“Meeting Gorbachev”

Restroom chatter after viewing Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’ s Gorbachev documentary dispersed in one communal sigh. One patron added, ” I did not realize what a nice man Mikhail was! ” An 87 year-old widower, who loved his wife and rose from the brilliant son of Russian peasants to head the Soviet Union comes across as profound, too.

In a series of three contemporary interviews and archival videos, Herzog and Singer elevate the man by showing a core of sensibility that reminded me of my father in both temperament and strength. Genuine, funny, and able to establish immediate rapport, Gorbachev shines as a world leader, who never forgot the people. Like a good personnel director, he listened and stayed positive. His task was to make life better for all, not just for the people in power. He visited all outposts of the Union, and he walked when he had to. The film’s title, “Meeting Gorbachev” is perfect. At one point as he stands nose to nose with a female citizen, he jokes that he can not get much closer.

While nuclear disarmament and the unification of Germany are highlighted, this documentary focuses on the personality of Mikhail Gorbachev. Based on his biography and on William Taubman’s book “ Gorbachev: His Life And Times” ( 2017) , we see him as intelligent, perceptive, wise, and somewhat tragic. He became a “ person non-grata” to those Russians who blamed him for the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1992. The end of the Cold War is what he takes credit for ~ using his power to make the world better for people.

We learn that his mother was strict and illiterate, and that his father Sergei, a war veteran told Mikhail on returning from the battle field that , “ we fought until we ran out of fight. That is how we must live.” Twenty million Russians were lost in World War II. We witness Easter flowers being placed on his parent’s graves. Respect was valued; recklessness looked down on.

The most prestigious university in Moscow was Moscow State, founded in 1755. Philosophy, Medicine, and Law  degrees were offered. Mikhail studied law and met his future partner, Raisa, here. Raisa studied philosophy. They married and had one daughter. Their union was said to be a profoundly happy one, and seeing Mikhail’s soft flow of tears as he talks about her death in 1991 is moving.

His genuineness permeates the film. Gorbachev was chosen as the youngest leader of the Soviet State, because of his extraordinary political talents. Perestroika, a series of reforms meant to improve the stagnant 1980’s Soviet economy, and Glasnost, a new transparency and openness by lifting press restrictions etc.., were at the top of Gorbachev s agenda. He believed that a complete restructuring was essential.  High -ranking officials were rankled. Hardliners and KGB types fought back. Rumors of ill health are debunked by Mikhail, but the power struggle forced his resignation in 1991. Tragic for everyone but Boris Yeltsin and his old-guard handlers.

At one point after the incompetence of  Chernobyl, Gorbachev intones that “people who do not understand cooperation and disarmament should get out of politics.” He wanted a ban on nuclear testing and the elimination of nuclear weapons. “ The death of civilization” he feared. He saw the banning of an entire class of intermediate range weapons as progress.

There were parts of this documentary that I loved. The way Gorbachev would touch his hearing aids to better hear Herzog was sweetly evocative of age. His love of sweets and his surrender to diabetes were likewise humanizing. His pregnant pauses effective in highlighting the weight of his words. Momentous handshakes, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, human longing for freedom and unity all touch us. Gorbachev’s  belief in Communism, his warm smile, his efforts, will stay with viewers.

The boogie-woogie being satirized in a Moscow University skit in the 1940’s, the modern methods of wheat harvesting and sheep shearing, the penchant for Russian medal giving, and Kremlin Wall burial rites add panache to the delight of        meeting Gorbachev for me.