B Y - A L E X - C R E V A R
Preaching environmental awareness and quoting JFK and Winston Churchill, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a huge hit at a jam-packed Stegeman Coliseum.
n his first speech since the death of his wife Raisa last September, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev impressed his UGA audience with both the gentleness of his spirit and the strength of his commitment to the environment.
"Thank you all for these feelings of support and solidarity," he told an overflow crowd of 11,500 which lined the walls of Stegeman Coliseum on Dec. 3 to hear the last leader of the Soviet Union implore the nations of the world to make green peace with each other. "We have to respect the memory of Raisa and we have to get on with life. We have to think about what is happening."
Against the backdrop of his own image on the Coliseum scoreboard, Gorbachev asked Americans to support global green peace regardless of national boundaries.
"Governments alone cannot be trusted to solve environmental problems," said Gorbachev. "Without citizens taking an active stance, nothing can be achieved."
President Michael F. Adams described Gorbachev's speech as a monumental event in the history of the University. The crowd obviously concurred, using any excuse to give Gorbachev lengthy standing ovations. On each occasion, the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize recipientand, for many, the driving force behind the Cold War's demise and political freedom for millionsquieted the crowd with modest smiles and the lowering of both hands, palms down, indicating for all to sit.
The boisterous ovations were a sign of appreciation for the unusual type of Soviet leader that Gorbachev was from 1985-1991, when he asked Presidents Reagan and Bush if they were truly interested in peace or only the thought of it. Gorbachev eventually helped broker two landmark disarmament pacts between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The applause was also for the man Gorbachev has become since he left office. In 1993, he founded Green Cross International, a non-governmental organization with 22 international chapters, including both Russia and the U.S. GCI's three-pronged program includes the cleanup of military toxins, the creation of global ecological law, and the fostering of a global value shift towards a sustainable future.
In a setting where communication could have been compromised by language barriers and the necessity of simultaneously translating the 90-minute speech from Russian to English, Gorbachev showed a unique ability to challenge the audience to not just care about a subject like the environment movement, but to make it a passion.
"One of my shortcomings, or perhaps one of my assets, is that I am trying to be open and an honest person with myself and others," he said. "It is not the easiest thing in the world to keep this principle."
Now 68, and 10 years removed from office, Gorbachev displayed the same confident but relaxed demeanor that could be seen on television screens world-wide nearly every night during his time in office. History books will remember him as someone who taught the world how to handle change like no leader in recent memory. Following a bungled coup in the summer of 1990 by Communist party hard-liners, who sought to put him under house arrest for preaching humanist philosophies of glasnost and perestroikagiving citizens more personal power and satellite countries more independenceGorbachev remained in power briefly and then peacefully handed the governmental reins to Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev's resignation signaled the fall of Soviet communism, which triggered the creation of 15 new countries.
"Gorbachev could have responded to the loss of personal power the same as any leader of his generationby bringing out the army to suppress change," says Gary Bertsch, director of UGA's Center for International Trade and Security. "Instead, he let his thoughtful personality guide his actions and the peaceful dissolution of communism. This cannot be stressed too much because peaceful dissolution was the last thing anyone would have expected."
In a press conference prior to his Dec. 3 speech, Gorbachev fielded questions about the world's political climate from journalists and UGA students.
orbachev's speech was three tiered and followed introductions by both Adams and Pat Mitchell (AB '63, MA '65), president of CNN Productions and chair of the Gorbachev Foundation. (She has since been named president of PBS. See article on this page). Mitchell described Gorbachev as, "The man whose actions have made it possible for you and I to live in a more peaceful and secure world."
According to Gorbachev, the path to peaceful existence on earthwhich he called a "new world order"must start with global awareness. A first step, he said, is the necessity of admitting the reality of globalization. Some nations fear globalization-type thinking and initiatives because they believe it threatens sovereignty.
"Before our eyes the world is becoming more interdependent," said Gorbachev, who still lives in Russia. "No country can act in isolation. No country can act while being indifferent to the interests of others. We see [globalization as] a kind of Rubicon in the historical process of the development of human civilization."
Muscle flexing by powerful countries will ultimately not work, and countries must work together to rectify the huge imbalances separating the very rich and the very poor, said Gorbachev, who fears that some nations will find the price of philanthropy too high:
"Some might say that this is too complicatedwe should go with the flow. Let the wealthy get wealthier, let the strong become stronger, and let the weak die out." He warned that this attitude and the lack of dialogue will only lead to our own destruction and to the destruction of our environment.
Gorbachev ended his speech with a call for the world to unite in the "new world order" which he and George Bush described shortly before he stepped down as Soviet president in 1990. He stated that world partnership would be possible only if it is built on equality, not domination.
"It is very important that we agree today that we are not building a world on American lines or Russian lines or Chinese lines," he said. "But we will be building a world as John Kennedy said, 'A peace for all, a world order.' "
In a press conference preceding the speech, Gorbachev condemned politicians whose sole motivation is being re-elected. He cited the horrific wars in Yugoslavia and Chechnya as private agendas which undermine the United Nations and world order. Gorbachev amplified this point in his speech when he quoted Winston Churchill:
"A statesman is different than a politician. A politician worries about the next election, but a statesman worries about the future." Gorbachev's last words on stage prompted thunderous applause:
"I believe in young people."
"Before our eyes the world is becoming more interdependent. No country can act in isolation. No country can act while being indifferent to the interests of others."
Gorbachev's longtime friend and former Soviet arms control negotiator Igor Khripunov had a chance to discuss some of these issues with his old boss.
"We discussed the aftermath of Chernobyl and the possibility for even greater damage," says Khripunov, who is now associate director of UGA's Center for International Trade and Security. "We are both firmly convinced that arms control progress started a decade ago should continue and that more progress needs to be made."
Mitchell, who has introduced Gorbachev to audiences all over the world, said the enthusiastic crowd was a tribute to both UGA and to the Athens community.
"We were all excited by the numbers and the response," says Mitchell. "This sent a message to [Gorbachev] that young people are concerned about finding solutions to the environmental problems and to a sustainable future."
Gorbachev, who spoke in Atlanta the following night at a Green Cross awards dinner honoring Mitchell, was obviously energized by his reception in Athensand impressed with UGA.
"This was the best handled event I can remember," said Gorbachev. "For so many to come out on a Friday night in Decemberit was a success in every possible turn. I will be talking about the experience at UGA for some time."