Mikhail Gorbachev Offers Geopolitical Analysis—and Jokes

After developing nerves of steel, ordering down the Berlin Wall, winning a Nobel Peace Prize, and serving decades as Russia’s elder statesman, Mikhail Gorbachev retains a remarkable thing: a rich sense of humor.

The roughly 1,000 people who filled the LBJ Library auditorium Tuesday night were treated not only to deep geopolitical analysis, but also to jokes.

Through a translator, the former Soviet president said he remains an optimist. But he joked about the real difference between that and its converse.

“A pessimist says things are terrible, it’s hopeless,” he explained. “An optimist says, you know, it can be a lot worse, it will be a lot worse.

“In any situation one has to have a vision—one has to see opportunities in any bad situation,” he added—bringing to mind the seemingly hopeless state of affairs that was the Cold War. In that, too, Gorbachev saw possibilities where many expected mass bloodshed.

There are situations that the 80-year-old Gorbachev sees as bad now. He believes that the United States should extract itself from the Middle East at large and Afghanistan in particular. The Russians learned about issues like tribal loyalties there the hard way, he said.

Gorbachev also believes Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin should give up power. Putin’s “authoritarian methods” aren’t appropriate policy for the future, and when leaders rule for 20 years or more, they tend to care only about holding onto power, Gorbachev said.

How, moderator and LBJ Library director Mark Updegrove asked, will history judge Gorbachev himself? “Harshly,” he quipped.

“History is a fickle lady. But I am proud of the life that I have lived, and let history decide,” he added to applause.

Updegrove declared, “Mr. President, I’m an optimist too, and I’m optimistic that you will be regarded as one of the great figures of the 20th century.”

That would have been a stirring note to close on, but Gorbachev couldn’t resist one last bit of humor.

As LBJ’s daughters, Luci and Lynda, joined him onstage for a photo, both wore the shade that symbolized Communism. “Red is my favorite color,” Gorbachev joked.

Next summer, a few lucky Texans will meet privately with Gorbachev and former Polish president and Solidarity movement leader Lech Walesa—on their turf this time. A June Flying Longhorns trip, “Changing the Tides of History: Cruising the Baltic Sea,” will feature lectures by Gorbachev and Walesa, and Nikiti Kruschev’s son will cruise with the group. More details here.

LBJ Library photos by Charles Bogel


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