Palazhchenko on Gorbachev

Pavel Palazhchenko has been interpreter and close aide for Mikhail Gorbachev since early in Gorbachev’s tenure as Soviet leader. Before that, he served as interpreter in the foreign ministry, especially to Eduard Shevardnadze. He interpreted all the international negotiations in which Gorbachev played such a historic role in ending the Cold War. He remains in close touch with Gorbachev during the pandemic.

By Pavel Palazhchenko and Metta Spencer | 2022-04-01 05:00:00

SPENCER: Let’s talk first about your new book, which I hope to have an opportunity to read in English. I will put the title and information at the end of this video, so people can learn how to obtain a copy.

PALAZHCHENKO: The book is in Russian. It has a lot of parallels with the book that you read in English, which was published in 1997 by Penn State Press. I wrote that book in English and it was published fairly soon after the events it describes. It’s basically a blow-by-blow account of what I saw, particularly during the period of 1985 to 1991 while working with the two protagonists, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze –two persons whom I very much respect. It is still in print on

But this newer book is in Russian and written basically for the Russian-speaking audience. It’s more subjective, more personal. There’s more about my life, about how I came about working for the Soviet government and then for Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, and what I actually saw and learned afterwards.

We have an excellent archive in the Gorbachev Foundation that contains transcripts of Gorbachev’s conversations with foreign leaders—not just the English-speaking leaders, whose conversations I interpreted and reported, but also people like Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl—particularly in connection with the very controversial subject of German unification and NATO enlargement. I used the material from the archive. I must say that most of my memories, and most of my assessments of what happened during those years have not really changed. There’s some additional detail. There is some additional reflection and analysis, but basically, I still remain where I was in my evaluation of what happened at that time.

SPENCER: That’s a very important question—whether events made you reconsider any of the conclusions you reached at that time. I wonder if you could even hazard a guess about whether Mr. Gorbachev would also say the same things if he were asked today?

The very controversial subject of German unification and NATO enlargement

PALAZHCHENKO: He would be somewhat different on some of the events and some of his decisions about domestic developments. But as for foreign policy, his overall position has not changed. He is constantly asked about some of the domestic issues and some of the domestic decisions that he made. Over the 30 years that he has been out of government as a former president, I think he has developed a narrative that is very convincing, so far as the main things are concerned, but critical of some of the decisions that he took. I wouldn’t say that he blames himself for those decisions, but I think that he looks at them more historically.

SPENCER: With regret? Which ones?

PALAZHCHENKO: Somewhat with regret, but also with an analytical mind. I look at them also with an analytical mind, and I am less critical and more charitable on some of the decisions than even Gorbachev is today.

SPENCER: In what way? What are the issues that you think he has changed his opinions about?

PALAZHCHENKO: Well, for example, he believes that it would have been better for him to start reforming the Communist Party and the Union of Republics earlier than he did. My feeling is that, had he done so, had he started to really tinker with the kind of Communist Party that he inherited, then perhaps we might have had the attempted coup even earlier than August 1991. He still is very analytical about what happened during those years. He published an essay—about forty pages—called “Perestroika and New Thinking: A Retrospective,” and you can find it on the English-language website of the magazine, Russia in Global Affairs. That’s where he really gives his current up-to-date assessment of what happened, both domestically and internationally.

SPENCER: How long ago did he write it?

PALAZHCHENKO: It was published less than a year ago. Just Google “Russian affairs, Gorbachev” and maybe the title of the piece. When I was translating it into English, I thought that perhaps he was a little too self-critical in the essay.

SPENCER: I will always be very lenient toward that man, because he’s practically my hero of all time. One of the only times that I thought—and most people thought at the time—that he made a mistake, I wonder what he would say the period toward the end when he made the so-called “turn to the right” when he put a lot of faith in some of these dinosaurs and gave them too much power. And then he went away and left them free to do their mischief. A number of people who had really loved him dearly—I remember talking with Georgy Arbatov, who was pretty sore at the time. He had put his trust in the wrong people for a while, I think. What would he say about that now? And what would you? What did you think at the time?

PALAZHCHENKO: Well, interestingly, that is not the moment when he is critical about the decisions that he made, and I’ll explain why. Yeah, Arbatov you know, I admire the man—but I think Arbatov would have done better to actually support Gorbachev. Practically 80 percent of the Russian intellectuals fled from Gorbachev in favor of Yeltsin. And I think that was not Gorbachev’s mistake. That was the mistake of the Russian intelligentsia, who believed that the more radical approach espoused by Yeltsin would work better for Russia and for the country as a whole. To me, that was a big mistake on the part of the Russian intelligentsia.

Fortunately, Arbatov himself did not flee. He was not one of those people who actually pledged allegiance to Yeltsin. But he could have done more to support Gorbachev at that very, very difficult period. Actually, what the pro-Yeltsin faction of the Russian intelligentsia (and it was a majority of the high-status Russian intelligentsia at that time) was blaming Gorbachev for was that he did not favor the radical, crash economic reform that Yeltsin was espousing without really looking into it. He wasn’t looking into the possible consequences of the kind of economic radicalism that he was proposing. So, at the most difficult moment of Gorbachev’s political life, I took a decision that was opposite to what most of my friends were thinking. I decided to actually work with Gorbachev and I took him up on his proposal to move from the foreign ministry to his executive office. And we know now the consequences that this economic radicalism had for our country, the kind of misery and hardship for ordinary people that resulted from the crash economic reform. I forget what they called it.

SPENCER: Shock therapy.

PALAZHCHENKO: Exactly. The people suffered from the shock therapy approach to economic reform. Most of my friends believed that the more radical it is, the better it is. They and Yeltsin were promising that within a couple of years, Russia will flourish and prosper. Market economics will prevail and make Russia one of the biggest dynamos in the world economy. That did not happen. They also believed that if Russia goes its own way without the burden of the other republics, Russia will prosper and become so powerful that all the other republics will crawl or run to rejoin Russia and ask for help. That they will become dependent on the Russian Federation. That did not happen. And that’s why there is so much trauma today in Russia, because none of the promises of Boris Yeltsin and the radical intelligentsia that supported him, none of them were fulfilled.

Russia will prosper and become so powerful that all the other republics will crawl or run to rejoin Russia

SPENCER: I agree absolutely. At the time I thought it was stupid to turn toward Yeltsin. Everybody I knew in Moscow was thinking the way you’ve described them. It was just a total turnover within the party. People who had been very conservative and conventional within minutes became flaming radicals. Many people soon blamed the US (but actually they should have blamed Jeffrey Sachs) for promoting the shock therapy thing. I think they assumed that the US was behind all of these innovative economic policies and was in favor of Yeltsin. But certainly the Americans I knew were not. Americans were still enthusiastic about Gorbachev. But that still doesn’t explain to me why, not only he didn’t just hold his ground, but he moved to old guard types.

PALAZHCHENKO: Well, again, that is not something that he is blaming himself for. I would say that it was not so much his moving to the right as the left actually deserting him totally, and he was left with the kind of people that surrounded him. They mostly belonged to the Soviet old guard.

He had to work with the Soviet old Guard, you know. Had he not tried to work with them I think it would have been impossible even to start the reforms. He had to persuade them, to co-opt them, and he was successful in that regard, up until 1989-1990. Then things became difficult—and I acknowledge that there were real differences about the pace of economic reforms. Yes, absolutely, perhaps there were possibilities to move somewhat faster on economic reforms in Russia and the other republics but the precondition for that, I think, was cooperation between Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Yeltsin was becoming increasingly popular. And the challenge for the politically active intelligentsia in Russia was to work in that direction to make sure that there was cooperation between Yeltsin and Gorbachev. Instead, they were actually increasing the gap between Gorbachev and Yeltsin; they were pushing Yeltsin to become even more radical. And Yeltsin wallowed in the kind of popularity that he had among those radicals. When the intellectuals deserted Gorbachev, Gorbachev was left with the kind of people who were around him.

Gorbachev was willing to take unpopular decisions

The people who are really closest to him, like his assistant for foreign affairs, Anatoly Chernyaev and Georgy Shakhnazarov, who helped him to develop the draft Union Treaty that was supposed to be signed on August the 20th 1991, remained close to him. They did not desert him. And they were certainly not among the plotters of the August coup. The people who actually organized the August coup, yes, they were part of Gorbachev’s circle, but not the inner circle. They were the legacy that he inherited, like the minister of defense, the chairman of the KGB. They were the people representing their institutions—the institutions that probably would have ceased to exist, or would have been radically transformed after the Union Treaty had been signed. And they did not want it. They believed that by shutting out Gorbachev as they did in August, they would save the Soviet Union or some kind of Union. In fact, of course, the consequences were totally different.

People had the money, but there was nothing on the shelves of the stores

So, going back to where Gorbachev believes he did not do the thing that would have been best for the country, you have to go back as far as 1987. That’s a far more interesting period, when there were proposals about changing the price system within the socialist economy that Gorbachev inherited.

The system was totally skewed, the system was not sustainable for any kind of economy. And Gorbachev was willing to take unpopular decisions about changing the price system. That would have made a lot of people unhappy. There were ideas about how to adjust it, so that the people with the lowest income would not suffer from, for example, raising the price of bread and other essential goods. So Gorbachev considered that. He put that question to the Politburo, and the Politburo was not in favor. So Gorbachev is now saying that because changing the price system, even within the old socialist economy, would have made it easier to then reform the economy and move toward a freer market and private property.

I think that he is right; that was a mistake. He did not show enough political will in order to start that change that would have created ground for moving ultimately to market economics. So he is quite critical about some of those things. People had a lot more money than there were goods on the market. He said: In 1991, I should have taken the decision to cut defense spending, despite probable resistance from the defense sector, and buy consumer goods and products from the West, in order to saturate the market so that people would have been able, without standing in line to buy the kind of goods for which there was so much hunger. People had the money, but there was nothing on the shelves of the stores. Again, reconsidering that situation, he believes that he should have done what he decided at that time not to do.

But, talking about his mistakes, you should remember the situation he was in: an attempt to change a system that was extremely rigid, politically and economically. It was based on vested interests in the economic bureaucracy, in the Communist Party, in the political system, that were extremely difficult to overcome. He was able to engineer a turnaround in the Soviet system. He actually did institute the freedoms and individual rights that were non-existent before he came to power. That fact alone, I think, overrules all the legitimate criticisms.

He [Gorbachev] was able to engineer a turnaround in the Soviet system

SPENCER: As a peace worker, the thing that stands out to me is that he totally changed international affairs while he had the authority to do so. I remember that the last pages of your book mention his hope, that the most important reforms that he put into place would remain, that not everything would be lost. I wonder, right now can anybody say that there’s anything left of what he achieved? It is such a disappointment to see what’s happening in Russia—in fact, he should have insisted on that change not just in Russia, but the whole rest of the world—that those days almost seem like golden years.

PALAZHCHENKO: Internationally, we definitely are at a moment of crisis. Nevertheless, I do think that a lot of what Gorbachev did will ultimately prevail. Today, you can say that it’s just my optimism that I learned from Gorbachev. He has always been an optimist, and one of his books is called I Remain an Optimist. But I do think that when people say that there is the second Cold War, I think they’re mistaken. If you look at the first Cold War, first of all, it was extremely ideological. It was based on ideological dogma, on two political, socio-economic, and ideological systems. And that is not the case today.

Second, if you look at the kind of arms race that we witnessed (particularly the high point of the Cold War, from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s) look at the numbers reflecting the arsenals that were built at that time and compare those numbers with what we have today, you will see that the arms race was absolutely staggering. There is nothing like this today. There is a qualitative competition, which I don’t know whether we should call an arms race. Maybe we can call it a qualitative arms race, but there is nothing like the number of weapons that were built during those two decades of the real Cold War.

The first Cold War was extremely ideological

And finally, during the Cold War, you had the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West in practically every region of the world. You don’t have that today. We do have difficult situations, say in Syria, and this crisis currently centered on Ukraine and Russia’s desire to revisit the entire European security system. But during the real Cold War, when you look at the Middle East, you look at Afghanistan, you look at Latin America, Nicaragua, you look at practically every region of the world, including southern Africa, and everywhere it’s America and the West on one side, and the Soviet Union on the other side of the fence. We don’t have that, even though we do have, not just difficulties, but the current crisis.

So I would say that much of what Gorbachev was able to achieve is still there. Even in Europe, which I’ll accept is dangerous, the number of American nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War in Europe was like 7,000 warheads. Now it’s 200 bombs, various bases, and four or five countries. And that’s it. There were in Europe nuclear landmines; there was nuclear air defense, thousands of weapons. Now the German army is about one-third, in terms of personnel, that it was during the Cold War. So don’t forget about those accomplishments. You really cannot say that all is lost. And, frankly, I don’t believe that the current crisis will last forever. I think that there are ways to exit.

SPENCER: Yes, I want to talk to you about the current thing as well, but I’m thinking also in terms of domestic policies. Putin is the antithesis of Gorbachev. Russia was becoming a real democracy and I don’t see that now. Do you see any remainder of what that was?

PALAZHCHENKO: There are remainders of democracy in Russia. There are still remnants of the free press. Particularly on the radio (less so on television) and in some newspapers you do see, actually, a free flow of information and analysis. But I agree, it’s not what we expected or hoped for thirty years ago. In terms of political democracy, I’m not happy with what we have, for example, in the State Duma. But there is still, among many people in Russia, a belief that elections are a better way than people deciding for you who will represent you. And during the recent elections in some parts of Moscow, in the counting of the votes, I don’t believe in some of the numbers, but I do see that candidates representing the opposition political parties or who personally disagree with many policies of the current government, they were able to do quite well. Many of them are young people working at the municipal level, which is very important, trying to develop local democracy.

There are still remainders of democracy in Russia

Russian society is changing in a better direction than the Russian political system. And that too is the inheritance that we still have from Gorbachev. More people think freely, though they’re not always able to do something about it, than twenty or thirty or certainly forty years ago. So, while being critical about what we see today in Russia politically, you shouldn’t exaggerate; you should look at Russia today and Russia during the height of the Communist period. Those are two different countries. You may not like everything in current Russia today, but those are really two different countries.

Many of my friends have been co-opted into the system. But even among them, I see desire for a different situation—for opportunities to act in a freer way to improve society. Quite a few people have had to leave, and that’s most unfortunate. When people have to go to Poland or Ukraine or the US because they believe that they could be subjected to prosecution, that’s really unfortunate, because those people can be very useful for Russia and for the future.

Russian society is changing in a better direction than the Russian political system

SPENCER: If you were to bet on the most promising way forward for Russia internally—a political move that that would unsettle the Putin regime and make a turn in the direction that you favor, where would you put your bets? Would you favor Navalny or what kind of alternative movement is possible?

PALAZHCHENKO: I don’t think that the goal should be to unsettle the Putin regime. I believe that there are still opportunities for the system to change. In what way that’s going to happen, I don’t know. But I do believe that there is a kind of interconnection between domestic politics and international affairs. If the current crisis in relations between Russia and the West were to subside and we moved forward, that would create a better situation for those activists at the municipal level—for the new generation that would start to come in. I think that in Russia, during periods of co-existence and relative global peace, things went better domestically. I admire Navalny’s courage. I believe he will probably survive the ordeal that he is going through now, but at the same time, I don’t think that you should pin your hopes on any one person. I do believe in gradual process, I believe that people will turn to a more organic system that is not based on the decisions of a small group of people, with all the others basically acquiescing. This is the kind of system that we have now, but I don’t think it’s really sustainable. I hope the inevitable change will not be a crash and will be a more or less gradual system.

SPENCER: Would you even entertain the possibility that Putin could be mollified enough to change course? If somebody were to buy him off by giving him whatever he wants regarding Ukraine? If he really is fixated on the security of Russia (and you can make an argument that NATO isn’t exactly being very helpful in that) then maybe would he relax on some of the other issues, and relent a bit on persecuting people?

PALAZHCHENKO: Well, that’s an excellent question but I don’t have an answer. So far as Ukraine is concerned, really unfortunate things have been happening over the past years, and I now have to predict that the relationship with Ukraine will continue to be extremely difficult for decades to come. I see a parallel to relations between India and Pakistan, where India is definitely a stronger power, where Pakistan has grievances against India, but where you cannot see any kind of positive prospect for the foreseeable future. Their relationship is dangerous, given that both countries have nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, relations between Russia and Ukraine will continue to be difficult. What you’re suggesting, mollifying Russia by giving it something that it wants in Ukraine, that’s probably not the way forward. What I think is possible is to work out some political understanding that would be based on the status quo.

In the status quo it is unrealistic for anyone, including the Ukrainian people and the leaders of Ukraine, to think it will become a member of NATO in the foreseeable future. So why not go to a political memorandum of understanding that would reflect that? Not necessarily set it in stone for decades to come, but basically reflect the actual situation, and ask everyone to be realistic about that. To me, that would be the best way forward.

SPENCER: How about declaring Ukraine a neutral state? I don’t know how Austria became institutionalized more or less permanently as a neutral country, but it would be something like making Ukraine into an Austria.

Many of the people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions actually would love to become part of Russia

PALAZHCHENKO: The post-Stalinist Soviet leadership decided that keeping the Soviet armed forces in Austria would not be sustainable for what they thought could be developing: a more normal relationship with the West. And so, it was the decision of the entire Soviet leadership that the best way forward would be the state treaty with Austria that would make Austria permanently neutral. And I think the West very wisely jumped at that. Both sides at that time showed wisdom.

Unfortunately, the possibility for that kind of treaty was missed years ago. If that had been possible, it was a couple of decades ago. In my view, for Russia to persuade Ukraine to be content with the current status quo—that the possibility of becoming a member of NATO is nowhere in sight—for Russia to persuade Ukraine about that would be extremely difficult today. It would require a lot of secret, quiet diplomacy and a lot of wisdom on the part of the Ukrainian leadership to persuade their own society that that would work best. And it would also require some way of working, either within the Minsk agreements or around the Minsk agreements, to make sure that there is at least cultural autonomy.

[In Ukraine] there is a lot of Russian culture around

Many of the people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions actually would love to become part of Russia, but could perhaps be persuaded (with a lot of political wisdom and quiet and secret diplomacy) to be part of Ukraine, with some guarantees of at least cultural autonomy. Many people in Russia believe that people in Donetsk and Luhansk had been prohibited from speaking Russian. And that is not the case. You know, when I visited Ukraine four or five years ago, in Kiev a lot of people still speak Russian, even though education is currently in Ukrainian. There is a lot of Russian culture around—both high culture and popular culture. So you cannot say really, that Ukraine is pressuring Russian speaking people, but many people in Russia believe that, so in order to find some accommodation, it would require a lot of work in both countries. That I do not see happening. So, unfortunately, I have to be pessimistic about that.

But I do believe that at least the current aggravation of the crisis could be overcome, so that some possibilities for quiet work aimed at a medium-term perspective could start. But it’s extremely difficult to know. As I said, I learned from Gorbachev to be always an optimist, but this is not where I can confidently say that I’m optimistic.

SPENCER: We’ve talked a bit about the east, the Donbass situation, which is now the hot area, but from the point of view of the Western countries, NATO and all the others, the conflict goes back to the Crimea change. And as I understand it, Gorbachev was not opposed to that. I wonder what your view is. Even if you could accomplish everything you just suggested about giving more autonomy to Luhansk and Donetsk, there would still be the lingering sanctions and suspicions and hostility resulting from the Crimean takeover in the West, even if you settled the hot issue right now.

No Russian government will ever even consider giving Crimea back to Ukraine

PALAZHCHENKO: Well, it’s a reasonable question, but let me remind you that the sanctions that were executed right after the takeover of Crimea were relatively mild, both on the part of the US and on the part of the West as a whole. Antherefore, if there is some solution (and again, I’m not particularly optimistic about that) of Donetsk and Luhansk, then I think that the return to the relatively soft sanctions that were imposed after the seizure pf Crimea, that would be possible. On the other hand, of course, we do have a problem—that no Russian government will ever even consider giving Crimea back to Ukraine, and no Ukrainian government—even the current opposition, which is kind of pro-Russian—will ever be able to say, “forget about Crimea; we concede that it’s Russia.”

And to me, as a person with some Ukrainian blood in my veins, that is the real drama. Because that will be a thorn in the Russian-Ukrainian relationship for decades to come. But, again, we do have countries that have been able to live with that—countries that have been able to be, if not friends, at least to be in a normal relationship. So perhaps setting aside Crimea for any foreseeable future would be a realistic decision. But probably, that’ll be a thorn in the relationship for decades to come.

SPENCER: Uh huh. You’re in a position to comment again about an historically important conversation. Was it in Malta, where Baker promised not to move to the east one inch?

PALAZHCHENKO: That was not in Malta but in Moscow in February 1990. And that was entirely in the context of German unification. You really cannot argue that it in any way assumed any promise or possibility for other countries that were still part of the Warsaw Pact being part of that quote. He said the military infrastructure of NATO would not move one inch after German unification. And that was at a time when Gorbachev was opposed, not to unification, but to united Germany being in NATO. It was only in that context that that phrase was uttered. Had Gorbachev said, “You know, that’s very interesting. Now, give me a promise that NATO will never expand, that NATO will never include any of the countries that are now part of the Warsaw Pact, or even part of the Soviet Union,” that would have been absurd. That would have been grotesque. It’s the narrative of anti-Gorbachev people, that he could have required such a promise. But you know…

A promise that NATO will never expand, and never include any of the countries of the Warsaw Pact, would have been absurd

SPENCER: No, I’m sorry. I’m one of those and I’m certainly not an anti Gorbachev person. But all along, I’ve thought he really messed up that time. He should have put it in writing, you know…

PALAZHCHENKO: How come? What could have been put into writing? That NATO actually abandoned its own treaty, its own founding document, and is no longer an organization open to other countries? What kind of US Senate would approved such a treaty—or even a political statement—that NATO had decided to be a closed organization that will always include the countries that were part of NATO as of 1990? That wouldn’t have been possible. Gorbachev would have been ridiculed had he asked for that. And remember, they started blaming Gorbachev for not doing that. In 1996-1997, if Russia wanted to extract that kind of promise from NATO or from the US, it could have actually done that. It could have done that when Russian troops were still in East Germany, and were still in Poland and other countries. It didn’t do that. And I think that was quite reasonable, because it would have been impossible to get any kind of promise, any kind of legal instrument that would have affirmed that. It would have been an embarrassment for either Gorbachev or the Russian Government to raise this because it was not really a possibility. You cannot change the Washington Treaty that says other countries can become members of NATO, you cannot ratify that change in the US Senate, in the parliaments of other countries. That was not possible then and it’s not possible now. You have to be realistic about that.

A different European security arrangement could have been tried

SPENCER: Then I’m not realistic. At that time I was even more ambitious than that. I wanted to totally disband NATO. When they were disbanding the WTO I thought, well, that’s fine. Let’s do both sides. Obviously, you would think that I’m totally unrealistic if I ever said things like that.

PALAZHCHENKO: When the Warsaw Treaty ceased to exist, obviously, NATO kind of lost its meaning to some extent. And it was, for them, an extremely difficult process: try and find some other purpose for NATO. That was a period when, perhaps, some kind of a different European security arrangement could have been tried—let’s say 1992, early ’93. That was a brief window of opportunity when perhaps that could have been tried. But it would have required enormously creative diplomacy. It would have required a different kind of leadership, it would have required a lot of wisdom that was not available at that time.

SPENCER: We haven’t talked much about your book.

PALAZHCHENKO: The book is going very well. There’ll be a fourth printing in March. I’m glad that there is interest, both in Russia and among Russian speakers in all kinds of countries like the US, Israel, and other countries. Any author likes to see that.

SPENCER: Why just Russian speakers? Aren’t you going to publish it in English, please?

PALAZHCHENKO: That’s an interesting idea, because the book is somewhat different from the one I published in ’97 and that is still in print. But I’d have to look for a publisher. I’d have to think about the translation—whether it should be myself or someone else. It’s a lot of work and I am still quite busy as a professional translator, interpreter, and commentator. I work for the Gorbachev Foundation, and I’m happy to do so. We’re currently putting our archive in order and making it available for historical studies. I’m not sure that I should set the work aside and devote myself to my book in English. Perhaps the moment will come when this version of the book will also be translated into English, but right now, that’s not my problem.

SPENCER: I haven’t been following what is going on in the Gorbachev Foundation. Is it still thriving? Is there any sense of feeling inhibited by the Putin government?

PALAZHCHENKO: No, we’re not seeing any pressure from the government. As for how active we are, well, if you look at our website, and it’s both in Russian and in English, and compare it with the websites of other nonprofit organizations, you will see that it’s a lot more active; there’s a lot more information about what we’re doing. Despite the COVID situation, we have been able to put some of our work on Zoom, on the web. I would say that we’ve been quite successful. We’d love to do more but obviously we do not have a lot of money so we’re doing what we can. We’re improving our archive and make it available for historians to study. We recently published a book about Raisa Gorbachev that contains the entire Russian text of her memoirs that were published in the West under the title I Hope. So that book and a lot of additional material is in the new book that we’ve been able to publish. So despite the fact that we are a modest organization, we are happy with what we have been able to do. With the COVID pandemic subsiding, we would love to work more with students and on international conferences. There were proposals about having a conference in Japan, perhaps one day also in the States.

I’m proud of the foundation, still doing more than one would expect, given the problems and limitations that everyone is now facing.

We’re improving our archive and make it available for historians to study

SPENCER: And Mr. Gorbachev himself? How is his health, and what is he hoping to still do?

PALAZHCHENKO: Well, as he likes to say, in terms of health, he is almost 91 years old. Currently with the pandemic he has been under very strict lockdown. We do talk to him on the phone and with his daughter. It’s not easy to get into the place where he is undergoing this lockdown. It’s a government hospital in Moscow. He does require medical care. That’s not a secret; he himself is not making it a secret. But we are constantly in touch with him. He has recently given interviews to the major Russian news agencies, the TASS News Agency and Interfax. He has been quite interested in what is happening—not particularly happy about what’s happening, obviously, but still following the news. Whenever he wants to be briefed or updated about a situation, I and other people, both in the foundation and his friends, are always available to keep him posted. Obviously, I’m not someone to comment on the medical situation, though we do get requests and questions: How’s he doing health wise, etc? So the answer is, well, he is 91 years old.

SPENCER: He’s five months older than I am, so I know a little about what it feels like.

PALAZHCHENKO: Yeah, but you are definitely still going strong like that guy, Johnny Walker. You know, that commercial? Johnny Walker, how old was he? There was the whiskey commercial: “Johnny Walker, 100 years old, still going strong.”

SPENCER: Well, I’m having a good time. And I certainly hope he is too.

PALAZHCHENKO: I really admire what you’re doing. Not that I’m able to watch all the material that you send, all the interviews with really wonderful people, people who have ideas to save our planet. I really admire all that. I’m also using some of that material for my classes in simultaneous interpretation.

SPENCER: Really! Oh, I’m thrilled!

PALAZHCHENKO: Yes, exactly. And my students are interpreting it into Russian. We discuss it a little bit. The main purpose is not the discussion of the policies that you are discussing, but they’re improving their interpretation skills, but because it’s so interesting, and because they’re so natural, it’s, it’s actually great for them to interpret. And now I found the moment to tell you.

SPENCER: It’s a wonderful surprise. Thank you so much. It’s delightful to talk to you and it makes me a bit more hopeful. I’m pessimistic these days, but you don’t sound that way. So, good for you!

PALAZHCHENKO: And good for you that you bring in those interesting people. Thank you, It’s been really fun to talk.

Watch this conversation here:

Fortune-telling War or Peace

These conversations with Likhotal and Palazhchenko took place only a few weeks before Putin attacked Ukraine, but the war quickly proved most of our predictions wrong. Neither Likhotal nor Palazhchenko seemingly anticipated.

But forecasting failures never keep us from continuing to predict. We have to go on guessing in order to plan. So, I still maintain some of my own predictions: I think Ukraine will agree to become a neutral country (in fact, Zelensky is already hinting at that, as we go to press), and will accept a compromise status for the Donbass. Crimea is harder. Neither side can give up its claim on Crimea, so the war may continue that the crisis was about to explode as warfare.

Most other people were also surprised. Even Putin’s own aides, we’ve heard, had believed that their boss was probably bluffing. Few Russian soldiers were ready for war, as became evident when their missions failed, proving my own predictions wrong. I expected Russia quickly to defeat the Ukrainian army, unlike Likhotal, who had a higher opinion of Ukraine’s military.

But if they both really want a ceasefire, they may agree on everything else and just bracket Crimea as “to be settled later,” much as India and Pakistan left Kashmir undecided.

Either way, I do not foresee a happy future for Putin. Unfortunately, many others will also suffer because of his mistakes. But check your fortune cookies and Tarot cards, for many surprises lie ahead. Some of them will be pleasant.

Metta Spencer, 28 March 2022

Peace Magazine April-June 2022

Peace Magazine April-June 2022, page 31. Some rights reserved.

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