleva, who herself went on to teach law.
“Raisa would take him to plays and concerts, and we all thought she complemented him perfectly,” Mikhaleva said. “Raisa was very smart, as well as being very pretty, and she’s still both. So, why shouldn’t she play a leading role?” Mikhaleva said, with the air of one who had a score to settle with a few male chauvinist Russians she had met in her day.
Gorbachev himself was no slouch as a college student. He was, Mlynar recalled, “exceptionally intelligent, open, curious about everything.”
Mlynar recalls that he felt closer to Gorbachev than to any of the other students. Both men fell in age and experience somewhere between the two groups of students then most typical at their elite university.
One was a hard drinking group of war veterans, who seemed preoccupied with their combat experience and their vodka. Another was the incoming younger generation that seemed apolitical and otherwise untouched by the devastating experiences of the previous decade.
Gorbachev had lived in the shadow of the advancing Nazi army. He was 14 when World War II ended and by that time had been pressed into service running harvester machines just outside his hometown of Privol’noye, near the larger city of Stavropol. He was decorated for his work and that, along with his natural intelligence, brought admission to Moscow University’s prestigious law school.
At the recent reunion here, however, a friend recalled that Gorbachev “never wore his worker’s medal to exams as some of the others did to curry favor with the instructors. Misha just wasn’t like that. He wanted to make it on his own.”
Unlike so many of his classmates, the young farmer had no high-level political connections, though his grandfather had been chairman of a collective and may, some believe, have suffered during Stalin’s purges.
Last spring, in a private meeting with Soviet newspaper editors, Gorbachev pointed to two of his Politburo colleagues--Alexander N. Yakovlev and Yegor K. Ligachev--and said that all three had family members who had suffered under Stalin.
In fact, Gorbachev’s college chums all had family members touched by Stalin’s tyranny. Yet they remember the post-war years as a period not just of austerity, but of idealistic pride. “Stalin had saved the world from fascism and the repression of the 1930s seemed a dim memory,” said Mlynar.
“We were more idealistic than the young generation today,” said Mikhaleva, “maybe because we didn’t have much. I had one pair of shoes with wooden soles, one dress for everyday wear.”
According to Lieberman, Gorbachev himself had a single pair of everyday pants, which he went on wearing even after they were torn in his sophomore year.
All agree that the future party chief was a high-spirited though never wild participant in their school’s life.
“Misha never liked to drink,” confided one of Gorbachev’s former roommates. “Once in a while he did, but it was not important to him,” he said with a 30-year-old touch of wonder at this deviation from national tradition.
And though the reunion crowd was made up largely of sedate, Establishment people, they also made it clear they could live without the long liquor lines that Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign has produced. They were similarly wary of the threatened price increases so basic to Gorbachev’s new economic campaign.
“If Gorbachev had taken over 10 years from now, he’d be greeted by everyone as the Messiah because things would be visibly falling apart,” observed Lieberman, who strongly supports Gorbachev’s program. But he is now a professor of industrial management and knows a great deal about the harsh facts of the Soviet economy.
No Vocal Opposition
Some of the others may be ambivalent about the new ways, as befits middle-aged graduates of the Moscow law school who have found their niche and feel they have something to lose in the strong winds of change. But there are no vocal opponents among them.
Nor do they seem the least bit surprised with the open style of the man who is now their leader or that he is dramatically shaking things up. He is remembered as the very popular leader of their school’s Komsomol--the Communist youth organization--who was, in the words of one, “never pompous, he was always down to Earth with a good sense of humor.”
“The thought that Gorbachev might sit in the Kremlin instead of Stalin, that would have been an absurd concept back then,” said Mlynar. “But it would have been absurd back then to think that I would be in the Hilton in Vienna as an immigrant giving an interview to the Los Angeles Times. Everything is absurd. But I can say that Gorbachev belonged to those who stood apart from everyone else. He was never an average person.”
Independent in Judgment
And, for a Komsomol leader and a party member, he was independent in judgment.
One classmate recalls that Gorbachev publicly scoffed at propagandistic documentaries about the achievements of Soviet agriculture, having himself recently experienced the deprivations of life in the countryside.
Gorbachev, Mlynar agreed, detested “that colorful propaganda that made everything look so good. He always confronted it with reality and spoke about it ironically, especially the films of Stalin’s period.
“There was a film about the success of the kolkhozes (collectives) in the north Caucasus, and Gorbachev said in reality it’s not at all like that. In the film, the tables were full of foodstuffs, and Gorbachev, who came from this particular area, said it’s not like that at all. So he was always an opponent of the typical propaganda of that period that made everything look much better than it really is.”
“One of the most striking features of Gorbachev,” said Lieberman of their student days, “was that he was on the verge of non-conformity.”
Extra Class Hours
Lieberman went on to recount an incident attendant to the publication of a new work by Stalin. Extra class hours were ordered for the study of this extremely dry work, which among other things meant the loss of the students’ lunch hour. The additional class was taught by an expert brought in from the outside, who proceeded to simply read aloud from page after page of the new tome.
Gorbachev and Lieberman penned an anonymous note to the lecturer pointing out that all of the students present had been admitted to the Moscow law school and, therefore, presumably could read.
The visiting lecturer was incensed at the note, read it aloud to the class and pronounced its author an obvious opponent of all things socialist. At that point Gorbachev rose to take responsibility for the act, observed that he was a dedicated Communist and the leader of the Komsomol and that the problem was not with socialism, but rather with pedantry.
In the ensuing brouhaha, Gorbachev was chastised by higher officials, but the lecturer was replaced by one who was more open to classroom discussion.
Gorbachev survived, became a full member of the Communist Party in his second year and returned home after graduation to begin his career as a party organizer in the grain-rich rural region of Stavropol. It proved a time of uncertain change.
A year later, at a meeting at Stavropol party headquarters, the party faithful were summoned and, under the tightest security, heard a reading of the speech that Khrushchev had delivered to the 20th Party Congress on the crimes of Stalin.
That speech, soon published in the West, is still not publicly available in the Soviet Union. But its effect on the party faithful, by most accounts, was devastating. It detailed a pattern of madness and repression that they had tended to discount as aberrational. The conclusion seemed inescapable that something was rotten with the system that had permitted all that.
Shaken by Revelations
Gorbachev subsequently told Mikhaleva that he was shaken by the revelations of the 20th Party Congress. “I remember he admired greatly Khrushchev for raising the issue of the victims of Stalin,” she said
But, as Gorbachev has recently pointed out, Khrushchev himself failed to grasp the obvious, that democratization of the political process was the essential barrier to a return of Stalinism.
“But the failures of the reforms undertaken in that period were mainly due to the fact that they were not backed up by a broad development of democratization processes,” Gorbachev stated in his recent speech on the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Khrushchev failed in another way, perhaps of more immediate concern to a young party official such as Gorbachev trying to make the system work as he moved up through its ranks. Instead of overhauling the whole economy, as Gorbachev is now attempting to do, Khrushchev contented himself with an hysterical and contradictory barrage of directives for change in day-to-day operations, particularly in agriculture.
Deposed in 1964
When Khrushchev was deposed in 1964, Gorbachev, who by then was traveling periodically to Moscow for party congresses and other meetings, would confide to his friends his hopes for thorough reform as opposed to the crazy patchwork of the Khrushchev era.
He was to be bitterly disappointed with the rise of Leonid I. Brezhnev to power. He told Mlynar, who visited him socially in 1967, that he considered the Brezhnev appointment an interim one; he must have been deeply chagrined to witness it endure for 18 years.
Mlynar had returned home to Czechoslovakia upon graduation and became a top academician and leader in the ruling Communist Party. He was prominent during the reform period known as the “Prague Spring” and visited Gorbachev in Stavropol in 1967, one year before Brezhnev dispatched Soviet tanks to crush the Czechs’ experiment in socialist reform.
Party Leader of Stavropol
Gorbachev met him at the airport and Mlynar chuckled that his old friend clearly was an important party bureaucrat because he has come to wear the wide-brimmed, old-fashioned hat made famous by the likes of Khrushchev and Andrei A. Gromyko, then the Soviet foreign minister. By then, Gorbachev had attained the important rank of Stavropol party leader.
Two years later, he would be deputy director of the entire region, and, two years after that, a member of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party Central Committee. He was clearly doing well.
After their visit, Mlynar came away convinced “that Gorbachev belongs to the group of people in the Communist Party in the Soviet Union who are interested in reforms.”
How did he know Gorbachev was reform-minded? They spoke about the problems after the period of Khrushchev’s rule and what was being done in Prague by Mlynar and others. “And we both understood that reforms were necessary, that the party couldn’t continue the way it was,” Mlynar said.
Off Mark on Brezhnev
Although Gorbachev referred to Brezhnev as a weak man who would be out in a few years, he was proved far off the mark. Brezhnev’s tanks crushed Mlynar’s reforms the next year and Gorbachev went back to minding his business in Stavropol for the next decade.
Mlynar remains convinced that, up to then, his old friend “was not interested in attaining power for its own sake but as a means of achieving something.”
Again, how can a system of such monumental corruption permit the rise of one who Mlynar refers to as a “man of integrity?”
“Thousands of people with these characteristics have been destroyed precisely because they had these qualities and yet one manages to survive,” Mlynar mused. “It can happen. This is a typical situation for societies that have a crisis situation.”
Helped by Andropov
Not at all naive about the ways of Communist Party power struggles, having been destroyed in one himself, Mlynar added, “For sure, the help through (late Kremlin chief Yuri V.) Andropov was a condition.”
Andropov, a native of Gorbachev’s region who liked to vacation there, had become head of the KGB secret police in 1967 and began building a base of those who were opposed to the emerging corrupt life style within the party elite. Gorbachev fit the bill, and they struck up a close friendship that was to prove decisive in the young party official’s final rise to power.
Gorbachev was getting good economic results in his region. He had established a reputation for economic experimentation, honesty and hard work that became an increasingly rare commodity as the Brezhnev years unfolded, and Andropov let other reform-minded people know it.
Thanks largely to Andropov’s assistance, according to party insiders interviewed in Moscow, Gorbachev was brought to Moscow in 1978 as the Central Committee’s secretary for agriculture.
Whether through the luck of the weather or skillful innovation, his first year was an enormous success: The harvest of 1978-79 was the biggest in Soviet history. His reward was an appointment as candidate--or non-voting--member of the ruling Politburo.
Unfortunately, the next year’s harvest proved disastrous, but Gorbachev managed, as he often has, to turn adversity to his advantage. Rejecting Soviet agriculture’s traditional wild schemes to till virgin land and divert rivers, he emphasized the nuts-and-bolts problems of storage and road construction, and the Politburo endorsed his approach.
That was in the spring of 1982. Six months later, Brezhnev was dead and Andropov came to power. Though in failing health, the dour former KGB chief nonetheless represented a boon for the reformers, particularly in the economic sphere. Gorbachev found himself in the middle of the action.
Chernenko Takes Power
But then came Andropov’s death after 15 months in office and, as one current Gorbachev confident put it, “the disaster of Chernenko.”
Konstantin U. Chernenko, chosen to succeed Andropov, seemed to confirm Western Kremlinologists’ predictions of a self-perpetuating gerontology of Soviet leaders that would leave no room for the reformers of Gorbachev’s generation until they, too, were sufficiently infirm that they would not threaten the established order.
According to Moscow insiders, Chernenko represented a compromise in a power struggle between the old Brezhnev forces and the group that had assembled around Andropov. Chernenko got the top post, but the Andropov people augmented their strength and, when Chernenko died 13 months later, Gorbachev was able to win out.
“Who would have thought,” observed a slightly bewildered Mlynar, “that I would be an emigre in Vienna for espousing the same ideas that have now brought Gorbachev to the top of the Kremlin--namely, to change the system in such a way that you have an economic reform, which is accompanied by political change and democratization and that society cannot be modernized in any other way?”
But then this veteran of lost causes, a Communist who saw his own dreams of reform crushed, paused to caution: “If Gorbachev has a flaw, it is that he may tend to exaggerate his ability to overcome the obstacles in his way.”