Looking back on Mikhail Gorbachev’s appearance on TVO

Steve Paikin and others discuss what it was like to meet the former Soviet leader in 2005 — and how his legacy holds up today
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Aug 13, 2021
President Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR speaks at the conclusion of a summit with US President George H.W. Bush on June 3, 1990. (Ron Sachs/CNP/abacapress.com)

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When I was studying journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa years ago, I remember a professor saying something like, “One of the best things about this job is the people you meet.”

And it’s true. Over the course of my career, I’ve met prime ministers, generals, filmmakers, and at least one supermodel. None of them would be able to remember my name or pick me out of a lineup, of course. But at least I can say I’ve met them (plus a lot of very interesting not-so-famous people, too).

One person I can say I’ve met is Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union and a towering figure of the late 20th century. This Friday, The Agenda is re-airing a 2005 interview between Steve Paikin and Gorbachev that I helped produce.

So I got together with Steve and someone else heavily involved in that 2005 interview, former Diplomatic Immunity executive producer Dan Dunsky, to discuss what it was like meeting the former Soviet leader — and how his legacy stands up 16 years after we spoke with him.

The video represents only a small part of our conversation — you can read a longer transcript of our discussion below.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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Daniel Kitts: Let me just start off by saying Gorbachev, for all of us, was a giant of history. We all remember the Cold War, perestroika, and his tenure as leader of the Soviet Union. Steve, let me start with you. What did you think when you first saw him?

Steve Paikin: You walk into the room, and there, standing in front of you, is a man who changed the course of history. And I don’t know about anybody watching this, and I don’t know about you guys, but it is not a frequent occurrence when you walk into a room, and you are standing six inches away from somebody who absolutely changed the course of the history of the entire world. So that’s a pretty heavy thing. And I don’t mind telling you, you do a double take. You are nervous. You can’t help but be impressed at what this man was able to accomplish. And then you very quickly try to put that in your back pocket and focus on the task at hand.

Kitts: What about you, Dan?

Dan Dunsky: Everything that Steve just said. But the paradox for me … you started off, Daniel, by saying he was a giant of history — and I think I expected him to be taller. And he wasn’t. I’m not a particularly tall guy, and he was a little bit shorter than me. And I remember feeling somehow, this doesn’t seem right. As you and Steve have said, this is a an incredibly important individual. One of the handful — top three, probably — of the most important people of the second half of the 20th century.

I remember him coming out of the room. We were setting up. A friend of ours (and a frequent contributor to our programs), Sergei Plekhanov, who knew Gorbachev and had advised him back in the Soviet Union, had arranged this interview for us. And he mentioned to us that Gorbachev was going to come out, and he came out. And I remember just being, as you and Steve have said, a little bit struck by the man who was standing in front of us. And then his size! And there was a disconnect between the importance of Gorbachev [and his physical size]. That was my first impression, but a fleeting one, as Steve said, because we had to get to business.

Kitts: What do you remember most about meeting him and about the interview?

Paikin: I remember asking a friend of mine who was born in the Soviet Union, “Give me a couple of things I can say in Russian,” just to kind of establish something, because, obviously, [Gorbachev] didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak any Russian. And the most difficult thing about doing an interview under those circumstances is trying to create any sense of bond or connection or chemistry with somebody you don’t speak the same language as, so I knew that was going to be a problem. And I thought, if I can drop a couple of words, a couple of sentences in Russian, to get things started, that might make them feel a little more comfortable.

So I said to him zdravstvuyte, which basically is Russian for “Nice to meet you, how you doing,” that kind of thing. And he, I remember this, he stuck out his hand, and we shook hands. He didn’t really look at me; he sort of looked off in the distance, and he said privyet, which is just “Hi” in Russian. So we had that established off the top. And I guess I remember thinking, “Well, my big attempt to speak a little bit of Russian to get him more comfortable fell flat on its face, because he didn’t even look me in the eye, and we really didn’t establish any kind of contact.” And I just thought, okay, that didn’t work. Focus; try something else. So we then sat down, and off to the races we went.

Dunsky: It’s interesting that you say that Steve, because what stood out for me, in part, was how formal he was in his responses. Now, I haven’t seen the video. I’m looking forward to seeing it when it gets re-aired. I haven’t seen it in, whatever, almost 20 years. But he had this demeanor that was quite formal. We’ve done many interviews with — perhaps not people of the same stature of Gorbachev. But I know your interview style, and I know how we liked to do interviews for these kinds of programs. And I remember thinking, as the interview was going on, “How is this going? I mean, you know, is this a little too formal? Is it a little too stiff? Is the audience going to react to that?” And I put that out of my mind, of course, given who he was and what it was that we were talking about. So it’s interesting that you point that out.

Kitts: Do you know one thing I remember? We took a photo with of all of us after the interview. And I don’t usually take photos with people we interview. I just feel like it’s a little too, I don’t know, fanboy-ish. But it’s not very often that I get to meet someone of that historical stature. And so we all posed, and I just snuck in at the back. And we took the picture. I don’t know where it is right now. I think my parents might still have it. But my head is just sticking out from everybody else — it looks like I was photoshopped in.

Paikin: (Laughs) I remember that, too.

Kitts: Yeah. So it’s, like, one of the biggest people I’ve met, and it looks like somebody used Adobe Photoshop and just stuck me in there. [The photo could not be located prior to publication time.]

Steve, both you and Dan mentioned at the start of our conversation that you weren’t sure how the interview was going to go, whether you’d have any chemistry with Gorbachev. How do you feel the interview went?

Paikin: Well, let’s state the obvious off the top: I had to ask my questions in English and then have a translator who was in the back room — I think we were both wearing ear pieces — translate into Russian for him. Then he gave his answer in Russian. And it was then translated by the person in the back room to me into English, so I could understand what he said. Those are, to state the obvious, not the ideal conditions under which to try to create some chemistry with an interviewee.

And I’ve seen this before, when Vladimir Putin is being interviewed by an American anchor, or Saddam Hussein is being interviewed, and all these interviews required translation. It’s just really not great. And so I remember thinking throughout the course of the interview, “Well, this is interesting, and he’s saying things that I find interesting, but I really don’t know if this is very watchable.” And I’d be interested in your guys’ opinions on how watchable that actually was. On the one hand, it’s Mikhail Gorbachev. And we’re TVO.  We’re not some big fancy American network who scored this guy. We’re a small regional television station in the province of Ontario. So there is a kind of wow factor that you hope will keep people tuning in. But, again, the interview is twice as long as a normal interview, because everything’s got to go through translation. So, at the end of the day, I’m still not sure whether it was any good. Maybe you guys know.

Kitts: What do you think, Dan?

Dunsky: Again, I haven’t seen it in a long time. I tend to think that the importance of the interview really was what stood out for me. I think that we asked him some interesting questions. One thing that stood out for me was … You know, it’s paradoxical: You’re interviewing somebody who is, at the time — and is still now — more popular and better loved outside of Russia than he is inside of Russia. And I kept on thinking of that during the interview …

Paikin: And we asked him that.

Dunsky: And we asked him about that. That’s exactly right. And, for him, it’s an unfortunate byproduct of his historical role. But I remember that, when he was answering, I was wondering if that was in the back of his head as he was answering those questions. Obviously, he’s a very bright guy. He knows what his audience is. But I remember being struck by that, as he was having the conversation with Steve, that, boy, this is this is somebody who is perhaps more comfortable, in some ways, speaking to a Western audience than he is to a Russian audience.

Paikin: And I remember the one answer he did give that has stayed with me 16 years later, was on that question, “How is it possible that, with all the changes you’ve brought in — you utterly transformed the Soviet Union — how is it that you’re incredibly unpopular in the former Soviet Union and, yet, in the West, you are quite revered?” And if I recall, his answer was to quote Mao and his famous answer to “What do you think of the French Revolution?” which of course was in 1798. And Mao’s famous answer was, “Well, it’s too soon to tell.” And I think he legitimately gave the same answer as it relates to his place in history. Remember, at the time we’re talking to him, the Soviet Union had only been dead for not even a decade and a half. And, yes, in the grand scope of history, a decade and a half is not nearly enough time to determine what his ultimate place in history will be. So I think his answer is correct. And it was kind of cheeky and funny at the same time.

Kitts: I can’t remember if it was Mao or Deng Xiaoping. [It was actually Zhou Enlai, though Zhou’s answer has apparently been misinterpreted.] But, yes, it was a very memorable quote, for sure. I think it was a really great interview, just to have such a giant of history talking to us and answering questions we had about his role in that history. But the fact that his stature, in a sense, was the most important part of the interview brings us nicely to what I want to talk about toward the end of our talk.

In 2005, he’d been out of power for a long time, but he still seemed like a real giant of history. And I’m not saying he isn’t any more, but his legacy seems to be very much diminished. Sixteen years since we spoke to him, Russia is a corrupt police state run by former KGB agent who’s constantly scheming against the United States and the West. Authoritarianism seems to be on the rise in many parts of the world. That seems very far from the vision that Gorbachev had of the former Soviet Union being democratic and having a good relationship with its former foes in the West. I wonder what you think about that.

Dunsky: It’s remarkable how, in such a short period of time, there is a kind of a historical … It’s more than amnesia. I wonder how many younger people today would even recognize the name Mikhail Gorbachev. And, as we said a little bit earlier, he was a giant of the second half of the 20th century and, obviously, somebody who had a major hand in ending the Cold War, which was a defining part of all of our childhoods and our early adulthood. And it’s remarkable to me that he is a bit of a forgotten man. And that historical period is a bit of a forgotten historical period. And I know we don’t have enough time to go into depth as to why that is right now. I do think that the losers tend to get forgotten a little bit more. And I know that really rankled him. And, of course, the successor states to the Soviet Union, primarily Russia, the idea that they were the losers in the Cold War [rankled them as well]. And the world, as you mentioned, has turned inward, right? We don’t have these grand ideological confrontations that tended to define the 20th century. And I was wondering about this, as I was preparing for this: I wonder if reformers ever get their due. Do you know? And I don’t know the answer to that. It’s an interesting question.

He ultimately tried to reform the Soviet Union. Probably the furthest thing from his mind was the implosion of the Soviet Union or the Soviet Empire. He set in motion a series of events over which he lost control. But I can’t help but wonder if reformers tend to be ignored, because somehow they’re not seen as being strong enough, or they don’t have these absolutes about them. I wonder if that’s unfortunately part of his legacy.

Paikin: I would just piggyback on that by saying if there’s anybody watching this who is, say, under the age of 45, they may not truly appreciate what a potentially glorious moment that was back in the early 1990s. When we thought the Soviet Empire, the “evil empire,” as Ronald Reagan had called it, was actually going to come to an end, something that was completely unimaginable. It was unimaginable six months before it happened. And, yet, there it was happening. And Gorbachev was the guy who did it.

And I also remember President George Bush, the father, because he was the president at the time, saying we’re not going to be having ticker-tape parades down Broadway in New York City to celebrate the fact that the West won the Cold War, because we want to make Gorbachev a partner, and we want a better relationship with the former Soviet Union, or its constituent republics, now. And, therefore, we don’t want to humiliate them, which seemed like the right thing to do. And that moment in history seemed so hopeful. For a moment, Gorbachev gave us an opening where we thought we actually had a chance to be optimistic about a future that did not involve nuclear missiles from the West and the Soviet Union facing each other and the possibility of imminent annihilation. And, unfortunately, it was a brief moment. And, you know, here we are — it’s like everything old is new again. We’ve got the West and Russia at each other’s throats. But Gorbachev is a reminder of what could have been and isn’t. And it’s a shame.

Dunsky: In that moment of optimism, it’s important to remember that the collapse of the Soviet Empire was relatively bloodless, far less bloody than the collapse of the British Empire, for instance. And we owe — and certainly all the former subjects of the former Soviet Empire owe — a debt of gratitude to Gorbachev for making that happen.

Paikin: That’s a great point that is really, really significant. Think of the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people who, because of Mikhail Gorbachev, did not die. He deserves some recognition for that, to be sure. Absolutely.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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