Voices: My dear friend Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who changed the world

·4-min read
We must not forget that it was Mikhail Gorbachev who changed everything (Supplied)
We must not forget that it was Mikhail Gorbachev who changed everything (Supplied)

The last time I saw Mikhail, it was clear his health was declining and the end drawing near. His hair was now totally white, and that famous birthmark had retreated to a mere smudge in a face blotched by age. He certainly knew time was running out. “It’s a mess,” he said of his health. “There’s no point wasting time now, not in my situation.”

I had first met him in Paris, shortly after the millennium. He was having lunch with my father at the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. Together they co-owned the Russian campaigning newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor Dmitry Muratov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for what Novaya Gazeta had achieved.

I must admit I was nervous at the prospect of meeting such a giant, not least as I expected he would be formal and imposing. I could not have been more wrong.

Lunch was a string of jokes and anecdotes. When we said goodbye, Mikhail hugged me. During the following years I would learn he was a great hugger. It was one of the many things that made people warm to him.

When he founded a cancer charity as a tribute to the memory of his wife, Raisa, who had died of leukaemia in 1999, he asked if I would be its chair. We raised more than £10m, particularly for the new Raisa Gorbachev Centre for Children’s Haematology and Marrow Transplantation in St Petersburg, which – when inaugurated in 2007 – became Russia’s first dedicated clinic for children with cancer.

It meant I saw him with the patients we visited: always ready with his time, and always reaching out to provide what comfort he could. This was a man on first-name terms with presidents and kings, who had shaped the destiny of nations, yet there was no sign of airs and graces. It was impossible not to be touched by the humanity that so visibly empowered him.

At a 2009 fundraiser to mark the 10th anniversary of his wife’s death, Mikhail broke into a traditional Russian folk song, “Old Letters”, for the assembled guests. He first explained how, during the attempted 1991 coup by hardliners to overthrow him, he had found Raisa burning their old letters. “When I was working away, we would talk about everything in letters,” he told the audience. “When I returned to find her burning these letters, I sang this old Russian song, about how old letters should not be read. And this song makes me think of her.”

As he sang, tears rolled down his face. As he finished, the crowd rose to their feet as one.

The last time I visited him at his foundation’s offices, the grief he felt at his wife’s death was clearly still ever present. The suite of rooms was filled with awards, among them the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1990, and photographs from his time in politics. Yet it was the images of Raisa that were most prominent. Her portrait even hung in pride of place on the wall, directly behind the leather-covered desk in his study.

Raisa’s portrait hung in pride of place on the wall, directly behind the leather-covered desk in his study (Supplied)
Raisa’s portrait hung in pride of place on the wall, directly behind the leather-covered desk in his study (Supplied)

“One day we took each other by the hand and went for a walk in the evening, and we walked like that for our whole life,” he said, looking up at her. “I think what happened is that we found our other half in each other. I was blessed by the fact that she became mine.”

He read to me from his autobiography, Alone With Myself. It featured an extract from the diary he wrote on the day his wife died, telling how he and his daughter, Irina, were gathered by Raisa’s sick bed.

As she faded away, Gorbachev beseeched her not to leave him, as life could have no meaning for him if she did. “I had never felt so lonely,” he told me. The one consolation I can draw from the news of his passing is that Mikhail will no longer have to live with that sense of loss.

We must not forget that it was Mikhail Gorbachev who changed everything. His was one of the most important lives of the past hundred years.

He bloodlessly set Eastern Europe free. He ended the nuclear arms race. Back home, he permitted free speech, political dissent, religious worship and foreign travel. At our last meeting, I asked Mikhail how he hoped he would be remembered by posterity.

“On the basis of the fact that I ended the Cold War. That I opened up the opportunity for Germany to be unified, and because of that the Germans today are our friends. And, of course, I think they’ll remember the great merits of glasnost and perestroika. There is something to remember.”

Then he reached over to tap me on the leg. “And,” he said, “the fact that I was an OK kind of guy.” It is perhaps the most important epitaph of all.

Lord Lebedev is a shareholder of The Independent and Evening Standard