As a high school student, Mikhail Gorbachev was so enthusiastic about his country's politics he joined a "young-communists" group to better show his support for the government. Four decades later, having discovered paralyzing flaws in the Soviet system, he would become the chief architect for Russia's difficult transition to a free society.
As one of the people most responsible for ending the Cold War, Gorbachev, 71, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, has become a respected authority on post-communist Russian political, social and economic strategy. Through an interpreter, the former Russian president recently told a rapt Low Rotunda audience that while the country is making gains, it may take several generations for the former superpower to assert its presence as a successful democratic state.
"Remember, America's democracy has evolved over 200 years," said Gorbachev. "We need time to succeed."
While delivering the 10th annual W. Averell Harriman Lecture, sponsored by the School of International and Public Affairs' Harriman Institute, Gorbachev traced the former Soviet Union's history as a communist entity, beginning in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution and then through the Cold War years which he said led to a "crisis of stagnation" both economically and politically.
Gorbachev said that by the 1970s there were many hints that the communist system was in trouble. The fact that the Politburo, the nation's governing body, needed to establish a commission to ensure that women could get panty hose was certainly one strong sign.
Although dissenters began to emerge at this time, Gorbachev said that most regional politicians felt trapped by the repressive system, even when they personally agreed with the few who called for change.
"We were all silent," he said. "We never spoke out."
But a younger generation, conscious of the need for reforms, began to rise in power, he said, eventually filling positions of authority in the communist government. They were tired of living in the past and too influential to be silenced any longer.
On March 11, 1985, Gorbachev assumed the presidency. Within a short time, he would establish, and win, Russia's very first free election.
Describing the monumental effort of moving Russia from a totalitarian society to a democratic one, Gorbachev noted that the system would require a massive, yet deliberate restructuring for a successful free market Russia to emerge. The implementation of glasnost afforded the public new freedoms of speech and press and shed light on the mistakes of the past. Perestroika, a gradual, careful economic reform -- focused on offering economic incentives for the first time -- was set in motion.
However, Gorbachev said that his successor, Boris Yeltsin, tried to achieve too much too quickly, overhauling the system without a structured economic plan in place. Perestroika was abandoned as Yeltsin swept the nation into international competition and, unable to compete because of low product quality, the economy collapsed.
Chaos ensued in Russia's social, economic and military spheres and current Russian President Vladimir Putin inherited this disorder. Gorbachev, who believes it is only productive to support the new president's efforts, said Putin made great strides in his first 18 months in office. He is encouraged by Russia's two consecutive years of economic growth and the appearance of a more definite, predictable foreign policy.
"One has to understand that [Russia] is not a superpower anymore," said Gorbachev. "Pride has been affected, but Russia is a new country."
Most importantly, Gorbachev said Putin needs to create stronger guidelines for development and assemble a reliable team to implement new policy for the nation. He believes a strengthening of economic policy and growth in technology can return Russia to international prominence again.
As for himself, Gorbachev is spearheading the creation of an international agency called the New World Political Forum, which will serve as a watchdog for justice, especially in underprivileged countries. He has recently recruited former President Bill Clinton to help him in the effort.
Refusing to rest with his accomplishments, Gorbachev said, "I still see there is a lot of work to be done."