Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev may be remembered today as the man who presided over the collapse of an empire: The recent anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 saw major celebrations to mark the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany.
Less well remembered was a meeting that followed just a few weeks later between Gorbachev and US President George H.W. Bush off the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the two leaders tried to come to grips with how quickly history had changed.
“Look at how nervous we are,” Gorbachev told Bush, according to a Soviet transcript.
“We were shocked by the swiftness of the changes that unfolded,” Bush said.
Thirty years later, some of the top issues discussed at the Malta summit still carry particular resonance – arms control, Afghanistan and the difficulty building trust between Moscow and Washington.
On the day CNN sat down with Gorbachev in Moscow, President Donald Trump paid a surprise visit to US troops in Afghanistan, where he announced that peace talks with the Taliban have restarted. Like the Soviet Union three decades ago, the US is trying to broker an exit from Afghanistan while ensuring that the central government in Kabul does not collapse.
Back in 1989, the United States and the Soviets were on opposite sides of the conflict, with Washington supporting mujahideen fighters trying to topple the government of Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah’s Soviet-backed regime. But just over two years later, the USSR collapsed, assistance to the Kabul government dried up and Najibullah’s government fell.
Asked what lessons could be drawn from the withdrawal of Soviet troops, Gorbachev said: “They must be withdrawn. That is the main lesson. You know, it’s like a match. The match is lit, a fire spreads. And these clashes, when the leading, largest countries in this conflict become ever more involved, they are dangerous for all nations.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall was preceded by another pivotal moment: The signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.
That pillar of arms control effectively fell apart this year, after the United States formally withdrew and the Russian government said it had been consigned to the trash can.
Asked about the demise of the treaty that he signed alongside US President Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev expressed a hope that such arms control agreements could be revived.
“All the agreements that are there are preserved and not destroyed,” he said. “But these are the first steps towards destruction of [that which] must not be destroyed in any case. Therefore, if this path goes further, then everything is possible. This must not be allowed.”
The ultimate goal of arms control, he added, must be to get rid of nuclear weapons completely.
That, however, seems a more remote possibility, given the enduring mistrust between Moscow and Washington. US-Russian relations are now at their worst since the Cold War, but Gorbachev expressed hope that it would be possible for Washington and Moscow to find a way to prevent a “hot war” in the future.
“I think this should be avoided,” Gorbachev said, when asked about whether the world was entering a dangerous new era of multipolar rivalry between states. “It’s good that already all over the world there is a conversation and people are talking, people are reacting, and this is the most important thing.
“Speakers and politicians, people understand that this, the New Cold War, must not be allowed. This might turn out to be a hot war that could mean the destruction of our entire civilization. This must not be allowed.”
That Cold War, of course, has been a subject of intense pop culture interest, especially following the release of HBO’s acclaimed “Chernobyl” TV series.
Asked if he had seen the series, Gorbachev said no, but suggested his decision-making as Soviet leader at the time of the 1986 nuclear disaster may have been misrepresented.
“I have not seen it, but I know in detail” the Chernobyl story, he said. “The most important thing I will say that as a result we have studied all the reasons [for the disaster]. All these conclusions were given to all other countries. These findings are a lesson to everyone. They say, ‘Why you were silent for several days?’ But I say it was exactly like I said before, not the other way around. We did not understand what had happened.”
Gorbachev is the subject of a “Meeting Gorbachev,” a documentary by filmmaker Werner Herzog that goes into wide release in Russia on December 5. The reception of the film is something to watch: Gorbachev is not revered in Russia in the way he was in the West, and his name brings associations of the painful Soviet collapse that still hangs over Russian society and culture.
For the 88-year-old former president, it seems, the past is not yet past.