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Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1999

‘Crucify me right here’ The post-presidential life of Mikhail Gorbachev

Source: Meduza
Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1999
Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1999
Unkel / ullstein bild / Getty Images

For a century, the leaders of the Soviet and Russian governments either died without leaving their posts or left power for a quiet, private retirement. The only exception to that rule has been the final general secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and the first president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. After witnessing the collapse of the country he led and handing over power to one of his political opponents, Gorbachev used his status as one of the most popular politicians in the world to make his own living and fundraise extensively for research and service projects. In the process, he also made multiple attempts to regain political authority in his homeland. On the 27th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Meduza correspondent Ilya Zhegulev reports on how the former Soviet leader has spent his time in retirement.

“Mr. Gorbachev, do you remember me?”

Before Mikhail Gorbachev stood a man dressed in an expensive suit. It was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia and the head of the country’s largest oil company, YUKOS. Their encounter, as the former Soviet president revealed in his book I Remain an Optimist, occurred near the turn of the twenty-first century, when Khodorkovsky had reached the zenith of his power.

“Well, I remember,” answered Gorbachev. “But do you remember me?”

Most Soviet government heads ruled until their deaths — or, like Nikita Khrushchev, had no choice in leaving politics. The first and last president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, signed his own resignation letter in December of 1991 after spending six years at the helm of his country’s government. As Gorbachev later recalled, resigning actually made him laugh — it was as though he was firing himself.

Gorbachev resigned a couple of weeks after the signing of the Belavezha Accords, which replaced the Soviet Union with the far looser Commonwealth of Independent States. Since then, he has lived to see the development of post-Soviet Russia, the successor to the state he governed, in all its myriad stages. He saw Mikhail Khodorkovsky become one of the most influential people in the country — and defended him when he was sent to a Siberian prison colony. He still has yet to make peace with his primary political opponent, Boris Yeltsin, who took Gorbachev’s place in the Kremlin, but he did attend Yeltsin’s funeral and stood in line along with everyone else in the crowd even when he was directed to the VIP entrance. His relationship with Vladimir Putin has followed a twisted arc from exaggerated respect to defiant indifference. He has worked in politics, philanthropy, and media development, but he has always remained more in demand and more popular in the West than in his homeland.

Political drama aside, the 87-year-old former president makes the commute almost every weekday from his longtime home in the former dacha of the Soviet Minister of Agriculture on Rublyovskoye Highway to his foundation’s office on Leningradskoye Highway. Gorbachev lives alone. His family members have all moved to Germany, and the former leader of the USSR receives assistance at home only from a hired maid and the Federal Protective Service agents who are assigned to former presidents by law. Sometimes, the agents are faced with problems that, for someone in their line of work, can be far from trivial. “Just today, I was leaving home, and I looked up — the ceiling was leaking and flooding everywhere,” the former president told Meduza. He admitted that in all his years living in the house, he has not once ordered comprehensive repairs. “Not long ago, I got home, and there were four buckets set out on the floor to catch water,” he said.

Part 1

Strolling through the forest

In December of 1991, then-President of the Russian Socialist Republic Boris Yeltsin left Moscow for the Belavezha Forest to meet with his Belorussian colleague Stanislav Shushkevich. A Ukrainian delegation was scheduled to join them. The politicians intended to discuss, among other things, a new agreement among the three republics, which was Gorbachev’s main project at the time. His aim was to save the USSR by bolstering the rights of its subjects. Those subjects, in turn, had little enthusiasm for the agreement, especially after the unsuccessful coup attempt of August 1991, when hardline Communist Party members responded to Gorbachev’s efforts to decentralize the USSR by attempting to unseat him. Before his departure, Yeltsin stopped by Gorbachev’s office. The latter subsequently recalled his parting words as follows: “Talk to them, especially Kravchuk. Ukraine has to be a part of this — without them, there can be no Soviet Union.”

On December 8, one day before a signing ceremony for the new agreement was to be held in Moscow, Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Shushkevich concluded their negotiations and released the Belavezha Accords, which dictated that the government of the USSR would cease to exist.

Gorbachev, the president of that government, did not attempt to use force to keep himself in power. “I think it all smelled a bit like civil war,” he explained. “It would have looked like I had taken extreme measures to hold onto my post when the matter should have been decided democratically.” At first, Gorbachev hoped that the Belavezha Accords would not be ratified by the local parliaments involved, but his hope was in vain: even the Russian Communist Party voted in favor, although Gorbachev later claimed that one Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, made extraordinary efforts to persuade his colleagues to sign on (an accusation Zyuganov, who remains the leader of the Party to this day, has denied).

By December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was recovering from a mass of interviews with Russian and international journalists. In the wake of that publicity, he made time for private calls to his fellow world leaders (his final call was to then U.S. President George H.W. Bush). Then, that evening, he gave a televised address and announced that he was quitting his post as president of the USSR “as a matter of principle.” “The line of argument that favors the dismemberment of this country and the dispersal of its governments has prevailed, and I cannot agree with it,” said the former general secretary of a Soviet Communist Party that already no longer existed. Gorbachev had not warned Yeltsin ahead of time about the contents of his speech, and Yeltsin was sufficiently stung that he did not allow Gorbachev to hand over the Soviet nuclear briefcase to him in person. Aleksandr Korzhakov, who was then a bodyguard for Yeltsin, remembers the moment when the KGB general Viktor Boldyrev simply walked into his boss’s office carrying the briefcase and asked a secretary to call for Yeltsin to pick it up.

Gorbachev immediately before the press conference during which he would announce his resignation. Moscow, December 26, 1991
Yuri Lizunov / TASS

Gorbachev was given one week to move out of his presidential office, his apartments, and his dacha. Nonetheless, after just two days, as the former president was on his way to the Kremlin for an interview with Japanese journalists, a security guard called and told him that Yeltsin, then-Secretary of State Gennady Burbulis, and Speaker of the Supreme Soviet Ruslan Khasbulatov were all sitting in his office and drinking. Gorbachev canceled his interview and asked his driver to turn around and head home.

In 1992, Mikhail Gorbachev became a private citizen. His three-room government apartment on Kosygin Street had to be emptied in a hurry, and Gorbachev later complained that as he was loading up his car, “all these suspicious types were poking around for some kind of audit — they thought the Gorbachevs might be stealing government property.” According to Dmitry Muratov, the founder of the respected independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and a good friend of Gorbachev’s, these officers missed a small table made of Karelian birch in their first count but later found it intact.

The leaders of the new Commonwealth of Independent States decided to allow Gorbachev to retain his bodyguards, his official vehicle, and an apartment in the same building on Kosygin Street. The apartment was sold in the early 2000s to the composer Igor Krutoy; for his part, Gorbachev moved with his family to a dacha in Kalchuga, a village on the Rublevo-Uspenskoye Highway. It was the same dacha where he lived when he moved from Stavropol to Moscow well before he became general secretary. Gorbachev spent the next 26 years in that two-story house. The first floor housed a kitchen and a dining room, and there were two office rooms and a bedroom upstairs. “It’s ten times smaller than all the new houses next to it on the highway. It’s not simply modest — it’s a house that just screams modesty,” said Muratov, a frequent guest at the Gorbachevs' home. As the American journalist William Taubman reported in his recent biography of the Soviet president, the Gorbachevs’ daughter Irina said the building was not only modest but in very bad shape. The government, however, refused to repair it, and Raisa Maksimovna Gorbacheva, the Soviet Union’s final first lady, “refused to lower herself to the level of asking for help.”

On the upside, the old Soviet dacha was surrounded by almost ten acres of pine forest. In the weeks following his resignation, Gorbachev and his wife took a stroll every day around a circular path about 0.6 miles in circumference — and those daily hour-long walks in the woods became a long-term habit for the couple. The absolute silence that reigned in the Gorbachev home stood in sharp contrast to Mikhail’s daily life in the preceding years. As Irina Gorbacheva recalled in Taubman’s book, the ringing telephones that surrounded her seemed to fall quiet all at once. Even some people Gorbachev considered to be close friends seemed to forget about him. A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the first man in the modern history of his country to give up power voluntarily, had to restart his social life practically from scratch.

Part 2

The Lenin School

At the end of 1991, when it became clear to Gorbachev that his resignation was inevitable, the embattled president began to consider his own future. He decided to follow the lead of recent American presidents: he would create his own research center, a forum for rethinking the past and analyzing the present. He called it the Foundation for Socioeconomic and Political Research, though it would come to be known simply as the Gorbachev Foundation. Boris Yeltsin provided some of the resources necessary for its establishment. Despite the tensions that persisted between the two politicians, Russia’s new president hoped to part with his predecessor on good terms, and he gave Gorbachev full use of the Institute of Social Sciences. The Institute had previously been a university under the control of the international division of the Central Committee — its practical purpose was to churn out personnel for communist parties all over the world. For this reason, it was also known as the International Lenin School.

Gorbachev had at his disposal a large building on Leningradsky Prospect with its entire staff still in place — “750 souls who still had government salaries,” said a source close to the former general secretary. “The entire Institute of Social Sciences turned into the Foundation for Socioeconomic and Political Research,” explained Pavel Palazhchenko, Gorbachev’s interpreter, who has been working for the foundation since its establishment. “We subtracted the Marxism and the Leninism, and it turned out that these were all pretty competent people.” According to Vladimir Poliakov, Gorbachev’s friend and longtime press secretary, Gorbachev himself provided some of the organization’s initial funds, but the government paid for all its employees and facilities. Poliakov recalled that a number of people advised Gorbachev to privatize the foundation’s property, but he refused.

Gorbachev arrives at the building allocated to his foundation, the former Institute of Social Sciences on Leningradsky Prospect, to meet with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. January 14, 1992
Alberta Pushkareva / TASS

Yeltsin gave Gorbachev the institution he wanted on one condition: the former president promised not to return to politics (Yeltsin himself made his promise public at a press conference in Tashkent). However, from the perspective of Russia’s new president, Gorbachev broke that promise when he began issuing sharp critiques of the new regime. As early as March of 1992, he announced his assessment that “the country needs me,” and he gestured not long afterward to the fate of Charles de Gaulle, who joined opposition forces in the final years of his career and ultimately returned to power in France as a result. “Charles de Gaulle regained his position as head of state when he was 68 years old,” Gorbachev said in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Gazette). He added, “And I’m just 61.”

It turned out that Gorbachev understood his promise to Yeltsin in the same way that Mikhail Khodorkovsky understood his own promise to Putin when Khodorkovsky said he would stay out of politics after being released from prison in 2013. Gorbachev meant that he would not use his foundation to form a political party, but he did not mean that he would not speak out on current events. Yeltsin was quick to put his foot down on that count: on June 2, 1992, his press secretary Vyacheslav Kostikov accused Gorbachev of “destabilizing the country’s social and political condition” and announced that the president would have to “take certain necessary and entirely legal measures to prevent harm from being done to the current course of national reform.”

Indeed, “certain measures” soon followed: Gorbachev’s private landscaper was removed from his service, and his “presidential” ZIL brand car was replaced with a modest state-owned Volga. Gorbachev had no ability to buy himself a new car: his assigned bodyguards did not allow him to approach any vehicles that were not certified by the Kremlin. “Mr. Gorbachev was on a trip to Germany, and he was given the Mercedes he had been renting there as a gift. The car was transported to Moscow, but there was no way for him to use it,” Poliakov recalled. “The car had to be licensed by the agency that guarded [Gorbachev], and they refused to give him that license.”

The standoff continued. In September 1992, Gorbachev declined to testify in court on the constitutionality of Yeltsin’s order to shut down the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He wrote an open letter to say that such a move “could signal a suppression of dissent and reintroduce an atmosphere in which persecution based on political views once again becomes acceptable.” In an interview with David Remnick, then a correspondent for The Washington Post, the former president expressed himself even more bluntly: “I do not intend to take part in that bullshit trial!”

At the end of October, Yeltsin unexpectedly handed over the Institute of Social Sciences (where the Gorbachev Foundation was housed) to the Financial Academy, and the Foundation’s facilities were sharply reduced in size from 54,000 square feet to about 7,500. The rooms beyond that space were sealed off, and riot police were stationed at the doors. Moving the Foundation out of those spaces felt like a special ops assignment: Moscow’s Director of Internal Affairs, Arkady Murashov, even oversaw the process himself. “They didn’t let anybody in,” Gorbachev’s press secretary recalled. “We arrived at work that morning, and we all stood on the stairs. There were no cell phones back then. There was a phone booth on the corner across from the building, though, and I used it to call all the journalists.” Gorbachev had to brief those same journalists right from the steps leading to the building’s entrance.

It was in those days, Palazhchenko recalls, that Gorbachev’s external passport was taken from him, making international travel impossible. Russia’s Constitutional Court had prohibited the former president from leaving the country due to his refusal to cooperate in the trial concerning Yeltsin’s ban on the Soviet Communist Party, but Gorbachev and his allies were certain that the Court had other motivations as well. The popularity that the USSR’s last leader still commanded abroad left Yeltsin incredibly frustrated: he believed Gorbachev traveled internationally with the specific intention of organizing world leaders in opposition to him. At the same time, the new Russian president had no desire to ruin his international relationships over a spat with a domestic political opponent. When Gorbachev was invited several weeks later to the funeral of the German politician Willy Brandt, the Interior Ministry returned his passport. The fieriest phase of the conflict ended there, but the Gorbachev Foundation has since been self-funded and remains without a full-fledged headquarters.

Gorbachev prepares to fly out of Russia to attend the funeral of the German politician Willy Brandt. The former president regained access to his external passport shortly before the trip. October 16, 1992
Igor Mikhalev / AP / Scanpix / LETA

For several years, Gorbachev wanted to build his own facilities for the foundation near his own rental property on Leningradskoye Highway, but he did not have enough capital even with access to a line of credit from Deutsche Bank. An old friend of Gorbachev’s, the American millionaire and CNN founder Ted Turner, stepped in to help. As Taubman revealed in his book, the Gorbachevs met with Turner and Jane Fonda, who were married at the time, in California in 1997. During the meeting, Raisa Gorbacheva could not hold back her concerns over her husband’s financial obstacles. “Ted asked very straightforwardly how much money they would need for the building’s construction,” said Pat Mitchell, a top CNN manager and nonprofit organizer who was present during the meeting. “President Gorbachev didn’t respond right away. He kept looking Ted right in the eyes as Raisa explained in her quiet but persuasive way that a million dollars would allow them to continue working. Ted threw a glance at Jane — she nodded to show her support, and that was that.” Raisa Gorbacheva also created an architectural sketch for the building and designed its interior, which remains unchanged to this day.

Part 3

Russia's richest retiree

Mikhail Gorbachev first became a millionaire in 1990, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He stopped being one immediately — the Soviet leader transferred his million-dollar award to his government’s budget. As he later remembered in an interview with Meduza, the money was used to build six hospitals across the country. After Gorbachev's resignation, the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States assigned him a respectable pension of 4,000 rubles a month — approximately four times the average Soviet salary at the time. However, the pension was not indexed to increase with inflation, as were those of other Russian citizens, and by the summer of 1994, Gorbachev was receiving less than two dollars each month. At the end of that year, Boris Yeltsin himself issued an order to link his predecessor’s pension to the minimum wage, and the former president of the USSR has received 40 times the minimum wage from the government each month ever since. Today, that amount is 312,000 rubles (approximately $4,690) — the largest pension in the country.

In the early 1990s, however, Gorbachev had to make his own living while earning enough to keep his own foundation running. He chose a source of income familiar to many former heads of state in the U.S.: he wrote books and gave lectures. In Russia, it was hardly possible to make a living writing memoirs, and Gorbachev claims that he was never permitted to release large print runs of his books. His writings sold far better in the West. Though Gorbachev was controversial in his home country, he was received abroad as a heroic historical figure — the man who beat a totalitarian system.

As Poliakov recalls, Gorbachev and his team contacted a variety of agents and ultimately partnered with Robert Walker, who was by then highly experienced in representing major public figures. The American Program Bureau, which Walker founded, had already been organizing celebrity events in the Russian diaspora for a few decades and had represented speakers from Larry King to Steve Wozniak. Walker himself recalled that Gorbachev’s representatives (specifically, the lead press official of the Soviet Interior Ministry) sought him out when Gorbachev himself was still president to ask whether the idea of organizing lectures for him in the United States had any legs. The American agent took an interest in the matter and met with Gorbachev one-on-one. “I remember that he looked me right in the eyes, and instead of shaking my right hand, he gripped my left hand with his left and said, “I hope we will be good partners,” Walker said. “I can say that after 25 years, we are still good partners.”

Gorbachev’s first two-week trip to the States, which took place in the spring of 1992, featured an atmosphere more typical of a presidential campaign than a lecture tour — sometimes, the resemblance even came too close for comfort. A year later, the scale of his events had only grown. “The largest event was in Charlottesville, at the University of Virginia. I think it was his birthday,” said Walker. “Gorbachev gave his speech, and the reaction was unbelievable. There were about a thousand people there — scholars, students — and a lot of them shouted, ‘Gorbachev for president!’” According to Walker, the former Soviet leader seemed to exert a magnetic pull on his American audiences. Even the president of the Washington Executives Association “said that she had to pinch herself to make sure she was really in the same room as Gorbachev.” “There was something colossal to him,” Walker continued. “He looked like someone who had really changed the world.”

Gorbachev’s first trip to the United States after his resignation. The former president meets brokers on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. May 1, 1992
Charles Bennett / AP / Scanpix / LETA
Gorbachev speaks at Westminster College in Fulton, MO, where Winston Churchill gave the speech that popularized the term “Iron Curtain.” May 6, 1992
James A. Finley / AP / Scanpix / LETA
Schoolchildren in Missouri greet Gorbachev before a speech. Fulton, MO; May 6, 1992
James A. Finley / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Former politicians who regularly give speeches to businesspeople or public audiences have spurred the creation of a flourishing industry. It is the growth of this market that allowed Hillary Clinton’s opponents to criticize her during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign for the hundreds of thousands of dollars she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, received in speaking fees. As a rule, speakers are paid in accordance with their status and prestige. As Walker explains, that rule held true for Gorbachev. His audiences loved the idea of meeting “the man who made the planet peaceful.” “I would say that for about 20 years, he was one of the most in-demand politicians in the lecture industry. I’ve represented Reagan, Mitterand, Wałęsa, but no one can compete with Gorbachev,” Walker said. “In fact, he was so popular in America that many people thought he could run in an election here and win.”

When they first met, Walker told Gorbachev that his company would always provide a companion for his American lecture tours. In response, Gorbachev “took my left hand in his left hand again and said, ‘You.’” Since then, the producer has always accompanied Gorbachev across the U.S., and that has been a tall order: the former general secretary long spent almost a third of every year on tour, especially once his American lectures began to attract additional invitations in Japan and Germany. In Moscow, a state-owned Volga and accusations of treason would always await him, but in the U.S., Gorbachev traveled in a corporate jet owned by the Forbes family (ironically, the Boeing was named “Capitalist Tool”). In Japan, several hundred people performed the song “Moscow Nights” in Gorbachev’s honor at a ceremonial dinner. “It was impressive how much people loved him and respected him,” said Walker. “Put it this way — people loved him and respected him a lot more than they did at home.”

According to Walker, Gorbachev prepared for each individual speech and sought out advice about what the audience might want to hear. “Environmental protection, changes in global priorities, international power balances,” Walker counted out the issues on his fingers. “I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve represented a lot of people. Usually, speakers just have their usual stump speeches. President Gorbachev always prepared a unique speech depending on the situation in which he was going to give it. It was a very effective strategy.” Gorbachev spoke in all kinds of venues: in private clubs, in large public halls, and even in churches. The years went by, and his popularity never declined. In the 2000s, he gave speeches to schoolchildren and college students who had read about him in their textbooks.

“You would see these events in conference halls meant to hold a thousand people in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary — and these kids would scream as though they were about to hear Michael Jackson,” Walker said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. These kids would look at him like he was a rock star.” Walker admitted that he even teared up during one event: one young state governor reminisced about the nuclear drills he was required to perform as a child and thanked the Soviet president for the fact that he never had to hide under his desk from an actual bomb.

Walker declined to reveal the total sum Gorbachev has earned in the United States to Meduza, but the sizes of Gorbachev’s honoraria have been published on several occasions. In 2000, for example, Gorbachev received $100,000 for each of his motivational speeches and $75,000 for each half-hour speech in a private club. Meduza has obtained information indicating that his honoraria sometimes reached $300,000 in the years before that. Gorbachev would fly to the United States at least twice a year for a tour lasting two or three weeks. He would often give several lectures each day. As a result, in his best years, the former Soviet president could make upwards of a million dollars on a single trip. Sources close to Gorbachev reported that he was not in the habit of spending the money he received on himself. Instead, Gorbachev spent his earnings on social projects, both his own and those of his wife.

Gorbachev found another source of income by appearing in advertisements. He was once filmed repeating the word “perestroika” while surveying the production lines of an Austrian railroad conglomerate. He also appeared in a video advertisement for Pizza Hut: in the video, a group of Russians sits in the pizzeria and argues about Gorbachev’s role in world history. At the end of the advertisement, they salute him with a slice of pie. Gorbachev received $160,000 for that particular appearance. More expensive brands also approached the former general secretary: in 2007, Gorbachev appeared in an ad for Louis Vuitton. In the photograph, the former president rides along the Berlin Wall in a limousine with a travel bag by his side. A copy of the Russian news magazine The New Times sticks out of the bag, displaying a story about the murders of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the ex-FSB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. Gorbachev has since insisted that he did not mean anything by appearing with such a prop. He said, “The photographers tricked me. They arranged the bag and the magazine so that you could see the headline.”

Pizza Hut Gorbachev TV Spot Commercial, International version, 1997
Gorbachev in a 2007 advertising campaign by Louis Vuitton. The New Times issue on political assassinations is lying directly on top of the bag beside him.
Louis Vuitton

The magazine’s presence in Gorbachev’s advertisement came as a surprise even to Yevgenia Albats, the chief editor of the publication itself. “[Gorbachev] subscribed to the magazine practically as soon as it started printing,” she said, “But some people also say that he has helped us out financially, and that’s not true.”

However, Gorbachev did lend a hand to other journalists who needed it.

Part 4

A cell phone for the editor

In his memoir, Yeltsin’s press secretary Vyacheslav Kostikov wrote that Gorbachev criticized Russia’s then president especially harshly in an interview with the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (Komsomol Truth). The interviewer was the newspaper’s thirty-year-old information editor, Dmitry Muratov. Muratov began the conversation by asking the former president to display his official work ID and then proceeded to ask how much money he had in his wallet at the time (Gorbachev produced 18 rubles and a bit of change).

Gorbachev liked Muratov. He took such a liking to the journalist, in fact, that after his resignation, he called Muratov and offered to write a monthly column for Komsomolskaya Pravda, titled “Once a Month with Gorbachev.” However, a schism soon fractured the paper’s editorial board. Although the publication’s director, Vladimir Sungorkin, shared the newspaper’s profits with his journalists and thus dramatically raised their standard of living (in the early 1990s, 23 million copies of Komsomolskaya Pravda were printed for each issue), some of the publication’s employees were dissatisfied with the conception of the paper itself, believing it came close to yellow journalism. Muratov and several other journalists left their posts and founded their own publication — Novaya Gazeta, which translates as The New Gazette.

It quickly became clear that without additional investment, the young newspaper would struggle mightily: its founders did not even have enough money to buy computers for the staff. And that is where Mikhail Gorbachev came in. Muratov had discussed his decision to leave Komsomolskaya Pravda with Gorbachev, and the latter had attempted to talk him out of it, but when the newspaper’s editorial board split nonetheless, Gorbachev decided to help his young journalist friend. “All of a sudden, we received 20 IBM 286-x computers, and in 1993, that was considered super cutting-edge technology,” Muratov said. “It was on Gorby’s computers that we created this paper.” Gorbachev himself said he invested $300,000 in Novaya Gazeta after his wife earned those funds in royalties on her memoir I Hope.

A 10-percent stake in the newspaper was set aside for the former president, and he owns that stock to this day. Gorbachev has not only written regularly for the paper and attended corporate events; according to Muratov, Novaya Gazeta became in some ways a means for the retired politician to maintain “a direct connection with the reality on the ground.” Recalling the events of October 1993, when a power struggle between Boris Yeltsin and the Russian legislature devolved into an armed conflict with hundreds of casualties, Muratov said, “I went around to various places [in Moscow] and called [Gorbachev] from each location to tell him what was going on.”

Gorbachev’s generosity toward the editorial board was not limited to computers. In 1995, the newspaper encountered another crisis. Novaya Gazeta was entirely out of money, and Muratov flew halfway across Russia directly to Novosibirsk, where Gorbachev was giving a lecture. The former president heard Muratov out and, upon his return to Moscow, transferred $100,000 from his honoraria to the newspaper’s bank account. In those times, that was an enormous sum — the publication’s monthly budget for the salaries of its 50 workers was $16,000. “He paid off almost all our debts for rent and, more importantly, for paper and printing fees,” Muratov said.

Also in 1995, the journalist recalled, he was visiting the Gorbachevs in their home when Raisa Gorbacheva gave him a small box. She explained that her husband often had trouble reaching Muratov right away to ask about emerging stories because the latter had to take the time to find a telephone and call the former president back whenever he received a message on his pager. When he opened the box, Muratov found a cellular phone, which was an extremely rare commodity in Russia at the time. Anyone who carried one was even required to receive written permission from the government’s communication surveillance agency, though Vladimir Putin later cancelled that regulation in one of his first executive orders. “Back then, Beeline was the only operator available in Russia [it now has two major competitors], and only gangsters actually carried telephones,” said Novaya Gazeta’s founder. Today, this telephone is on display in the newspaper’s museum.

This was not the last time Gorbachev offered generous financial support to the paper. He continued to transfer funds to the editorial board as a whole on occasion, and he also directed his donations toward individual employees multiple times (for example, in 1998, he gave $50,000 to cover medical fees for the reporter Elvira Goryukhina). However, it soon became clear that if Novaya Gazeta was to develop in the long term, the newspaper would require a steady and strategic stream of investment. The former head of state solved that problem, as well. Muratov recalled receiving an unexpected call from a man who introduced himself as Alexander Lebedev; Lebedev said it was none other than Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev who told him to make contact with the newspaper.

Lebedev, a banker and a millionaire, first gave money to the publication in 1996, according to Muratov, and he became a full-fledged investor ten years later. “Gorbachev was very clever in how he went about it all,” the newspaper’s founder said. “He didn’t just bring Lebedev into our office. He invited both of us to the [2006] World Editors Forum of the World Association of Newspapers in the Manege, and he told my coworkers and me right there that he wanted to officially introduce a new stockholder who valued the newspaper’s freedom and independence.” Gorbachev then told Lebedev about his plan, and the banker, though a bit flustered, confirmed that he was more interested in free speech than in immediate profit. Muratov calls this move of Gorbachev’s “IPO by reputation.” Lebedev himself told Meduza that his share in Novaya Gazeta (39 percent) is held in his name only “symbolically”: since 2006, he has transferred 3 million dollars to the newspaper each year without asking for anything in return.

Gorbachev and the businessman Aleksandr Lebedev (who was then a deputy in the State Duma) at a conference entitled “Does Russia Need the West?” in Moscow. May 30, 2006
Valery Melnikov / Kommersant
Gorbachev and Novaya Gazeta Editor in Chief Dmitry Muratov at an anniversary celebration for the publication. The former president of the USSR has been a shareholder in the newspaper since its founding. Moscow, April 2, 2013
Sergey Karpov / TASS

Muratov is not the only journalist who has found favor with Gorbachev. The former president is also on good terms with, among others, Yevgenia Albats and Alexey Venediktov, the chief editor of the radio station Echo of Moscow. Nonetheless, aside from Novaya Gazeta, the only media project that attracted the former general secretary’s direct participation was the former All-Soviet Radio. In the late 1990s, what was once the most widely broadcast radio station in the USSR, by then renamed Radio-1, lost much of its former status and fell into more than a million dollars in debt to its creditors. In May of 2000, the station was purchased by Gorbachev Foundation affiliate institutions, and more than a third of the company came to be owned by Gorbachev himself and his daughter. According to the interpreter Palazhchenko, “two very active people” encouraged the former general secretary to invest in the project — they were the journalist and president of the National Information Group Andrey Nasonov and the National Information Group’s co-founder, Natalya Kozyreva. Poliakov puts things a bit differently: “A mass of people rushed him with all kinds of interesting ideas and then tried to turn those ideas into their own salaries.”

The new owners of Radio-1 were unable to resurrect the station. In less than a year, almost all of the company’s managers were laid off, and soon after, the station began relying mostly on rebroadcasts of other stations like China Radio International. In 2010, Radio-1 ceased to exist entirely. The final sound that issued from the station, which had been broadcasting since 1924, was an excerpt from the soundtrack to the film Mission: Impossible.

Gorbachev himself has remained practically silent about the project. It is possible that the radio station’s new owners lost interest in it so quickly in part because Gorbachev, as many commentators suggested at the time, bought the station in order to support his own new political project — and not one of the former Soviet leader’s many attempts to return to politics was ultimately successful.

Part 5

A centrist bloc

Boris Yeltsin’s assessment of Gorbachev’s behavior in the early 1990s was correct: his predecessor did not at all intend to end his political involvement. In 1996, when Yeltsin’s approval rating fell below 5 percent just months before the next presidential election, Gorbachev decided to instigate a rematch and announced that he would also be running.

Not only did almost every key employee of the Gorbachev Foundation come out against its founder’s presidential campaign; even the person closest to him, the former First Lady Raisa Gorbacheva, voiced her opposition. Muratov said he even walked in on the couple fighting about the issue: Gorbachev was trying to explain to his wife that he had to “meet people, talk to people, get his point of view across to them.” Palazhchenko confirmed that account of Gorbachev’s motivations: “In 1996, Gorbachev had loads of energy, and for him, campaigning was the only way he could get a public platform — give speeches, get on TV, talk to people, say what he otherwise couldn’t say publicly, meet with voters in person, answer questions.”

Gorbachev even incorporated his wife’s warnings into his public speeches alongside the saying, “Listen to a woman’s advice and do the opposite.” He justified his decision to run by saying that, on one hand, he did not want the country to have to choose between Yeltsin and his primary opponent, the Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov. On the other hand, he assured the public that even if he could not win a presidential election alone, he would form a “centrist bloc” that could receive an overall majority of votes. Apart from Gorbachev, the bloc was to include Grigory Yavlinsky, the founder of the centrist political party Yabloko; the general Alexander Lebed; and the ophthalmologist Svyatoslav Fyodorov, who had also expressed presidential ambitions.

When Gorbacheva understood that there would be no persuading her husband, she stayed by his side during the entire campaign. It was a long and complex effort.

Nearly every time Gorbachev held a public rally, the first row would be occupied by communists who blamed the former general secretary for breaking their country apart and plunging it into destitution. In Muratov’s words, Gorbachev responded sharply to these incidents, shouting, “What are you waiting for? Just come onstage and crucify me right here!” “After that, the room would go quiet, and Gorbachev would be able to hold the crowd for two or three hours,” the founder of Novaya Gazeta continued. “He said that freedom is for the people, not for the government, and that it was a lie to say the country wasn’t ready for democracy.” Taubman’s book describes even more shocking incidents that lay in wait for Gorbachev on the campaign trail: in Omsk, one dissatisfied audience member gave the candidate a slap in the face. When he finally reached the stage, Gorbachev stood for a few minutes listening to insults from the crowd before crying out, “So this is how fascism comes to Russia!” and leaving the auditorium.

Gorbachev visits a carburetor factory in St. Petersburg during his presidential campaign. June 10, 1996
Pavel Markin / Interpress / TASS

Gorbachev actively pursued the youth vote as well and collaborated in that effort with the electronic musician DJ Groove. Groove later recalled that the politician’s aides asked him to put recorded speeches by the candidate and his wife to music — a request that resulted in what might be the DJ’s best-known song, “There Is Happiness.” The musician also happened to participate in Yeltsin’s opposing campaign to attract young voters. The campaign’s title, “Vote or Lose,” is also the title of another Groove track.

Despite these efforts, Gorbachev could not seem to persuade his electorate. He lost so badly in the election that Yeltsin stopped seeing him as a serious competitor entirely. With a humiliating 0.5 percent of the vote, the former general secretary took seventh place and even lost to the ophthalmologist Fyodorov, who, along with Yavlinsky and Lebed, did not join his “centrist bloc.” That said, Gorbachev and Fyodorov remained friends, and the doctor even began contributing to the Gorbachev Foundation.

His drubbing in the election did not deter Gorbachev from maintaining a high level of political involvement. At the height of the political standoff of 1999, when it seemed that the Kremlin had once again weakened and might lose its power to a new political alliance led by Evgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzhkov, the former president decided to take the helm of the United Russian Social Democratic Party. The move united him with Gavriil Popov, the first democratically elected mayor of Moscow, and the advisory board of the party included figures like the actor Armen Jigarhanyan and the director Yuri Lyubimov. The party was established in March of 2000, and in 2001 Gorbachev was approached by Konstantin Titov, the governor of Samarskaya Oblast, who had also run for president and failed miserably with 1.5 percent of the vote. Titov led what was then called the Russian Party for Social Democracy, which had been created by Aleksandr Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev’s close allies during Perestroika. Titov’s suggestion that Gorbachev join his party was advantageous for both sides: Titov needed Gorbachev’s international resources and his reputation to give the party weight, and Gorbachev needed resources and an institutional structure to support his political ambitions.

Gorbachev did not ask where the regional governor got his money. Sources close to Titov said that he had a wealthy son who invested in the party along with one of his business partners. Aleksei Titov’s company received $57 million in credit from Trust Bank in 2001. The government of Samarskaya Oblast itself acted as a guarantor with backing from Khodorkovsky’s oil company, YUKOS. Later, both Titov’s son’s company and the regional government refused to repay the former’s debts, and Trust could only save them by drawing on YUKOS’s accounts. In practice, Mikhail Khodorkovsky ended up paying for Gorbachev’s final attempt to reenter politics. Several years after that attempt, the company Rosneft, which inherited YUKOS’s assets, sued Trust and wrestled those $57 million back out of its hands.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Konstantin Titov, the leaders of the United Social Democratic Party, at the party’s second conference in Russia. During the course of the conference, the party decided not to participate in the upcoming elections for the State Duma. Gorbachev parted ways with the Social Democrats soon afterward. Moscow, September 19, 2003
Pavel Smertin / Kommersant

The Social Democratic team did not last long. In 2004, Gorbachev left the party when he realized that nobody in it intended to participate in federal elections. “Gorbachev did not think Titov would just turn out to be an opportunist, so he believed him,” said Muratov. (When Titov learned about the topic of this article, he declined to speak with Meduza.) Gorbachev himself called Titov “a scumbag” and believes his former partner had inside dealings with the government: “He got all chummy with the ruling party, and they made a deal.”

Gorbachev said he got a subtle hint about the party’s structural instability from Vladislav Surkov, who in those years was the presidential aide responsible for domestic politics. “Mr. Gorbachev, you have already done things that no one else in history was able to do. You don’t need this,” Gorbachev recalled him saying. Gorbachev claimed to have responded, “Oh, but the answer to all this is obvious. When a person is this closely tied to politics his whole life, he can’t just… For me, this is my entire essence.”

“If only our parties were organized along ideological lines,” sighed Palazhchenko of the Gorbachev Foundation. “In the current system, there is a ruling party and a group of decorative parties. There is no place for a social democratic party.” Soon after Gorbachev’s departure, Titov quit the party too, and it was ultimately liquidated by the Russian Supreme Court in 2007.

Also in 2007, Gorbachev came to lead the nonprofit Union of Social Democrats. Officially, the Union exists to this day, but the journalist Lyudmila Telen, who is listed on the organization’s website as its acting chair, told Meduza that she thought it “fell apart a long time ago.” “It was a nonprofit with charitable aims, and I supported it because I wanted to support Mr. Gorbachev's political activities,” Telen said. According to her, the Union began by hosting “some kind of conference series related to social democracy,” but, as another participant in the project told Meduza, the founders soon ran into trouble: “There just wasn’t any money, and everything gradually died out.” The Union’s website was last updated in 2013.

Part 6

Gorbachev vs. chemical weapons

In June of 1992, Alexander Likhotal, who had been the acting director of Gorbachev’s presidential press service before he started working for the Gorbachev Foundation, was on vacation at his dacha. When he turned on his radio, he heard an unexpected bit of news. At the time, Rio de Janeiro was hosting the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the most significant environmental summit of the late twentieth century. Likhotal’s radio announced that “the global Earth Summit has created an environmental protection organization called the Green Cross, and the task of leading this organization will fall to the former president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev.”

When Likhotal got ahold of his boss, it became clear that the latter’s new position at the Green Cross was also news to Gorbachev himself. Nonetheless, he was in no rush to refute the announcement. In Likhotal’s recollection, the ex-president told him, “Just wait a bit — after all, it was a whole bunch of state leaders who made this decision; maybe somebody misunderstood something. We’ll figure it out.” Two weeks later, a UN delegation really did arrive in Moscow to persuade Gorbachev to lead the Green Cross and remind him that he was the one who first recommended the creation of such an organization. In 1990, the Soviet president said in one of his speeches that the seriousness of the global environmental situation demanded something analogous to the Red Cross. According to Likhotal, he even used the words “Green Cross” himself. Over the course of the next two years, Gorbachev forgot about his own proposal — unlike the UN, which allocated $700,000 to the project.

In the end, the former general secretary agreed to become the founder of the Green Cross. According to Gorbachev himself, the clergyman Metropolitan Pitirim of Volokolamsk and Yuyryev played an important role in that decision. As one of the most influential figures in the Russian Orthodox Church at the time and the Church official responsible for international ties, Pitirim was deeply concerned about environmental issues and was himself present at the Rio de Janeiro summit. The Metropolitan was quite close to Raisa Gorbacheva and with Gorbachev himself, and it did not take long for him to convince his friend to change his mind. At first, the Green Cross headquarters was located in the Netherlands, but it later moved to Geneva. There, the local politician Roland Wiederkehr had founded an NGO called the World Green Cross after hearing Gorbachev’s speech. That organization already had several international branches, and they all soon merged into Gorbachev’s united Green Cross.

In Likhotal’s words, Gorbachev was never a “celebrity for hire,” and the political weight he carried with him allowed him to bring issues to the fore that would otherwise have lacked both social and financial backing. Among those issues, the destruction of chemical weapons became Gorbachev’s highest priority. The chemical weapons agreements that were reached at the end of the Cold War were, according to one of Gorbachev’s aides, not very actively enforced — no one seemed compelled to provide the necessary funds. There was even a time when Russia stopped funding the destruction of its chemical weapons entirely. That was when Gorbachev managed to arrange a one-on-one meeting with Putin; after that, things finally got going. The former general secretary even dug up support for the Green Cross in the Russian Defense Ministry, which allowed the organization to build a plant in Saratov region and outfit it for the destruction of chemical weapons. At first, its construction was planned for Chapaevsk, near the city of Samara, but it was moved after local residents objected.

Gorbachev speaks at a conference run by Global Green USA, the American branch of the International Green Cross. Atlanta, GA; December 4, 1999
W.A. Harewood / AP / Scanpix / LETA
Vladimir Putin greets Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin. August 10, 2000
Vladimir Rodionov, Sergey Velichkin / TASS
A chemical weapons destruction plant in the village of Gorny, Saratovskaya Oblast. Mikhail Gorbachev lobbied for the construction of the plant. November 29, 2002
Yuri Nabatov / TASS

In 2017, Vladimir Putin announced the destruction of Russia’s last store of chemical weapons. He did not mention Mikhail Gorbachev. Over time, Gorbachev himself also began to criticize Russia’s current president. This was despite the fact that Gorbachev was initially grateful to Yeltsin’s successor for beginning to recognize his significance as a historical figure. Gorbachev was invited to Putin’s inauguration and finally regained permission to enter Russian embassies and consulates abroad soon afterward.

The Green Cross oversaw a number of other important projects, as well, and as a result Gorbachev became one of the first globally significant politicians to take environmental protection seriously in a truly public way. The organization also found important if unintentional support in the environmental activism of the unsuccessful U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Al Gore. “Before Al Gore, any kind of activism related to the environment looked to most people like a weird hobby that would be more fitting for a hippie than for the leader of a hegemonic state,” said Likhotal. Gore’s documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, received two Oscars, and the former vice president himself was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. It was, of course, the same prize that Gorbachev had received almost two decades earlier. For his part, Gorbachev continued to travel the world, actively campaigning for the Green Cross in meetings with world leaders like Angela Merkel and Barack Obama.

The Green Cross’s funding sources extend well beyond world governments; as Likhotal explains, a significant portion of the organization’s budget comes from private donations, and the names of some of its sponsors might come as a surprise. For example, the designer Giorgio Armani sends the Green Cross up to two million dollars annually to provide water to African schools that are located far from safe water sources. On average, each school receives $20,000 per year. After Hurricane Katrina, the Green Cross arranged for the funding and construction of eco-houses that collect their own energy through solar panels. “We came up with the idea, we designed the project, and everything was funded by local business leaders [in New Orleans],” said Likhotal.

The Green Cross has also overseen a number of successful publicity campaigns. For example, amid the first sales campaigns for hybrid automobiles, the organization negotiated to ensure that Hollywood stars would ride hybrids to the 2003 Oscars ceremony. Diane Meyer, then the president of Global Green, the American branch of the Green Cross, took charge of that effort. Meyer, who was married to a wealthy American developer until 2000, funded Global Green’s operations herself.

Meyer approached Gorbachev on her own in the early 1990s after the Green Cross’s first call for financiers. She came to be a close friend of the former president. Gorbachev even visited her home in Los Angeles often enough that local residents began to gossip about the possibility that their friendship had turned into something more, especially after Gorbachev was widowed. All the former general secretary’s closest friends have denied those rumors. According to Likhotal, Gorbachev befriended Meyer just as he befriended her husband and always preferred to stay in hotels rather than her private home.

Dmitry Muratov likes to illustrate Gorbachev’s relationship with women using a favorite anecdote. A few years ago, the former president asked the founder of Novaya Gazeta to attend a lecture he was giving at the journalism department of Moscow State University. Muratov sat in the last row and, at some point during the lecture, received a handwritten note. When he unfolded it, he suddenly felt rooted to his seat: written in Gorbachev’s familiar hand were the words “Let’s hit up the girls tonight.” Muratov said he even called a friend of his to get “the right contacts” for such an outing. When he and Gorbachev closed the doors of their car, Muratov decided to clarify: “So,” he asked, “we’re hitting up the girls?”

“Yes,” Gorbachev said. “We’re going to see Mrs. Gorbacheva.”

“We stood at her grave for an hour,” Muratov recalled. “He spoke with her quietly for a while, and I stood there next to him. Then, we went to a little Georgian restaurant across from the cemetery and remembered her. And that’s how we went and hit up the girls. Gorbachev has a dark, rather coarse sense of humor — it’s part of his character.”

Part 7

A self-sufficient man

In 1990, when she was still the first lady of the Soviet Union, Raisa Gorbacheva visited a children’s hospital in Moscow on Leninsky Prospect and met with the parents of children suffering from leukosis. “They were crying and saying that their children were doomed,” Muratov said. The meeting had such a strong impression on Gorbacheva that she began working very seriously on the issue of childhood leukosis and leukemia. When she decided to arrange for the creation of a bone marrow transplant center in Moscow’s Institute of Pediatric Hematology, her husband gave her half a million dollars from his first U.S. tour and persuaded the Dutch philanthropist Fred Matser to match his donation. The Russian government, then headed by Yegor Gaidar, contributed another million. After that effort, the Gorbachev Foundation began regularly establishing bone-marrow transplant centers for children with leukemia throughout Russia under Gorbacheva’s direction. “She started putting together this system where there wasn’t one at all,” the Gorbachevs’ daughter, Irina Virganskaya, said in one of the few interviews she has ever given (she declined to speak with Meduza). “The entire structural base for any kind of treatment for childhood leukosis was created by her alone. And then, all of a sudden, she died of leukosis.”

Gorbacheva died in 1999 after two very difficult months. Her husband believed her death to be the result of depression and distress caused by the harassment she faced as a public figure. Gorbachev was always by her side in her room at a clinic in Munster, Germany. It was forbidden for anyone to bring any form of news media into the room, but Gorbachev broke that rule on one occasion: he wanted to show his wife a column in the newspaper Izvestia with the headline “Lady Dignity.” Gorbachev, as he remembered later, read the headline aloud, and Gorbacheva suddenly began to cry. “She whispered, ‘Do I really have to die for them to understand me…’”

A memorial reception for Raisa Gorbacheva took place within the walls of the Gorbachev Foundation, and it attracted an unexpected guest. Naina Yeltsina, who was Russia’s first lady at the time, arrived to pay her respects although Gorbachev still had not made peace with her husband. “It was a simple kind of atmosphere: vodka, blini, beetroot salad,” said Dmitry Muratov, who was also present at the reception. “Mrs. Yeltsina comforted Irina [Virganskaya, the Gorbachevs’ daughter] in this tender, feminine way, and they both cried softly for a while.”

After the death of his wife, Gorbachev opened a pediatric oncology center in St. Petersburg. The Gorbachev Foundation purchased the necessary land, and the banker Alexander Lebedev paid for the building, once again with his own money. He also organized multiple philanthropic auctions to raise funds for the center. One of the items for sale at these auctions was often a lunch date with Gorbachev himself, and one of those lunches went to the actor Hugh Grant for 250,000 British pounds. In 2009, Gorbachev even recorded an album of his own covers of classic Soviet songs with accompaniment by Andrey Makarevich, the founder of the popular rock band “Mashina Vremeni” (The Time Machine). The album, which was issued in only one copy, was sold at auction for $165,000, and the profits were directed to Gorbachev’s philanthropy.

Raisa Gorbacheva visits a children’s hospital run by the Health Ministry of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. December 22, 1989
Valery Sozinov / TASS
Gorbachev at the Research Institute for Pediatric Oncology and Hematology in the Russian Oncological Science Center in Moscow. Gorbachev and the banker and businessman Aleksandr Lebedev donated two ultrasound machines to the center. November 9, 2007
Vitaly Belousov / TASS

In 2005, the Gorbachev Foundation was led by Olga Zdravomyslova, who had formerly headed the “Raisa Gorbacheva Club” that Gorbachev founded in 1997 to further, as one might say today, the feminist agenda. The Foundation continued to produce reports in response to the challenges of its day, but its work was never commissioned by the government. The documents it did compose even came to be somewhat critical of government policy. In 2005, one of them reported that the democratic attributes of Russian society were “decorative, suffocated, and deenergized,” that “political parties have no official means of influencing the composition of the government or the decision-making process,” and that “authoritarian methods have become increasingly prevalent in the character and style of the national bureaucracy.”

The Gorbachev Foundation was practically founded to be the first think tank in Russia, but as early as 2000, it struggled to compete with other, similar organizations. To make matters worse, its founder was perpetually running out of money. According to Zdravomyslova, more than 100 people were employed at the foundation in the 1990s; by the 2000s, that number had shrunk to 50. Now, only 15 workers remain. Zdravomyslova and other employees of the foundation say that its funds have decreased sharply. Judging by the Gorbachev Foundation’s accounts, its 2010 budget was 21 million rubles ($600,000-$700,000 at the time), and its 2016 budget was 17 million (closer to $250,000). The foundation’s sponsors have stopped providing aid: in 2017, British squatters occupying a London estate that had previously belonged to an international public relations agency reported to the media that they had found several letters bearing Gorbachev’s signature that testified to that fact. In the letters, the former president unsuccessfully petitioned Shell, HSBC, British Airways, and other large companies for financial help. The Gorbachev Foundation’s employees insisted that the story was invented. After the Russian government passed a law labeling certain nonprofit organizations “foreign agents,” all potential funding sources outside Russia disappeared for good in any case. Zdravosmyslova said that Gorbachev could not live with the idea of his pet project receiving this status.

According to Poliakov, the foundation’s employees now receive only meager wages for their work. Nonetheless, the foundation never lays off anyone, but people do age, and no one comes to replace those who pass away. “The people who worked for the foundation were those who supported Mr. Gorbachev during Perestroika — they were the people he did politics with, his supporters and his companions,” Zdravosmyslova said. “When those people leave, of course, it gets lonely.” At the height of any given work day, the Gorbachev Foundation’s building is shockingly quiet.

The former general secretary’s other project is doing substantially better: the Green Cross’s budget is currently six times what it was during the 1990s. That said, Gorbachev no longer has any official ties to the organization. According to Likhotal, it was in 2017, after Likhotal himself had left his post as president of the Green Cross and Gorbachev had retired from his position at the head of the Board of Directors, that the organization’s Swiss branch unexpectedly arranged a small coup and took control of the entire organization. In the process, they laid off most Green Cross employees who had worked with Gorbachev. In response, Gorbachev announced that he would abandon his titles as the organization's founder and honorary president. He also prohibited the Green Cross from using his name in its operations from then on. Gorbachev himself commented on those events to Meduza by saying, “I don’t know how it all ended with them. With them, it all ended badly.”

When the journalist and media personality Vladimir Pozner asked Gorbachev about his greatest weakness, he responded that it lay in his democratic character. “It lives inside me,” the former general secretary added. “I’m not just blabbering. During Perestroika, my credo was nonviolence. Respect for people. I can’t be rude.”

“I forgave a lot,” Gorbachev added in his more recent interview with Meduza when asked what he regrets in his life. Alexander Lebedev described his friend as follows: “He doesn’t change. He has the same marvelous sense of humor, he is just as self-critical, and he still believes that it’s possible to use ideology to change the world.”

Gorbachev at a Victory Day parade in Moscow. May 9, 2016
Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina, has long lived in Germany, where she moved with her husband, who owns a major logistics company. His granddaughter, Ksenia, also resides in their Berlin apartment (which, as Gorbachev says, was purchased with his family savings). She left Russia after working as the chief editor of the magazine L’Officiel, where she was replaced by another Ksenia — Ksenia Sobchak, who would later run for president in 2018. Now, Ksenia Virganskaya-Gorbacheva is raising a daughter on her own — the great-granddaughter of the former president — and running one branch of the family business, the wine company ViniGrandi. As she told Meduza, she last visited her grandfather three years ago, though Gorbachev himself more recently visited Berlin (the family owns an apartment in the city, but he continues to rent a hotel room whenever he visits in order to avoid causing his daughter’s family inconvenience). Virganskaya-Gorbacheva says there are no financial ties between the various generations of Gorbachevs. “No one helps out anybody else,” she says. “He is a self-sufficient man who has successfully supported himself in his old age.”

A source close to Gorbachev told Meduza that he lives only with a woman who is paid to help with the housekeeping. Apart from that, he is still legally entitled to a group of personal bodyguards, though their number has been reduced from 17 to four men who work in shifts and help Gorbachev move around. He experiences back pain, walks with a cane, and occasionally requires help standing up.

As Gorbachev told his biographer William Taubman, he usually wakes up around 6:00 in the morning nowadays and does a few “very simple exercises” in bed, stretching something like his cat does, before standing up to go about his day. The former leader of a hegemonic power, who will turn 88 years old on March 2, 2019, still visits the Gorbachev Foundation several times a week, usually from Tuesday through Friday. He sits at a desk in a side office where the only portrait on the walls is one of his wife. Gorbachev recently published a memoir, titled I Remain an Optimist. He is currently working on another book that is based on his earlier lectures.

According to Gorbachev, his relatives have long stopped asking when he will finally relax. “To be honest, I’ve asked myself that question too,” the former head of state admitted. “But I think things would be even worse for me if I left politics.” Firmly grasping the left hand of Meduza’s correspondent, he added, “I am of such an age now that I can only repeat the old saying: if only the elderly could; if only the young understood.”

Story by Ilya Zhegulev

Konstantin Benyumov contributed to this report. Translation by Hilah Kohen.

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