In the throngs of mourners passing through the Capitol yesterday afternoon, one stood out -- a vigorous senior citizen with a distinctive birthmark on his bald pate, whose tight gestures and bright eyes brought back memories of some of Ronald Reagan's greatest moments. Mikhail Gorbachev had flown from Moscow to pay respects to Nancy Reagan and to the man with whom he changed the course of history. "I gave him a pat," Gorbachev said later, reenacting the fond caress he had given Reagan's coffin.
Last evening, in an ornate conference room at the Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue NW, Gorbachev gave a kind of personal eulogy to his first and most important American friend. It combined emotion, rigorous historical analysis and an interesting appraisal of Reagan's place in American life and history.
Reagan, said Gorbachev, 73, was "an extraordinary political leader" who decided "to be a peacemaker" at just the right moment -- the moment when Gorbachev had come to power in Moscow. He, too, wanted to be a peacemaker, so "our interests coincided." Reagan's second term began in January 1985; two months later, Gorbachev was elected general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
But if he had warm, appreciative words for Reagan, Gorbachev brusquely dismissed the suggestion that Reagan had intimidated either him or the Soviet Union, or forced them to make concessions. Was it accurate to say that Reagan won the Cold War? "That's not serious," Gorbachev said, using the same words several times. "I think we all lost the Cold War, particularly the Soviet Union. We each lost $10 trillion," he said, referring to the money Russians and Americans spent on an arms race that lasted more than four decades. "We only won when the Cold War ended."
By Gorbachev's account, it was his early successes on the world stage that convinced the Americans that they had to deal with him and to match his fervor for arms control and other agreements that could reduce East-West tensions. "We had an intelligence report from Washington in 1987," he said, "reporting on a meeting of the National Security Council." Senior U.S. officials had concluded that Gorbachev's "growing credibility and prestige did not serve the interests of the United States" and had to be countered. A desire in Washington not to let him make too good an impression on the world did more to promote subsequent Soviet-American agreements than any American intimidation, he said. "They wanted to look good in terms of making peace and achieving arms control," he said of the Reagan administration.
The changes he wrought in the Soviet Union, from ending much of the official censorship to sweeping political and economic reforms, were undertaken not because of any foreign pressure or concern, Gorbachev said, but because Russia was dying under the weight of the Stalinist system. "The country was being stifled by the lack of freedom," he said. "We were increasingly behind the West, which . . . was achieving a new technological era, a new kind of productivity. . . . And I was ashamed for my country -- perhaps the country with the richest resources on Earth, and we couldn't provide toothpaste for our people."
Reagan had been a kind of reformer in the United States, Gorbachev suggested. His first term as president "came at a time when the American nation was in a very difficult situation -- not just in socio-economic terms, but psychologically, too," because of "the consequences of Vietnam and Watergate" and turmoil at home. Reagan rose to the occasion and "restored America's self-confidence. . . . This is what he accomplished."
"He was a person committed to certain values and traditions," Gorbachev continued. "For him the American dream was not just rhetoric. It was something he felt in his heart. In that sense he was an idealistic American."
By the end of that first term, Reagan was "the preeminent anti-communist," Gorbachev said. "Many people in our country, and in your country, regarded him as the quintessential hawk."
Did Reagan's success in his first term, and the huge build-up of military power that he persuaded Congress to finance, affect the decision of the Soviet Politburo to chose a young and vigorous new leader in 1985 -- someone who could, in effect, stand up to Reagan? "No, I think there was really no connection," he replied, chuckling. He said he was chosen for purely internal reasons that had nothing to do with the United States.
"All that talk that somehow Reagan's arms race forced Gorbachev to look for some arms reductions, etc., that's not serious. The Soviet Union could have withstood any arms race. The Soviet Union could have actually decided not to build more weapons, because the weapons we had were more than enough."
The big change was in Washington, Gorbachev said. "When he [Reagan] was elected to a second term, he, and especially the people close to him, began to think about how he would complete his second term -- by producing more and more nuclear weapons . . . and conducting 'special operations' around the world, etc. etc."
The Soviet leadership, Gorbachev said, evidently referring to himself, concluded that instead, Reagan would "want to go down in history as a peacemaker" and would work with Moscow to do so. "A particularly positive influence on him -- more than anyone else -- was Nancy Reagan," Gorbachev said. "She deserves a lot of credit for that."
Once Reagan decided to try to make peace, he found an eager partner in Moscow, Gorbachev said. "The new Soviet leadership wanted to transform the county, to modernize the country, and we needed stability, we needed cooperation with other countries. . . . And we both knew what kind of weapons we each had. There were mountains of nuclear weapons. A war could start not because of a political decision, but just because of some technical failure. . . .
"A lot of forces on both sides had an interest in prolonging the arms race," Gorbachev added, including military-industrial lobbies on both sides. His predecessors in Moscow had concluded that continuing the race was the only way they could achieve security for the Soviet Union.
But by his new calculation in 1985, the situation was ripe for change. He and his comrades concluded that it was really inconceivable that anyone in the White House actually wanted to blow up the Soviet Union, just as they ruled out the possibility of ever deliberately trying to destroy the United States. So it would make more sense "to find ways to cooperate."
His first meeting with Reagan in Geneva in November 1985, "confirmed the correctness of our assessment of the situation," he continued. This was the first Soviet-American summit in seven years, and it did not begin well. After the first session, he recounted, his comrades asked for his impressions of Reagan. "He's a real dinosaur," Gorbachev quoted himself as saying. "And then I learned," he added, "there was a leak from the American delegation, that . . . Reagan [described] Gorbachev as 'a die-hard Communist.' "
But just a day and a half later, the two men signed an agreement that stated their mutual conviction that nuclear war was unthinkable. They initiated a batch of new cooperative enterprises intended to improve relations. "That was the beginning of hope," Gorbachev said.
At subsequent meetings at Reykjavik the next year, in Washington in 1987 and in Moscow in 1988, relations got better and better. By the time he came to Moscow in 1988, Gorbachev recalled with evident satisfaction, Reagan had changed his views.
"An American reporter asked President Reagan, while we were taking a walk . . . 'Mr. President, do you still regard the Soviet Union as an evil empire?' And Reagan said no."
Staff writer David E. Hoffman contributed to this report.