Meeting Gorbachev is an intimate and engaging portrait of the man who unwittingly prompted the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Journalist, writer, author, filmmaker and film and TV industry expert – Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
Published date: October 29, 2018

In Meeting Gorbachev, German director Werner Herzog and British producer Andre Singer, offer a rare glimpse into the private world of Mikhail Gorbachev.

In a series of interviews with Gorbachev who, though increasingly physically frail retains his sharp wit and acute intellect, Herzog charts the life of a man he accurately describes as «one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century».

Sharp and humorous

Once daily in the spotlight of international attention, Gorbachev, now aged 87, reveals that he has lost none of his characteristic humour and humanity. Herzog is quick to establish this, with footage that includes material normally left on the cutting room floor. There is the humorous quip he makes to the Russian sound-man putting his microphone on («He’s trying to take something from my pocket!»), and Gorbachev’s recollection of a pre-war meeting with ethnic Germans at a neighbouring kolkhoz (collective farm) as a boy, who made marvellous gingerbread – leaving him with a lifelong positive impression of the Germans. And for the cognoscenti, a brief glimpse early in the film of Pavel Palazhchenko, the interpreter who has worked with him since the 1980s, a ubiquitous presence at such historic events as the Reagan-Gorbachev strategic nuclear arms reduction agreements.

Herzog wonders aloud if Gorbachev is merely being polite, but concludes he is genuinely a decent bloke.

Herzog, himself now 76 and with a reputation for some pretty extreme filmmaking, presents a very loving work about a man who had a profound impact on the fate of his own nation.

From the middle of nowhere

Narrated throughout by Herzog himself, in his carefully enunciated rather hoarse German-accented English, Meeting Gorbachev hovers on the edges of hagiography. It segues from footage of Gorbachev being presented with a box of sugar-free chocolates by the filmmakers (specially made by a «London chocolatier» Herzog tells us), to shots of the family graveyard at the collective farm. During aerial footage of the village of Gorbachev’s birth, he observes, «it is hard to imagine that from such a god-forsaken place in the middle of nowhere, one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century emerged.»

«Granted wide and deep access, Meeting Gorbachev is peppered with rarely seen images from Gorbachev’s private archive.»

Granted wide and deep access, Meeting Gorbachev is peppered with rarely seen images from Gorbachev’s private archive: sepia-toned photos as a child, the trademark port-wine stain birthmark visible in a way that was never published during Soviet times. Intimate memories – his relationship with his much loved late wife Raisa, his regrets over the collapse of the Soviet Union – are gently examined.

A bright young man born to an illiterate mother (who remained so throughout her life), Gorbachev’s early days were blighted by famine (two family members died of starvation), poverty and war. But a natural ability to understand the world helped ensure his good grades at school. He entered Moscow State University to study law, where, Herzog notes, «he transformed himself into a broadly knowledgeable man».

Rise to the top

The film gathers pace as Herzog charts Gorbachev’s rise from regional party boss to Soviet foreign leader. He interviews the world leaders from the time that Gorbachev met and courted, such as Miklos Nemeth, who was to become the last prime minister of socialist-era Hungary, and who played a little-known but decisive role of his own in the collapse of the Iron Curtain when he dismantled the barbed wire border with the west. It was a move that was to allow tens of thousands of East German refugees to stream across to freedom in the summer of 1989.

Finally, after the deaths of three very aged and infirm Soviet leaders,  Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko («the last of the fossils»), Gorbachev becomes General Secretary in 1985 and ushers in perestroika (restructuring) and then glasnost (openness), the policies for which he became famous at home and abroad.

Gorbachev is clearly in his element as he talks about those days, a sparkle in his eye, a broad smile on his face as he tells Herzog: «More democracy, that was our first and foremost goal.» He pauses before adding, with an impish grin: «I also wanted more socialism!»

The pursuit of profit and growth for their own sake was madness. The system no longer served the people. Something had to be done, Gorbachev observes, in comments that might easily address the world’s ills today.

He insists there was no cover-up around the nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl atomic reactor, stating that as soon as the Soviet leadership knew what had happened, they informed the world.

We hear from those who had a front seat to history as Gorbachev’s domestic reforms were matched by his foreign policy initiatives – George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State; Lech Walesa, leader of Poland’s Solidarity movement; James Baker, Secretary of State under George Bush, and others.

Loved and unloved

For those of us who lived through those tumultuous times – as participants behind the Iron Curtain, or observers beyond it – the film evokes powerful emotions. It is a reminder of a time when a Russian leader was a hero rather than a villain. People rallied in thousands for peace and freedom. Russia was a source of hope and admiration, not fear and loathing.

Though Gorbachev remains an unloved character in Russia – many people blame him for the poverty and degradation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union – there is a convenient amnesia in today’s Russia of just how much respect he had then, before the dark days of chaos descended.

«Those who do not support co-operation and disarmament have no place in politics.» – Mikhail Gorbachev

And perhaps, at a time of icy relations between Russia and many countries in the West, we might ponder Gorbachev’s emphatic defence of his legacy: «No matter what anyone says, the proposals to end the Cold War first came from the Soviet Union. […] I still believe we need to keep moving forward and rid the world of nuclear weapons – just as Regan and I proposed.»

Gorbachev even allows himself a discreet sideswipe at Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin stating that «those who do not support co-operation and disarmament have no place in politics.»

From a man who may well go down in history as one of the 20th century’s greatest statesmen, they are words worth remembering.

And for a younger generation who did not live through the 1980s and early 1990s, the momentous events of those days offer inspiration and hope that in these dark days, all is not lost.

Herzog closes the film by asking Gorbachev what his epitaph should be. The architect of perestroika recalls a friend’s – «we tried» – before singing verses from Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov that close with the image of a soul lying beneath a dark oak, «forever green».

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