history, the real world today


Towards the end of Mikhail Gorbachev’s The New Russia (2016), Gorbachev recounts an anecdote told in a speech by Richard Pipes, the American historian of Russia and a former Cold War warrior, although this appelation is rather a simplification.

Pipes was given the task of giving a speech in honour of Gorbachev many years after Gorbachev’s remarkable years of presidency of the USSR, from which we still carry the words glasnost (openness) and perestroika (rebuilding). Pipes explained that in 1987, before the walls had come down across Eastern Europe, he had been given the task of reviewing Gorbachev’s account of what he was striving to do, in his book Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World. Pipes criticised the book as too tepid, and as not going far enough.

Twenty years later the two older men faced each other, and Pipes offered a mea culpa. He did so by recalling an anecdote from the reign of Catherine the Great, who kept a salon of French philosophes at her court as both ornaments for her Hermitage and as stimuli for her own project of rebuilding a greater Russia. Denis Diderot acted like the public intellectuals of all times and snarled with no fangs at his great patron for not pursuing political reforms as bold and as pure as reason dictated.

In a letter Catherine the Great responded:

“You, M. Diderot, propose sweeping changes, but you write on paper, which is very durable, whereas I must write on human skin, and that is very sensitive.”

So, Pipes said to Gorbachev, that night at a conservative American thinktank, when America could still delude itself it was the indispensable nation, now I understand you better.

Gorbachev, who is now in his mid-80s, provides an insightful account of the troubled course his country took after  the fall of perstroika, and he holds also a corrective mirror to the complacent West, who in a spree of stock market wealth for twenty years, believed that the market had solved fundamental problems of human social coordination.

In one chapter Gorbachev provides an extended response to Richard Pipes and reasserts the relevance of the new thinking of his perstroika for the world that we struggle to undersatand and act together in today. The world, he says of the New Thinking he fashioned in the 1980s, “still very much needs it today.”

This New Thinking is not “a set of dogmas or a code of practice,” and it evolved and adapted in response to new ideas and world events. But its basis was a stable core of three values: “recognition of the interconnection and interdependence of the world, of the indivisibility of global security, of the importance of human values and interests.” (pp 293-294) He quotes a speech he gave in 1992 that expresses the hope that from the challenges of globalisation a new “symbiosis” of the world’s people’s and cultures (including their cultures of resolving civil disputes also known as politics) can emerge in a world at peace, a multi-polar world that places greater value on healthcae, culture, human personality rather than the ceaseless machine of production and consumption at the service of financial markets.

And it is to this optimistic beleif that he returns, despite all the difficult turns of his own own country’s history towards the end of his book. He repeats his argument that

“The twenty-first century will either be a century of disastrous intensification of a deadly crisis, or the century in which mankind becomes more pure and spirtually healthier. I am convinced that we are all called upon to do our part to ensure the triumph of humanity and justice, to make the twenty-first century an age of renaissance, the century of mankind.”

In a way the courage and resilience of Gorbachev, who has nourished these convictions through many difficult years, is an inspiration, and surely an inspration as deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize as many of the gestures of recent years.

In another way, I wondered if America has not chosen in Trump its own Yeltsin, who with populist charisma and manifest deficiencies in rule, may deliver America to its own time of troubles. But what is bad for America may be good for the rest of the world.

So from its difficulties, from the death throes of its illusions about its place as the one indispensable nation in the world, may emerge Gorbachev’s promise of a new symbiosis of multi-polar world, committed to humane and democratic  model of development and of governing the world.

Image source: Moscow Times

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