The band of a happy few from Bowdoin College lined up with the other students and professors that were eagerly awaiting entrance into Sanders Theater at Harvard. Slowly, they filed into the rows of benches and took their seats-making sure that they had clear views of the stage. The trip had been long and the tickets had been acquired with no small effort by the Bowdoin professors who had organized the venture-but the results were sure to be unforgettable. There, before the eager faces of some 25 students-from both Professor Jane E. Knox-Voina's Russian classes and Professor Marcia Weigle's Post- Communist Russian Politics class- a Russian legend of the political and historical realm, Mikhail Gorbachev, was to make an appearance.
The tension built as the crowd was made to wait and a single cup of tea, seated neatly on its saucer, was ferried out onto the stage and placed by the side of the podium. The students of the Post-Communist Politics class glanced at each other. They remembered the video clip seen in class in which Gorbachev had publicly resigned from the presidency of Russia, all the while glancing sadly at a solitary cup of tea that sat on his desk. Again, the stage was still and the crowd grew ever more restless.
Suddenly, footsteps were heard ascending the stairs at the back of the platform. A hush fell over the crowd as Gorbachev made his entrance, accompanied by his interpreter and President Lawrence H. Sumners of Harvard University. The audience erupted into raucous cheers and thunderous clapping. Gorbachev looked out at the sea of faces as he sat down, his chin jutted out in approval. As the cheers continued he stood up to acknowledge them and wave his hand, causing another vigorous round of applause.
Before the audience stood the man that had been a child of the 20th Party Congress, a man who had instigated glasnost and perestroika, a president who had survived a coup in 1991, and, finally, had stepped down from his position later that same year.
Glasnost had meant the introduction of public openness into a society that had formerly been severely hemmed in by a more oppressive Communist Party system. Gorbachev's program of perestroika entailed an increase in production in a country that was lagging dangerously behind the rest of the world in terms of industry.
It was the latter of these two issues that Gorbachev had come to address in his speech entitled "Looking Back on Perestroika."
In Weigle's class, students had learned of the atrocities that perestroika had caused-the ridiculous inefficiencies of frenzied production and the heavy toll that these had taken on the Russian environment. Nevertheless, in the 45-minute speech that followed, Gorbachev defended his policy of perestroika to the point of claiming that it was an absolutely necessary step in the development of Russia. "A lot of things could have been done differently after perestroika. A lot of things could have been done different during perestroika, but there are not 'ifs' in history," said Gorbachev.
"People are asking today whether perestroika has a future or is it in the past. I believe perestroika is still in the future," Gorbachev said. "When I stepped down, people said the era of Gorbachev is over. I replied then and I still reply, 'The era of Gorbachev is just beginning.'"
Although the speech was primarily about perestroika, Gorbachev managed to slip in his opinion about world affairs in general, all with the charismatic charm of a seasoned politician. For example, Gorbachev commented that if he were still president there would be have been no war in Chechnya-failing to mention that while he was president "he sent troops into the Baltic states," according to Arwyn Carroll '05.
Furthermore, Gorbachev made it clear that he felt that the United States should not engage in unilateral action against Iraq.
Another theme that ran throughout was his opposition against Yeltsin's policies, particularly the "shock therapy" that was initiated during Yeltsin's presidency.
Although his speech frustrated many students in that he skirted many of the issues and offered little explanation or comment on some of the disastrous results of perestroika, none could deny that seeing him in person was a mind-blowing experience.