I could have gone to South Africa or Japan, but I chose Siberia as I thought I would not have another chance. It was an amazing trip, with visits to several schools each day, seeing different areas each with stunning food. At the end of every day, we sat and talked about the experience.
In 2016, we were in St Petersburg. On one particular day, we heard from friends back home that the Leavers had won. It broke our hearts.
The fall of the Iron Curtain
In 1989 I was a deputy head teacher in Dorset. My students were transfixed by the vast changes occurring in Europe, the sight of the Iron Curtain coming down and their chance to go to a free East Europe opening up.
Sadly we are less open now to Europe.
These changes would not have happened without Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the former Soviet Union.
Early years of Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev was born in 1931 in Privolnoye, only a couple of hundred miles from what is now Ukraine. He lived in a family of Russian and Ukrainians. He was ten years old when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941.
He grew up in Stalin’s USSR, in the paradigm that rural collectivisation would change the country. As a young man, he worked on a collective farm before he studied law between 1950-1955 at Moscow State University. While at MSU, he met Raisa Titarenko and in 1953, they got married. They lived in a tiny room with wood fires for heating and food miles away.
After university, he rose through the ranks of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Stalin had died in 1953 and Gorbachev helped to spread new leader, Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin message. In the seventies, he made several visits to western Europe and by 1978, he was a member of the Central Committee and – a year later – the Politburo.
In 1985, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CPSU, succeeding Konstantin Chernenko who had led the country for only 13 months before his death.
As the leader of the USSR, Gorbachev’s two great policies were Perestroika (reform for society and the economy) and Glasnost (‘openness’).
The success of Glasnost meant that he felt able to meet both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher famously said of him, “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.”
After the dissolution of the USSR and his own ousting by Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev worked to promote social democracy. In 1993, he launched Green Cross International, which focused on encouraging sustainable futures.
He became increasingly critical of Putin in later years and made veiled references to Donald Trump’s possible involvement in the January 6 Capitol attack.
He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, for his “his leading role in the peace process which today characterises important parts of the international community.”
He had been in poor health for many years and, on 30 August 2022, he died aged 91.
A decent man
Gorbachev changed the world for the better. His great courage, vision and energy put the USSR – and subsequently Russia – at the heart of the world’s economy.
He was also a very decent man who did his best for his people. Despite his work, we again find ourselves in a treacherous situation.
Is it true that Putin wants the USSR back? If it is, then Heaven help us.