Thatcher took off her shoes: how the West behaved with Gorbachev
“A dapper version of the same old communist apparatchik”
Western media headlines over the death of Mikhail Gorbachev speak of the former Soviet president as a figure who changed the course of world history at the end of the 20th century. We decided to recall how the relations between the Soviet General Secretary and the leaders of the West were built.
Photo: Global Look Press
“I like Mr. Gorbachev, we can do business together” – this famous statement by Margaret Thatcher, according to Mikhail Sergeyevich, subsequently helped him in communicating with American President Ronald Reagan and with leaders of other countries.
Indeed, Thatcher became Gorbachev's “guide” to the world of Western leaders – their meeting took place when the future Soviet president was not yet the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, but was a member of the Politburo and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Council of the Union of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Evil tongues will later call this meeting – and probably not without reason – “bride-off” that Iron Lady arranged for Mikhail Sergeyevich.
“I met Margaret Thatcher at the end of 1984, when I visited Great Britain at the head of the Soviet parliamentary delegation, – Gorbachev recalled in April 2013 on the pages of The Guardian his communication with the “iron lady”. – We arrived in London on Sunday, warmly welcomed by members of the British Parliament.
The next day, Alexander Yakovlev, Leonid Zamyatin (Ambassador of the USSR. – “MK”) and I were invited to Checkers (the country house of the Prime Minister of Great Britain. – “MK”) … After greeting and getting acquainted, since Margaret was with several ministers of her government, we were invited to dinner. The conversation that began was unprecedented. He was open and friendly.
Nevertheless, our ideological differences immediately became apparent. Sometimes in jest, and sometimes more seriously, unflattering remarks about capitalism and communism were made.
Even then it was clear that this was a woman with character. At some point, our conversation became so tense that some of those present thought that it would not continue. And then I told Margaret that I had no instructions from the Politburo to persuade her to join the CPSU. She burst out laughing, and I hastened to add that we respect her views, and I hoped that she would also regard my views.
As Gorbachev recalled, after dinner he and the head of the British government retired to a small room for a conversation. “First, I took out the documents prepared in Moscow, and Margaret opened her ubiquitous handbag and took out a whole stack of pages with notes for the conversation … She even took off her shoes and settled herself comfortably in an armchair. All this took place near an open fire. After all, it was December, and harsh besides. Nevertheless, it was warm inside, and as we walked, the atmosphere improved.
Then I unrolled the diagram divided into 1000 squares in front of Margaret. I said that if all the nuclear weapons accumulated primarily by the US and the Soviet Union were divided into 1000 parts, then even one of them would be enough to cause irreparable damage to all life on Earth. The question was why continue the race, what is the point of this crazy competition?
She replied that they were forced to respond to the nuclear weapons of the Soviet Union – a country that had not abandoned the goals of the world revolution. I objected that it was the United States that started all this – they invented the nuclear bomb and used it in Japan when there was no military need for it, but only a political calculation. I said that documents had already been published showing that, immediately after the Second World War, attacks were planned on the Soviet Union, on its vital centers, which would have devastated and actually destroyed our country.”
Thatcher, according to Gorbachev’s memoirs, defended the Western point of view: “In fact, she was the ideologist of the opinion that nuclear weapons are a necessary means of deterring the USSR.”
And here is how Reuters depicted that meeting between the Politburo member and the Prime Minister: “For more than three hours, Gorbachev, waving at Thatcher a full-page chart from the New York Times showing the firepower of the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers, expounded to the militant Thatcher the horrors of nuclear winter. Quoting a little-known Russian proverb, Gorbachev told Thatcher: “Once a year, even an unloaded gun can go off.”
Thatcher countered that she thought nuclear weapons were a deterrent and that the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative or the Star Wars program had become an expression of the “dream of peace.”
“It was then, during that conversation in Chekers, a special relationship was born, which we not only preserved, but also expanded, working to change relations between our countries in order to put an end to the deep freeze in which they were,” Gorbachev argued, for his part.
< p>The former General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU recalled Thatcher's first visit to the USSR in the spring of 1987: “Margaret was eager to talk with ordinary people – not only in Moscow, but also in the Krylatsky district, where she was met by hundreds of people. She also visited Zagorsk, near the Trinity-Sergius Monastery, a sacred place for Orthodox believers, and then went to Georgia. The fact that the Soviet people greeted her so warmly and with genuine interest, that they were so open to the “iron lady”, apparently gave her pleasure. I felt it also gave her a different perspective on our country and its citizens.”
“Chemistry arose between us”
One of Gorbachev’s last meetings with Thatcher took place in 2004, when both of them were “former” – they sat side by side in the Washington National Cathedral in the American capital at a ceremony of state funeral of another ex-president, Ronald Reagan.
Although Reagan and Gorbachev were the main figures of the 1980s as leaders of the world's only superpowers, Thatcher brought them together, the American Fox News channel noted. The Iron Lady's ironclad support for the Soviet General Secretary was of great importance to the hawk Reagan, who called the USSR an “evil empire.”
“I definitely found in him a person with whom I could do business. In fact, I even liked him,” Thatcher told Reagan in a confidential note after many hours of discussions with Gorbachev about the arms race. “There is no doubt that he is completely loyal to the Soviet system, but he is ready to listen, have a sincere dialogue and make his own decisions.”
Reagan is said to have been most affected by Thatcher's remark that Gorbachev never interrupted her when she made her point.
Reagan and Gorbachev, who became Soviet leader on March 11, 1985, first met on November 19, 1985 in Geneva. The first one-on-one meeting in Geneva was supposed to last 20 minutes, but lasted an hour and a half, and, according to American eyewitnesses, Reagan's first impression of his counterpart was positive. “His words were: “We have chemistry, we listen to each other, we disagree, but maybe there is a way to continue. We have a long way to go, and I hope we can find a common language,” recalls Jim Koon, then assistant to the President of America.
“We agreed that Reagan would take Gorbachev for a walk around Geneva along the lake at the second meeting says Jim Kuhn. – There was a small house by the lake, and they met only together with translators.
It was then that Reagan told Gorbachev: “Mr. Secretary General, you can never win an all-out arms race with the United States, because we will always have the opportunity to outdo you.” This set the tone for the upcoming summits. Gorbachev was very smart and prepared. He understood that everything had to change, and that Reagan was the kind of guy he could work with, and that one summit leads to another, and then to the third.
There were sometimes serious differences between the two high negotiators in Geneva, especially over human rights. “Reagan gave Gorbachev a list of people who were held against their will, who were mistreated in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's blood just boiled because of this: they say, why are they beating me with this? So he attacked Reagan saying: don't lecture me about how to run my country or how we treat our people; you have people living on sidewalks and sewer grates, and you have crime out of control.”
Then, several more large meetings took place between the leaders of the USSR and the USA. At the second summit in Iceland (October 1986), Soviet-American negotiations at the highest level stalled, but already in December 1987, the heads of the two countries signed in Washington an open-ended Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. Well, in 1988, Reagan paid an official visit to Moscow, where he announced on Red Square that he no longer considered our country an “evil empire.”
“Whenever my father met with him, my father always ended each meeting with the words:“ If it be the will of God, ”and Mikhail Gorbachev said:“ I looked around in the room to see if God was there, ”recalls the son 40th US President Michael Reagan.
Ken Adelman, who attended one of the Soviet-American summits as Reagan's director of arms control, recalled: “I had lunch with the President of the United States, and he says:” This is a new type of Soviet leader. I was a little amused because he had never met the old type of Soviet leader, but he was absolutely right.”
According to Adelman, Gorbachev and Reagan are hardly friends, but they were always polite to each other . “Ronald Reagan showed resilience at the Reykjavik summit in 1986 when he left without destroying the SDI — the Strategic Defense Initiative — even though Gorbachev's top priority was destroying the SDI. That's why I think Gorbachev admired Reagan.
Reagan definitely liked Gorbachev, because he was a new type of Soviet leader that he could deal with, and they saw that their future was intertwined, and their greatness was intertwined. This certainly became true when they came up with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which turned out to be the first agreement to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons.”
And at a meeting at the White House in 1987, Reagan, in a conversation with Gorbachev, demonstrated his “knowledge” of Russian folklore: “We listened to the wisdom of the old Russian maxim. And I'm sure you're familiar with it, although my pronunciation may cause you difficulty. The motto is: Dovorey no provorey — trust but verify.”
“You repeat this at every meeting,” Gorbachev remarked. Reagan replied, “I like it.”
When the “epoch of the funeral” of general secretaries began in the USSR, Reagan sent his vice president George W. Bush to say goodbye to the Soviet leaders. Bush traveled to Moscow and to Chernenko's funeral in 1985 to take a closer look at the new Soviet leader.
According to The New York Times, after meeting with Gorbachev at the funeral in Moscow, Bush sent a dispatch to Reagan with his impressions. In his opinion, Gorbachev was just a dapper version of the same old communist apparatchik, a party functionary with “a disarming smile, warm eyes and an attractive manner of expressing unpleasant thoughts”, but one should keep an eye on him.
In his last year in office, Reagan praised Gorbachev for the thaw in Soviet-American relations. “Mr. Gorbachev,” he told reporters at a press conference in Moscow, “deserves great praise as the leader of this country.”
A few years ago, Gorbachev recalled his acquaintance with George Bush Sr., who replaced Reagan in the White House, in the pages of Time as follows: “Our first serious conversation took place in December 1987, when I was on an official visit to Washington. George was then vice president and was running for president.
The visit culminated in the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; after that I flew away from the air force base. According to protocol, or perhaps voluntarily, the Vice President was supposed to accompany me there. George offered to drive my car, which was unusual—certainly not according to protocol.
Later, we recalled this “car conversation” many times. He went far beyond the usual exchange of pleasantries. We agreed that relations between our countries are reaching a new level, that new opportunities are opening up that must be used to the maximum. The Vice President assured me that if elected, he would continue what we started with President Reagan. And we said that in relations with third countries we will not infringe on the interests of each other.
But promises are one thing, and real politics is another matter. Running for president in 1988, Bush at first thought that Reagan had gone too far and had too much confidence in the Soviet general secretary. And, having come to the White House, Bush put the warming of relations with for several months on a “pause”.
Nevertheless, in December 1989, a summit between Bush and Gorbachev took place in Malta. There was skepticism in the US administration about the timeliness of this meeting. But Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand and a number of other European leaders, along with leading members of the US Congress, convinced the President of the United States of the need for negotiations with Moscow.
Negotiations were held on board the Maxim Gorky cruise ship. Given the stormy weather and rough seas, the choice of the meeting place was not very successful – the press wrote about the “summit with seasickness”. But the idea of communication between the two leaders at sea was said to have belonged to Bush, inspired by the example of Roosevelt, who liked to meet with foreign leaders on warships.
The world is leaving one era and entering another. We are at the beginning of a long journey towards a solid, peaceful era. The threat of force, distrust, psychological and ideological struggle should be left in the past, – Gorbachev said after the meeting with Bush. “I assured the President of the United States that I would never start a hot war against the United States.”
No agreements were signed following the meeting, which gave rise to rumors about a new chill between Moscow and Washington. And yet, some people call the summit in Malta a milestone that marked the end of the Cold War. The losing side, alas, turned out to be the USSR.
The episode when Bush decided to present fragments of the Berlin Wall to all participants of the conference looks symbolic. – Two pilots and four soldiers with sledgehammers were sent to the German capital, who brought 400 pounds of debris.
The Malta summit did not bring dividends to the Soviet Union. The USSR agreed to the unification of Germany and promised not to interfere in the affairs of Eastern Europe. And Bush limited himself to verbal support for perestroika.
“Many of my memories are connected with him,” Gorbachev recalled in 2018 about the deceased Bush Sr. “We have had the opportunity to work together during the years of great change. It was a dramatic time that demanded great responsibility from everyone. The result was the end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. I pay tribute to George W. Bush for his contribution to this historic achievement. He was a real partner.”
And it was with this US president that Gorbachev spoke on December 25, 1991, hours before he announced that he was stepping down as president of the Soviet Union. “We summed up the results of our cooperation. Our main achievement was the agreement to destroy thousands of nuclear weapons, both strategic and tactical. Together we have helped end conflicts in different parts of the world. We have laid the foundation for a partnership between our countries… George and I, since leaving government, have often discussed the disturbing trends that threaten world peace. We sometimes differed in our assessments of events, but we agreed on one thing: the end of the Cold War was not a victory of one side over the other.”
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to agree with Gorbachev’s last statement…
Life of Mikhail Gorbachev in photos: CPSU, Raisa, perestroika and resignation
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