Gorbachev's Living Ghost

PRINCETON: So, Mikhail Gorbachev has filmed a television commercial for Pizza Hut. Nowadays, politicians everywhere seem to want to "cash in" once their days in power are finished. Even more revealing than Gorbachev’s presence in this commercial, however, is the notion that the advertisements will not be shown in Russia. Yesterday’s leader of the vanished Soviet Union, it seems, is an unwelcome ghost in today’s Russia.

When Nikita Khrushchev was forced from power in 1964, his companions were no longer politicians and statesmen but us, his family, surrounding him at his secluded dacha. He was shoved off the world stage against his will, arbitrarily and unjustifiably, or so his remaining supporters and relatives believed. But there is no question that Khrushchev had an easier time of it in his retirement than has his successor in reform, Mikhail Gorbachev.

In becoming an unknown, Khrushchev had no choice. Forced into anonymity, he was also (mercifully) beyond public reach. Gorbachev, on the other hand, is all too vulnerable to charges hurled from every direction: for beginning perestroika or for beginning it in the wrong way; for being too radical, too conservative, or too feeble. By starting his "destructive" reforms, by declaring the age of glasnost, he exposed himself to unending criticism.

It is now over ten years since Gorbachev rose to power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, putting in motion changes that led to the end of the party and the union, but not (it seems) to Gorbachev the man. After his fall, he did not flee public scrutiny, but continued to embrace it as director of the Gorbachev-Fund, and as a, perhaps quixotic, candidate for president of Russia last year.