As It Happens·Q&A

Mikhail Gorbachev was 'a giant of his time,' says Brian Mulroney

Mikhail Gorbachev was “a visionary and a man who helped change the world,” says his longtime friend and colleague Brian Mulroney. 

The former Soviet leader who ended the Cold War has died at the age of 91

Two men, side by side, wearing suits. One is smiling a big toothy grin as the other points off camera.
Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, left, shares a laugh with former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev during their meeting Nov. 21, 1989. Gorbachev has died at the age of 91. (Ron Poling/The Canadian Press)

Story Transcript

Mikhail Gorbachev was "a visionary and a man who helped change the world," says his longtime friend and colleague Brian Mulroney. 

Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who helped end the Cold War and bring down the Berlin Wall, has died at the age of 91.

In the West, he was widely hailed as a hero. But to those in the former USSR, which he couldn't keep together, his legacy is more complicated. 

Mulroney was prime minister of Canada during Gorbachev's reign, and considered him a close, personal friend. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Katie Simpson.

Can I start with your reaction to the news of the death of Mikhail Gorbachev?

He's the end of a long list of great leaders of the '80s and the '90s. And he made his mark on history, big time. And he will be, I think, sorely missed.

At the moment in Russia, he is not appreciated. But history will look after that. He'll be viewed as a giant of his time.

What are the moments that are going to stand out for you when you think of his legacy?

The day he became leader of the Soviet Union was the day of [former Soviet Leader Konstantin] Chernenko's funeral … and I was in Moscow for the funeral, and I was invited to a meeting with Gorbachev that day.

I found that he was very pleasant, very gentlemanly, very knowledgeable as well, and very aggressive in formulating his positions for the Soviet Union. And I left there and went to Quebec City a few days later for my first summit in Quebec City with [then-U.S] President [Ronald] Reagan.

I said, "Well, Ron, we're dealing now with a very different kind of guy. We have a brand new situation here, and I think it's going to be up to us, the G7 and others, to take full advantage of it. This guy wants to live in peace."

Three men in suits crowded around a table. One is pointing to a book while holding a handful of pens.
In this Dec. 8, 1987 file photo then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan, right, and Gorbachev exchange pens during the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signing ceremony in the White House East Room in Washington, D.C. (Bob Daugherty/The Associated Press)

You describe him as a "different kind of guy." Tell us about him. What kind of man was he?

He was more urbane. He was more casual in his comments. He was friendlier than the Soviet leaders of past — all stern apparatchiks from the Communist regime who knew very little about the rest of the world and seemed less inclined to learn anything about it, about us.

Gorbachev was, … as I say, an entirely different kettle of fish. He looked forward. He wanted good relations. He wanted the Soviet Union to be respected. And he wanted to transform it from within to gain that respect and admiration from others.

So he was a great leader with a profound sense of what could take place, but also a sense of history.

In 1990, Mr. Gorbachev visited you in Ottawa just before he headed to Washington to [sign the Chemical Weapons Accords] with United States. What are your memories of that meeting?

They're very warm memories because he and I, by that time, had developed an excellent relationship, a personal relationship.

At the time he was ready to go along with the idea of a united Germany, but not in NATO. And I told him quite firmly, I said that: You know, you're going down to see president [George H.W.] Bush. And the key matter is going to be German reunification and its integration into Western societies. And you're going to have to change your position, because there's no way that the allies led by the United States will ever agree to a reunited Germany that is not allowed to be part of NATO.

And so we had some strong disagreements over that. But he eventually came around. 

Two men in suits and glasses sit side by side at a table in front of microphones. They are looking at each other. Two large flags, American and Soviet, hang behind them.
A picture taken on July 31, 1991, shows then-U.S. president George Bush, left, and Gorbachev during a press conference in Moscow concluding the two-day U.S.-Soviet Summit dedicated to disarmament. (Mike Fisher/AFP/Getty Images)

Did he at all have a sense of himself ... as someone who was changing the course of history?

He certainly wasn't in any way pretentious, personally pretentious or unsympathetic in the manner in which he spoke. But, of course, the worldwide headlines of approval and adulation could not have left him indifferent. 

When you take a look at what is happening on the world stage right now with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and we're having this conversation about the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev, how do you think this is going to have an impact in this moment in Russia?

Everybody understands and knows that this was not something of which Gorbachev approved. He would never have done it. 

He was in process of putting the Soviet Union forward as a much more acceptable interlocutor of some country deserving of some achievements and respect. And it's all been completely vitiated by what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has done in invading a friendly ally and a neighbour.

This ran counter to everything that Gorbachev stood for, but [also] the manner in which he wanted this country to be perceived. He wanted to put an end to these kinds of things. And he had been very successful himself.

But he met internal resistance, as you know. They tried to overthrow him in a coup in the summer of 1991, I guess it was. And he had lots of resistance. Then [Boris] Yeltsin came along and became elected president of Russia. And it left, ultimately, Gorbachev with no alternative but to resign on New Year's Eve.

And I remember I had a conversation with him that night, and one of the last letters that he sent from the Kremlin prior to his resignation was to me.

I want to ask you about that letter.

It was just a letter of goodbye — how much he had enjoyed serving with me, and that he appreciated how much Canada had done and tried to do for him and the Soviet Union. And he very, very reluctantly was leaving the office and saying goodbye to me as a friend.

After his retirement, he was on the speaking tour, as you know, as was I a few years later. And we used to meet up around the world and have dinner and talk about old days of old friends.

A close-up of an elderly man with a serious expression on his face.
Gorbachev attends the Victory Day parade marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War, at Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2018. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

As the world now is remembering Mr. Gorbachev, what kind of conversations do you hope people have as they talk about his memory and his legacy?

Within Russia, as you know, he has been denigrated so often by the current government, and many of them view him as responsible for the disintegration of the Soviet Union, so he is not favourably remembered there at the moment.

But that will change, and the Russian impression of him will eventually rejoin that of the rest of the world as Mikhail Gorbachev having been a great leader, and a very good man, a visionary, and a man who helped change the world.

Because you'll remember all during his time and his predecessors, we were engaged in the Cold War. And eventually the end of the Cold War came about without anybody firing a shot. And that is an historic accomplishment for President Gorbachev, President Reagan and the other principals who were there. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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