MIKHAIL GORBACHEV arrives in Washington this week to promote his new memoirs. They cover his political career before the collapse of the Soviet Union and highlight his contribution to the transformation of communism. He will undoubtedly receive a warmer welcome here than he does in Moscow. Just four months ago, the Russian electorate delivered its verdict on the former Soviet president when it gave him 0.5 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election.
The man who changed the world still bears the psychological and physical scars from the recent election campaign, during which he was attacked and wounded by a drunken man in a crowd. "The campaign showed me how great the Russian people are and in what terrible conditions they live," he mused one afternoon recently in his comfortable office at the Gorbachev Foundation, housed in an old building on the outskirts of Moscow. I found him in a philosophical mood, eager to reminisce about his time in office. Some of his judgments may surprise his more ardent admirers in the West.
Most Americans are puzzled by Gorbachev's electoral fiasco. He still enjoys great popularity in Europe and America for enabling the Eastern European and Soviet peoples to overthrow the Communist system. People will long debate whether Gorbachev was the sorcerer's apprentice. Did he improvise when reality came crashing in on him and he was confronted by tidal forces he had unleashed but ultimately could not control? Or was the collapse of communism the result of a calculated strategy?
Whichever is true, the 1980s were a decade of momentous change, and the dominant figures then on the international scene seem like colossi compared with those who followed them -- at least as Gorbachev sees it. Indeed, Gorbachev is nostalgic for those heady days. "Ronald Reagan was the greatest Western statesman with whom I dealt," he says. "He was an intelligent and astute politician who had vision and imagination. We were both committed to ending the arms race, to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. President Reagan was farsighted enough to respond to our initiatives on arms control. Together we made a more peaceful place. The presidents who succeeded Reagan don't have this vision and statesmanship."
The second greatest Western politician, according to Gorbachev, was Margaret Thatcher. "Even though we disagreed ideologically, I admired her and enjoyed debating with her. She also had vision, like her friend Ronald Reagan. "
When asked about Helmut Kohl, who, after all, was responsible for giving the Soviet Union some $ 60 billion in return for German unification, Gorbachev shrugs and expresses irritation. He derides what he calls "Helmut- Boris sauna diplomacy." Because of the German chancellor's political longevity -- he has been in office since 1982 -- Kohl has developed a strong personal relationship with Yeltsin, unlike Reagan and Thatcher who were private citizens when the USSR collapsed. Gorbachev regrets the passing of the great Western statesmen of the '80s. "We need new political thinking in the 1990s, but there is no longer any new political thinking."
He reserves his most scathing comments for some of his fraternal socialist allies, most especially Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. "In the summer of 1989, he asked us to invade Poland rather than permit a coalition government in Warsaw with non-Communists," he says, incredulous. "Erich Honecker was also condescending toward us. He said that East Germany had introduced perestroika seven years before we did and had done it better." Indeed, Gorbachev expresses little regret for the demise of East Germany. "I believed in freedom of choice, and I did not stop Eastern Europe from choosing its path, unlike George Bush, who did not observe freedom of choice in Panama."
Gorbachev is highly critical of Yeltsin and his entourage and of those who support the Russian president, both at home and in the West. The two men have been antagonists since Gorbachev fired Yeltsin in 1988 for criticizing the slow pace of reforms. Yeltsin eventually got his revenge in 1991, when he created the Commonwealth of Independent States and left the last Soviet leader without a country to govern, forcing Gorbachev to resign.