Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, requiescat in pace

Back in the 1980s in Washington Heights, Upper Manhattan, New York City, I had many friends who had emigrated recently from the Soviet Union. Life was not easy for them, or, indeed, for me. (I was coming up for tenure at Columbia in a department where I was told to my face they didn’t want a Jew on the faculty.) Many evenings my friend Otto Kogan and I went for walks. He was a Russian Jew, born in Moscow; he’d met his wife, a Russian-speaking Jewish girl from a cozy family in Riga, when he was in the Latvian SSR on an engineering job. She called him, affectionately, Otk- itself a diminutive of Otka!

Otka’s English progressed at a leisurely pace, but the guy at the local deli knew “kitchen sandwich” meant chicken. Otka used to go down to the 181st St. station of the IND line and paint oil canvases of the platform, the people, the subway train pulling in. The little apartment on Overlook Terrace was jammed with Otto’s paintings and discovered objects and his wife’s porcelain tea services and other comfy appurtenances of a Rigs Jewish household.

On our walks, Otto and I used to talk about Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of reconstruction, perestroika, which, people were already joking, was likely to end in a perestrelka– a shoot-out. The disaster at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl had already happened; and Gorbachev was later to say that he thought the catastrophe was the event that decisively doomed the Soviet Union to break apart. That is not to say there were not already a host of long-suppressed problems that were all bubbling to the surface at once, in a sort of meltdown of their own. The terrible earthquake in Armenia at the end of 1988 exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions between Christian Armenians and Moslem Azerbaijanis in the Nagorno Karabagh region, for instance. Nationalist movements in nearly all the constituent republics of the USSR were agitating for independence. Since Russia was by far the largest republic, and the one where the October Revolution of 1917 had begun, local nationalists tended to regard the Soviet Union as the same old Russian Empire in new garb; and Russians living outside the RSFSR, as colonial settlers- even if the latter had been there for generations.

The hard-liners in the Communist party watched all this in horror. Glasnost’– Gorbachev’s reformist policy of political pluralism, cultural and civil liberty, and religious freedom— seemed to them only the opening of Pandora’s box. An American news magazine cartoon of the time reflected this well: a bunch of gerontocratic Party bureaucrats in bulky overcoats and fur hats are standing on the reviewing terrace of Lenin’s tomb on Red Square and grumbling “Openness, he said! Reform, he said!” while next to them stand… Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck. The abortive coup in August 1991 by a junta of these zombies out of the Stalinist past was the outrage that sealed the doom of the ancien regime. Gorbachev’s political rival, Boris Yeltsin, was then able to sign a protocol establishing fifteen independent states with himself as the head of the Russian one. The USSR was disbanded without a shot fired (all the shooting was yet to come): Gorbachev, the President of a country that no longer existed, resigned. He made his speech before the cameras: there is a nice teacup on a saucer to his right. At the end he starts to lift the cup for a drought of the beverage that cheereth but doth not intoxicate, and a shock of hurt passes across his face. Nobody has even bothered to pour him a cup of tea.

I was in Moscow on the way to Armenia for academic conferences in 1986 and 1987, and remember the astonishing transformations I could scarcely believe: the Chagall show at the Tretyakov Gallery, the printing of Nabokov’s books, the open discussion of Leon Trotsky in the newspapers. Travel restrictions were relaxed, too: the great scholar of cuneiform records of the Achaemenid period, Muhammad Abdelkadyrovich Dandamayev, came to stay for a week in my apartment in New York. It was snowing hard. We went for a walk after dinner to buy ice cream and enjoy the blizzard, and the only others we encountered in the swirling storm were Otto and his wife. Karen Nikitich Yuzbashian, the Byzantinist, stayed with me many times; and I was a frequent guest at his hospitable home on Orbeli Street in Leningrad, which was on its way back to being called St. Petersburg.

Back to Otto and me walking around Ft. Washington Ave., Pinehurst Ave., 181st St.- our little neighborhood. The two of us composed a verbal letter to Gorbachev. We did this many times, but never set pen to paper or sent it. It read, more or less: Dear Mikhail Sergeyevich! We hope you and Raisa Maksimovna are well. We are grateful for what you are doing to make the system in the USSR open and just. This is something Russian humanists and thinkers have dreamed about for centuries. But it has never worked, so if it falls apart and you have to leave, we invite you to come and live with us here in upper Manhattan. This is not a fancy neighborhood but people of many backgrounds live and work together, and Fort Tryon Park and the George Washington Bridge are as beautiful as anything else a man could want on this earth.”

I remember now that a legendary king of the little Aramaic-speaking city-state of Edessa (no, not Odessa, but the Syrian city of Urfa, now in southeastern Turkey), Abgar, wrote a letter to Jesus. He said, I hear you are the Son of God and your people are giving you a hard time. Why not come and live with me? My kingdom is very small but there’s enough room for both of us in it. Christ replied, Thanks for the invitation, and I appreciate your kindness, but there’s stuff I have to get done here.

Here is a letter. It’s not to a President or General Secretary anymore. Just to our fellow mortal man, our brother, Misha.

Дорогой Михаил Сергеевич! Как говорится, хотелось как лучше, а получилось, как всегда. Но Вы старались и надеялись, как мы, и встречались с потерями, с поражениями, с горем, как и мы. Земля тебе пухом, Царство тебе Небесное. Обнимаю! Яша

Dear Mikhail Sergeyevich! As they say, we wanted it to be for the best but it turned out the way it always does. But you tried and hoped, as we did, and met loss and defeat and sorrow, as we do, too. May the earth rest on you light as a feather; and may you inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Hugs, Yasha

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.
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