On the night of the first post-Communist Russian presidential election in 1996, a huge table inside Mikhail Gorbachev’s Moscow headquarters was laid out with salmon, caviar and shashlik, with champagne and vodka for around 30 people.
But no one was hungry. Gorby had garnered less than 1% of the vote.
I was there to witness the soul-crushing defeat. Gorbachev sat at the head of the table like a shell-shocked Caesar, Raisa and their daughter by his side.
“It’s the start of a new era,” Gorbachev said, seeming to understand even then that the wheels he set in motion would eventually return Russia to its war-mongering past.
As leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, Gorby had proudly presided over Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and he was the first Soviet leader who opted not to crush Eastern bloc revolution with tanks. He also denounced the war in Chechnya. And as the architect of perestroika and glasnost, he helped stop nuclear weapons escalation with the West.
So why did he run in 1996 against sitting president Boris Yeltsin?
“He feels it’s his moral duty,” Raisa Gorbacheva explained to me, as I wrote in my book, Vodka, Tears & Lenin’s Angel: A Young Journalist Discovers the Former Soviet Union.
“The reforms that I started are on the wrong track,” Gorby said. “It’s up to me to set them straight.”
If only he had.
In the US, at the height of Gorby-mania, he’d jump out of cars to press the flesh in DC and Manhattan. But in Russia he was despised. Some blamed him for destroying the Soviet Union. Others said he didn’t go far enough with reforms.
By 1996, Gorby still had that magnetic presence, and an uncanny ability to single you out in a crowd with dark eyes that would suck you right in. But the spell had been broken.
That year, with my friend and colleague, photographer Heidi Hollinger, I covered Gorby and the other candidates in the election. I traveled with President Yeltsin through the Arctic, on his moneyed campaign fueled by oligarchs.
I accompanied hardline Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov to Bryansk, 210 miles southwest of Moscow, as he made a surprising comeback, trafficking in nostalgia for an empire lost to a proud people angered by their current banana-republic status.
Finally, I toured Siberia with General Alexander Lebed, a surly and crater-faced military man known as the potential future Pinochet of Russia.
But it was my tour with Gorby — and our dinner on election night — that struck me the most.
I traveled with Gorbachev to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, in a borrowed limo. Tatarstan’s president, who already endorsed Yeltsin, did not show up.
“Out of all the candidates running for president, only Boris Nikolaivich [Yeltsin] and I have any political experience,” Gorby said outside the republic’s parliament building, to a crowd of a few hundred people. “If you want to vote for a man [Yeltsin] who shelled his own parliament and killed 50,000 people in Chechnya, you can. On June 16th, you will hold the rifle in your hand.”
While Gorbachev had introduced democratic reforms, he had never run for office before, having rejected presidential elections during perestroika, preferring to be appointed president of the Soviet Union. Instead, Yeltsin ran for the presidency of Russia and won in 1991, acquiring a moral authority and legitimacy that Gorby lost forever.
It was Gorby — not Yeltsin — who launched “reforms” that led to the privatization of Russian state wealth into the hands of a corrupt few.
The KGB, to save itself and the communist system, set up people with KGB ties as “businessmen” to buy Soviet natural resources and weapons at subsidized prices and sell them at market value in the West, and to set up Western bank accounts that would also be used, in part, to subvert Western democracies from within.
It was a long game, and it worked. The money would also be used to set up a sort of Communist Party in exile — ultimately helping to bring a KGB lifer, Vladimir Putin, to power.
Along the way, Putin’s rivals, from General Lebed, who came in third in the 1996 election, to handsome reformer Boris Nemtsov, kept dying young, in hails of bullets and mysterious plane crashes.