By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema
“The 21st century will be a сentury either of total all-embracing crisis or of moral and spiritual healing that will reinvigorate humankind.” – Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union
We old-timers at the Naro eagerly await each new release from one of our favorite filmmakers, Werner Herzog. Since the 1970s when Herzog first lured a young filmgoing generation into darkened theaters that showed European art films, his films have raised expectations. His filmography includes dozens of eclectic dramas such as The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, Even Dwarfs Started Small, and Fitzcarraldo – and an equal number of provocative documentaries like Grizzly Man, My Best Fiend, and Caves of Forgotten Dreams. He has brought a deep German obsession and gravitas to world cinema while showcasing his own brand of quirkiness and absurdity.
I first met Werner at the Telluride Film Festival in 1978, soon after Thom and I had re-opened the Naro Cinema and had added ‘Expanded’ to its moniker. We had just finished a new design format for our Naro publication and I had brought with me some freshly printed programs to the annual Labor Day weekend festival. I ran into Herzog on the streets of the small mountain village and after greeting him, I handed him a Naro program. We had positioned his new film Aguirre, The Wrath of God on the program cover, and it was an unexpected delight to revel in his complimentary words. Herzog’s lead actor Klaus Kinski had joined him at the festival and I could only try to contain my excitement when we proceeded to have lunch together around a picnic table in the town park, relaxing in the brilliant alpine sunlight.
Later that day, when I pulled out the Naro program that I had asked my new friends to autograph, I saw Herzog’s exclaimer scribbled across the cover –“Film Or Death!” I knew right then that I had found my career vocation and my passion in life. My mission at the Naro was to resonate out to Norfolk’s burgeoning film community all the best new art films from the world’s best filmmakers.
Herzog has not slowed down in his old age. In fact he has several docs and dramas in various stages of completion. His new documentary Meeting Gorbachev is another one of his stories about a visionary whose obsessive quest to remake the world begets their ultimate downfall, as was the fate shared by Herzog’s tragic historical figures, Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo.
In a recent interview with Herzog conducted by journalist Christian Blauvelt for IndieWire, we learn about the origins of his new film and gain insights into both men. Herzog is indebted to Gorbachev for introducing ‘perestroika’, or restructuring, combined with ‘glasnost’, or openness. These policies initiated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent re-unification of East and West Germany. His film portrays Gorbachev with warmth and respect. Herzog exclaims “I wish I can be part of creating a climate that would appeal to the best moments between America and Russia. I try to have a few glimpses deep into the soul of Russia… the depth of emotion and depth of literature and culture.”
At one time, Gorbachev was the toast of the entire world. He won the Noble Peace Prize in 1990 – when it still really meant something. For many years, there was no one on the world stage who could even come close to his almost cult-like status among the world’s politicians and celebrities. He commanded hefty speaking fees for his international tours. He became a multi-millionaire, while donating most of his earnings to his non-profit organization, The Gorbachev Foundation.
In Meeting Gorbachev, we revisit the stories that led to the internal disintegration of the Soviet Union and its attempts to join the Western powers that was led by one of the great statesman of the 20th century. Gorbachev’s motives, and his place in history are complex subjects for political study. We hear his perspective in his own words as told to Herzog. Now in his late eighties, battling illness and living in a dacha outside Moscow, he rarely appears in public. Most of his contemporaries are dead. He continues to be just critical enough about the lack of democracy under Putin that state-run television channels ignore him.
Gorbachev recalls, “We were well on the way to a civil war and I wanted to avoid that. A split in society and a struggle in a country like ours, overflowing with weapons, including nuclear ones, could have left so many people dead and caused such destruction. I could not let that happen just to cling on to power. Stepping down was my victory.” Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day, 1991. The USSR dissolved the next day and by New Year’s Day, the flag containing the communist hammer-and-sickle that had flown over the Kremlin for 68 years was replaced by the tricolor of Russia’s czarist past.
Gorbachev continues, ”For the country, and for the world, perestroika opened the way to co-operation and peace. I’m only sorry I was unable to see it through to the end.” Gorbachev was succeeded by the Russian president Boris Yeltsin who ruled for eight years before abruptly resigning from office. Ineffective in his leadership, Yeltsin was complicit in the plunder and destruction of the post-Soviet state.
Herzog’s conversation with Gorbachev contains lessons quite timely for Americans today in our current era of a new kind of McCarthyism. Herzog asserts in a recent interview, “I think it’s a mistake to demonize Russia.” He lets the words sink in and then he adds, “And I do believe that we should improve relations with Russia and I’m speaking ‘we’, I’m speaking of Europe and you have to talk about the United States.” Herzog is hesitant to be overly critical of current U.S. leadership. As a guest in this country and living in Los Angeles, he maintains a certain respect. Instead, Herzog allows for his film to speak for itself, knowing that it brings a needed historical perspective into the current political moment.
What I read into Herzog’s simple assertion about the West’s strategic error – is this: American political leaders and mass media have exploited the issues surrounding Russian cyber-hacking and attempted election interference to gin-up the conditions for a new cold war. It’s a very risky strategy when confronting The Great Bear, a minor military power but controlling an arsenal of thousands of nuclear weapons. But driven by the enormous profits generated by the U.S. war machine, the sabers are rattling against an empire that most people thought we had already defeated.
The dismantling of communism, the economic rival of global finance capitalism, should have ushered in a new era of diminished military spending, cooperation, unity, and economic security. We were all capitalists now – what could go wrong? The story of how all these potential benefits for the world were sabotaged and squandered by both Russian mobsters and Western governments is too big a subject to fully address here. But each transgression was resisted by Gorbachev, and he harbors personal regret for his unrealized vision for the world’s people.
In the years following Reagan’s presidency, the George H.W. Bush administration became less willing to help fund and support the fledgling Russian capitalist economy. Instead of cooperation, the international corporate elites and government officials pillaged the country’s infrastructure and resources. Russian government industries, collective properties, and oil and mineral rights were privatized and sold to the highest bidder. The people’s common ownership of the country’s resources and institutions was sold out from underneath them. The promised salvation for the Russian people devolved into abject poverty and corruption.
The Russian ruling elite soon mastered the new system of capitalism, and these insiders became oligarchs and billionaires. The Russian criminal class built their own corporate state largely independent of Western investment. But it was the common people who suffered. They lost their pensions, their incomes, and their secure way of life in the new climate of Darwinian capitalism. Their standard of living plummeted during the 1990s as economic and social depression become the norm. The country’s wealth inequality became the most extreme in the world.
It didn’t have to go like this. Gorbachev believes that Russia was betrayed by the West. The promises made during the eighties by world leaders were broken. The Western powers had agreed not to encircle Russia by expanding the number of NATO countries that were situated on their borders. They all agreed to honor the terms of the Start Treaty and the INF Treaty, recently broken by the U.S., and to not position nuclear missiles along the Russian border. It seems that the U.S. wants to start a new nuclear arms race – considered a corrupt and shameful act by all the world’s countries that have ratified The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Ironically, the West’s antagonism and economic sanctions have only strengthened the political power of Vladimir Putin. He is championed among his countrymen as the one man who can stand-up against the domination and exploitation of the Western imperial powers. His capitalist economy is only one-tenth the size of the U.S. and yet the West is obsessed by the perceived power of Russia.
Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev will show at the Naro on Tuesday, May 28th with discussion. Lawrence Wilkerson will return to speak on a subject that he’s well versed on. A devoted student of history and political analysis, Lawrence is a retired Army Colonel and the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He recommends the biography, ‘Gorbachev: His Life and Times’ (Simon & Schuster) written by William Taubman, a historian at Amherst College, and his wife Jane, who taught Russian there. It’s been called a masterpiece of narrative scholarship.
Wilkerson cites lessons from Taubman’s book. “We learn that later, under Bill Clinton and his Goldman Sachs man, Robert Rubin, Moscow and Russia are plundered mercilessly through the fire sales of industrial and commercial assets that are arranged in conjunction with the American advisors who also get rich.”
After viewing Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev, Lawrence gives the following critique. “Herzog’s film simply brings all of Taubman’s written narrative–or much of it anyway–to life in the amazing shots of the characters one has only read about in Taubman’s book. Above all this detritus of a dying empire, Gorbachev and Raisi (his beloved wife) rise to the top and not only excel but become the very incarnation of the Mother Russia of ancient literature, of all that she promised yet always seemed to come far short of realizing.”
The fall of the Soviet Union has been a mixed blessing for the world. It was the end of a once utopian vision which was rooted in the goodness of man and in a just society – “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Far from perfect, Marx’s vision and Lenin’s revolution brought an impoverished agrarian feudal society into the industrial age within one generation. Within just a few decades, the people realized a higher standard of living, universal healthcare, literacy, education, child care, and affordable housing. But inherent destructive elements eventually took down the grand socialist experiment – the weakness of centralized government, the corruption of authoritarian government, along with the devastation of European wars and ongoing military threats by the Western powers.
The world has changed drastically in the last thirty years since the fall of the Soviet Union. The ruling one percent of the world were the main benefactors of this capitalist counter-revolution. But for most of the Russian working class, the benefits of capitalism remain an unfulfilled promise.
Communism had created an ideological bulwark for workers of the world and a competing restraint on uncontrolled global finance capitalism. The absence of an international workers movement has allowed for the erosion of labor rights and job quality. Manufacturing jobs in the U.S. have been exported to the world’s most abusive and impoverished countries. The social safety net that safeguards the working class has been slashed. The neoliberal policies that were first initiated by Reagan and expanded under Clinton are now embraced by governments around the world.
How does Gorbachev feel about the state of the world today? Does he still think that democracy can be realized by governments controlled by peak capitalism? Does he consider himself a democratic socialist? How does he judge his responsibilities in the disintegration of the USSR?
The fall of the Soviet Union is perceived by Vladimir Putin and by many Russians as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. How will Gorbachev be remembered by history? Join the discussion following the showing of the film Meeting Gorbachev and share your opinion.