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Former U.S. diplomat to Russia Thomas Graham on the life of Mikhail Gorbachev

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who helped end the Cold War, has died at 91. Gorbachev ushered in a new era of free speech in the Soviet Union, implemented new democratic reforms and negotiated a reduction in nuclear warheads with the U.S. He was celebrated abroad for his achievements, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. But Gorbachev's legacy at home is complicated because of his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here to help us remember his legacy is Thomas Graham of the Council on Foreign Relations. He worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the late Soviet period and joins us now. Welcome.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Glad to be with you.

CHANG: Glad to have you. So Gorbachev was someone who struck Western leaders as a person they could do business with, especially former President Reagan, who began meeting with Gorbachev back in 1985. I'm wondering, in your mind, what did all their years of face-to-face meetings do to bring the U.S. and Soviet Union closer to the end of the Cold War? How do you see it?

GRAHAM: Well, I mean, there was tremendous personal rapport between the two presidents. I think they both shared a genuine abhorrence of the prospect of nuclear war, and that was really the foundation of their working together. They wanted to find a way to bring the weapons under control to reduce the burden that they placed on societies, and that carried them through extraordinary high-level meetings in the 1980s. That eventually led to an agreement to eliminate the intermediate-range nuclear forces globally, but particularly in Europe, and also set them on the path to major reductions in strategic weapons.

CHANG: Well, as we mentioned, despite Gorbachev's achievements - you know, opening up the Soviet Union, negotiating with the West - he struggled politically at home. Can you explain why that was?

GRAHAM: Well, in part because he was undertaking extraordinary reforms - moving the country away from a communist system to a more open system. I think he also suffered because he had a general sense of the direction in which he wanted to move, but no real concrete plan. So he was improvising as we went along, and that made it very difficult for him to explain to the population - to the elites - where they were going to go, where they were going to end up, how this was all going to fit together in the end. And then he tried to maintain balance between those forces that were opposed to reform and those forces that wanted to move more rapidly in a reformist direction, and he never managed the politics of that. He maintained himself as a centrist, but the center in the Soviet political system quickly faded away in the late 1980s.

CHANG: I am curious - what strikes you now about the timing of his death? I mean, in your view, what is the significance of his passing in this moment, as Russia is more isolated than it ever has been since Gorbachev and Reagan first began talking in the 1980s?

GRAHAM: Well, it is, I think, somewhat sort of tragic that - you know, that we don't understand what Gorbachev was trying to do back in the 1980s - that he wasn't an extraordinary sort of Russian leader or Soviet leader, who did believe that it was possible to build enduring, constructive relations with the United States and set out to do that because he thought it was good for his country, as well as for the United States in the world more generally. And it's - I think it's unfortunate that he has had such a poor reputation in his own country - thought of many as a person who destroyed the Soviet Union as opposed to a person who had a grand vision for how his country's people could live better and how that would have beneficial impact for the entire world order.

CHANG: Thomas Graham is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you very much for joining us today.

GRAHAM: You're certainly welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Megan Lim
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
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