The 1990s were different times. The internet was still a novelty. Social media did not exist. And to celebrate the 250th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, Virginia turned to … the former leader of the Soviet Union.
This week’s death of Mikhail Gorbachev reminds us of all the ways the world has gone wrong in the decades since. For a brief time in the 1990s, it looked as if post-Soviet Russia and the United States might actually become friends and business partners.
It was during that interlude between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of a steely-eyed intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin in 2000 that Gorbachev came to Virginia and tried to wrap himself in the mantle of Thomas Jefferson.
As with many things, it’s hard to remember now how Gorbachev at the time was a celebrity of rock star proportions, regarded more highly in the West (which celebrated the fall of the Iron Curtain) than at home, where some came to regard the collapse of the Soviet Union as a historical calamity (count Putin among those). When the Soviet flag was lowered on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev was just 60 – still much younger than the geriatric set of Soviet leaders who had preceded him. He was also without a job. In time, he resorted to making a commercial for Pizza Hut and print ads for Louis Vuitton luggage. But first he turned to a more time-honored tradition for former politicians: the speaking circuit.
It was also about this time that the University of Virginia began searching for what a spokeswoman described then as “a person of stature” for the 1993 Founder’s Day ceremony that would mark Jefferson’s 250th birthday. “The former Soviet president fit the bill,” The Washington Post reported at the time.
What the university didn’t realize then was that Gorbachev’s Boston-based agent – yes, he had an agent – had booked him at four other appearances in Virginia on the same trip. The Richmond Forum, which calls itself “America’s largest nonprofit speaker series,” had been working to book Gorbachev for two years. Now everything lined up, especially after money changed hands. On April 10, 1993, Gorbachev spoke to a $500-a-plate dinner for 300 at the Richmond Omni Hotel, then transitioned to a $250-per-person reception after the speech. The next day Gorbachev spoke at the University of Richmond and was awarded an honorary doctorate. On April 12, Gorbachev went across town to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he was introduced by then-Gov. Douglas Wilder, was awarded another honorary degree, and held a question-and-answer session with students. Then on April 13, it was on to the University of Virginia, where he marched down the Lawn in the traditional academic procession and delivered the Founder’s Day address. Later he visited Monticello and that evening traveled to Bedford County, where he spoke at a black-tie event at Poplar Forest, which inaugurated a fundraising drive to restore Jefferson’s summertime retreat.
“It seemed an incongruous picture,” wrote reporter Daniel Howes of The Roanoke Times. “Mikhail Gorbachev striding across the University of Virginia, accompanied by a governor who only decades ago would have been barred from the grounds because of his color.”
That wasn’t the only mind-boggling moment: “Here was the former general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party confessing an attraction to Jefferson’s belief in ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and celebrating his hostility to any tyranny over ideas.”
Was Gorbachev really a Jeffersonian small “d” democrat? Historians will long debate Gorbachev’s legacy: He mostly seemed a man who initially wanted communism to work better and then had to improvise as the whole Soviet system fell apart. Whether motivated by a latter-day conviction, or whether, like any good politician, he knew how to read the room, Gorbachev spent a lot of time on that Virginia trip genuflecting to Jefferson. Gorbachev, at the University of Virginia, hailed “the march of freedom.” He told his listeners (through a translator) that while in the Kremlin, he “often turned to Jefferson” for inspiration. He then delivered the line that still gets quoted today: “I found one thing to be true: Having once begun the dialogue with Jefferson, one continues the conversation forever.”
Was Gorbachev simply telling his listeners – and, ultimately, his paymasters (more on that to come) – what they wanted to hear? Who knows? Russian experts at the time noted that Gorbachev was a pragmatist. And, as I read his words today, a lot of them are high-sounding words that don’t really say much. “What’s important to me is, Jefferson understood the challenges of his time and was able to measure up to the challenges of his time,” Gorbachev said during a tour of Monticello. “So let us not ask too much of Thomas Jefferson, but ask ourselves and those who follow Jefferson whether they – whether we – have done enough.” What does that really mean? I suspect any politician today, no matter the party, could deliver those same lines.
That evening at Poplar Forest, Gorbachev again paid homage to Jefferson in flowery words – “a great citizen of the world” – and praised the Corporation for Poplar Forest for preserving Jefferson’s history, saying that any nation that forgets its past has no future. Great wisdom or empty platitudes? Speaking without a written text, Gorbachev also delivered more substantive remarks to the Bedford County crowd. Specifically, the former communist sounded very much like a capitalist: He urged Americans to invest in Russia. Mark Morrison, who covered the speech for The Roanoke Times, wrote that Gorbachev said “the potential is enormous and expressed surprise at the timid start of American business in his homeland.” Gorbachev predicted a “fruitful partnership” between the two nations but urged Americans to be patient – we’d had more than two centuries to build a democracy, Russian less than two years at the time.
Today, alas, we know all too well how things have worked out.
At the time, though, things worked out quite well for Gorbachev. The Washington Post reported that he was “in the neighborhood of $70,000 plus expenses” for the Richmond Forum talk, $20,000 for the University of Richmond talk, $10,000 for the brief remarks and Q-and-A at VCU, $25,000 for the address at the University of Virginia, and an undisclosed amount for the Poplar Forest appearance. That’s a lot of rubles but was reflective of the mood then.
Morrison is now director of major gifts for the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. I asked him what he remembered from being in such close proximity to Gorbachev that night. “It was a long time ago, so any specific memories are lost,” he told me by email. “However, I have a general recollection and impression that has stuck with me. I remember there was an electricity to the event, even though it was small. Gorbachev had a kind of rock star aura and charisma about him. Or at least that was the vibe from the people in attendance and around him. It reminded me of the same energy cast by Bill Clinton when I covered a Rose Garden ceremony, and at two press conferences I covered – for Garth Brooks and Paul McCartney. It was kind of like Gorbachevmania.”
L.F. Payne of Nelson County was the congressman representing the 5th District then. He has a similar recollection. He couldn’t make the Poplar Forest event but was at Charlottesville. “These were heady times with democracy breaking out around the world,” he told me in an email. “I recall speaking with a State Department official at the Gorbachev event who said ‘we are not able to sell democracy everywhere in the world because some don’t approve of our Western values but we can sell Jefferson anywhere.’”
Today, Jefferson is now being questioned by some here at home. Wonder what Gorbachev would say to that?