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Gorbachev Plays The Election’s Don Quixote Role, Attacking Windmills He Helped Create

The hall was ready. The crimson roses were on the podium. The crowds - mostly students, teachers, pensioners, workers - were cramming the aisles.

All that was missing was the star attraction, the erstwhile Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Then, as he swept in an hour late, the lyrics on the tannoy could not have more aptly summed up his dilemma: “It must have been love, but it is over now.”

These were not surroundings to which the architect of “glasnost” and “perestroika,” Time’s former Man of the Decade, dragon-slayer of the dreaded Party, was accustomed during his years on the world stage, when the only better known leader on the planet was Ronald Reagan.

Here he was, campaigning like any other workaday politician in a clapped-out old civic building in the provinces - on this occasion, in the semiautonomous republic of Tatarstan.

Russian politicians have a patchy record in this place with its 3 million Russians and Tatars, descended from Genghis Khan. (Ivan the Terrible set the tone by flattening the city in 1552, in revenge for the Tatar invasion.)

But on this, his first shot at running for office through the ballot box, the 65-year-old Gorbachev was looking remarkably relaxed.

It was not always thus. Over the last few months his baffling campaign for the Russian presidency has been interspersed with humiliating moments. He has been spat on, jeered at, and karate-chopped on the head by an angry onlooker (an incident which he made even more ridiculous by describing it was a premeditated attempt on his life).

During a swing through St. Petersburg, local officials scuppered his plans to visit three factories, claiming that they were closed to visitors.

On a Victory Day visit to Volgograd last month, he was greeted with shouts of “traitor” as he wandered beneath the giant statue of Mother Russia that towers over the city from a hilltop.

Worse, he ran into Viktor Anpilov, the leader of the small Stalinist Party, Working Russia, who tried to force a bunch of flowers upon his wife, Raisa. When she turned them down, a delighted Anpilov proceeded to mock the Gorbachevs as rude ingrates in front of the press.

But these moments have been incidental irritations, and are the exception rather than the rule.

True, many Communists will never forgive him for the destruction of the Party and the Soviet empire. And true, many supporters of market reforms blame him for failing to finish the job, plunging Russia into economic chaos, and worsening living standards.

Others still resent his candidacy, believing it will split the anti-Communist vote.

Yet, for the most part, those who gather to listen to Mikhail Gorbachev are more often curious than hostile. “You have to agree that he has left his mark on history,” said Rudi, after watching him arrive in Kazan. “One simply can’t be indifferent to him.”

But nor can one stop wondering why he has embarked on this lonely odyssey around a huge slice of the land that he once governed, being greeted more often than not by embarrassed local officials and lukewarm applause.

Although he disputes the polls, most of which show him with a miserable rating of around one percent, even he would agree that he stands not a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.

His wife admits she tried to talk him out of running, so have some of his friends. Yet on he plods, the Ancient Mariner of Russian politics, compelled to tell his story, desperate to avoid the worst fate that can befall any politician - obscurity.

“People seem to have forgotten Gorbachev,” he said recently; his campaign for the presidency would be a “breakthrough from oblivion.”

His main platform is face-to-face, arguing his case in a slow, mild-mannered, occasionally witty, often painfully long-winded, way in front of his former subjects out in the heart of Russia.

Here he is away from the cruel intelligentsia of Moscow and St. Petersburg, amid friendly folk - many of whom are pleased to see him merely because he is a celebrity.

His message is much the same wherever he goes. Russia faces a Hobson’s Choice, he explained to the audience in Kazan. It has to choose between Yeltsin, “a disaster” who is responsible for “destroying science, education, and culture,” and the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who is no better.

“The people around Zyuganov are the ones who poked their sticks into the wheels of reform during perestroika, who cobbled together the 1991 coup, producing terrible results.”

The audience seemed sympathetic, but unconvinced. “I didn’t learn anything new,” said Yevgeny Shukin, as he stepped out into the evening sunshine afterwards.

“He undertook reform. He didn’t finish it properly. He’s a good man, but the country needs a tough man.”


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