No Country for Old Communists

His hulking Russian bodyguard preceded him at every turn. Next came his translator, a thin, bald man with a brown mustache and a thick accent. Then there he was in the flesh, as though he'd stepped out of a James Bond movie, not far from the degenerate gamblers who'd been slouched over the slots for hours, oblivious to the fact that they were in the presence of one of the most influential statesmen in history.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood last Wednesday night, a guest of the Seminole Indian Tribe. He addressed an audience that had come to see the former communist leader and Louis Vuitton pitchman cashing in on a trip to the land where the grotesqueries of capitalism are matched only by modern-day Russia. Though Seminole Hard Rock would not say how much they paid Gorbachev (the tribe being no fan of glasnost), he's reportedly paid $125,000 an hour for speeches, and it was surely the call of such easy money that brought the individual most responsible for the end of the cold war to the sacred spot where Anna Nicole Smith expired.

Everywhere he went, Gorbachev was surrounded by men in black suits and bombarded by flashing cameras. The 77-year-old former leader was silent as he walked the halls backstage before his speech, billed as "Peace in the 21st Century." He did talk to local reporters before the lecture, however; speaking through a translator, he began with an anecdote about the Communist Party, which he joined in high school:

"When I was being elected the secretary of the Komsomol, the youth organization, there were seven candidates. So each one of us had to rise and say a few words about himself. So I rose to speak, but when I was sitting down, the chair was pulled from under me and I fell. But nevertheless, I was elected secretary by secret ballot. That was an important lesson: Don't be afraid to fall."

The reporters applauded. He smiled. "And since that time, whenever I sit down, I always look around behind me," he said.

Gorbachev said he has a friendly relationship with both Fidel and Raul Castro. "I think it was a mistake [for the U.S.] to demonize Fidel Castro," he told reporters. "He is an outstanding leader and a very talented leader. He was pushed into being a communist in the western hemisphere. He was originally a democrat and an intellectual, but the attempt to oust him was decisive in what happened afterwards. Fidel responded to people's need for independence."

He took just three questions from the press before his Seminole handlers led him away.

Renate Schanzleh, a 68-year-old grandmother from Fort Lauderdale, had come to the casino hoping to thank Gorbachev. Her family had been stuck behind the Berlin Wall for years until 1989, when the East German government collapsed and the wall came down after Gorbachev issued what came to be known as "The Sinatra Doctrine" (after the song "My Way"), allowing Soviet satellite states to choose their own paths. To Schanzleh he was a saint and a savior. She got a seat near the front of the room for the speech.

There was plenty of room. The 5,500-seat arena was less than half full. Red-jacketed Hard Rock ushers guided older attendees, who paid up to $85, and college students who'd been given free tickets when sales failed to meet expectations.

Before Gorbachev was introduced, the audience watched a video showing images of Russian crowds cheering their noble leader, and of Gorbachev receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, followed by statements from Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and various historians and journalists, all attesting to Gorbachev's bravery and wisdom. He did what was right for the world, they said, even though it cost him his position, as he was deposed in a 1991 coup and replaced by Boris Yeltsin.

His speech began with what Gorbachev considers his crowning achievement, perestroika, the process by which the Soviet government was restructured to create a more liberal economic system. Speaking in Russian, he became so passionate and animated on the subject that his voice thundered, nearly drowning out his translator. "Without the new thinking that we proposed to our people and to the world," he said, his gestures expanding, "there wouldn't be the kind of massive change the world saw subsequently. It took some time, but our proposals were met with the understanding and warm reciprocating by our westward partners."

The talk focused on what Gorbachev sees as the three most important issues facing the world in the 21st Century: security, poverty, and the environment.

The U.S., he said, spends more on defense now than it did at the height of the cold war; its unilateralism makes the rest of the world suspicious and uneasy. "One country cannot assume the functions of the prosecutor, the judge, and the enforcer," he said.

The world's wealthiest countries — a group that once again includes Russia, thanks to the high cost of oil — should aid the poorest, most famine-ridden states, he said; not just with food or money, but with aid for education and technology that will let them help themselves. Still, the first priority of all countries should be saving the environment.

He stopped and coughed at one point, explaining, "I'm having some problems with my throat — with my voice. I remember my professor at Moscow University who would always drink water during his lecture. He said, 'Even the best lecture should be watered down.'"

He spoke of how hurt Russians were by the way the world reacted during the dark period under Yeltsin. "The West wanted Russia to be weak," he said, and as a result, the close diplomatic relations he worked so hard to build in the 1980s were squandered.

The most interesting moments came during the question-and-answer period following the speech, when he received some hostile queries. The first came from Carlos Navarro, a world history teacher at Design and Architecture Senior High in Miami. "Your country claims to be a democracy, and there are many places in the world today that want independence," Navarro said. "Why does your country reject the independence of Kosovo?"

"Well, I wonder if you are familiar with the entire story of Kosovo," Gorbachev said.

"Yes. I teach world history," Navarro said.

"Well maybe you are teaching the wrong kind of history," Gorbachev countered.

"I guess when you invaded Afghanistan we were teaching the wrong kind of history too," Navarro said.

"Absolutely, you're right," Gorbachev said. Invading Afghanistan "was a mistake. It was a mistake similar to the military action in Iraq."

This drew an enormous cheer from the audience. Gorbachev had deftly gotten them on his side, showing he could take all comers. People streamed to the microphones like mothers to a Soviet bread line. South Floridians drilled the former president on Serbia, and on Slobodan Milosevic, whom Gorbachev called "a bad man," but not before criticizing the NATO military action in the region in the late '90s. He was asked about Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush, and his impressions the first time he met Reagan ("I went back and told my council, 'Yeah, he's a real dinosaur.'").

Eventually, Renate Schanzleh had her turn. "Mr. Gorbachev, all my family lived behind the Berlin Wall," she said. "At 68 years old, I've met them and I thank you." Then she lifted a copy of Gorbachev's book, Manifesto for the Earth. "I also have your book here. Would you sign it for me please?"

"I think it will be easier to sign the book than to bring down the wall," he said, smiling at the world's best pick-up line.

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Michael J. Mooney