There is much one could say about Mikhail Gorbachev. He is the man who changed the world. He ended the Cold War. He tried to abolish nuclear weapons–believing fervently that if we didn’t attempt to do the impossible, we would face the unthinkable. He liberated Eastern Europe to find its own political path. And, at home, he was that rare political leader who used his power to launch unprecedented reforms–what came to be known as perestroika and glasnost. It is tragic that twenty one years later, little, if anything, is left of the historic opportunities and alternatives Gorbachev opened up for his country and the world. Those of us who know him have heard him speak of this loss with great sadness.
But last Thursday night, Gorbachev wasn’t waiting around for history’s judgment. At the Napoleon banquet hall in southwest Moscow, 250 family members, college and elementary schoolmates, former and current political and journalistic colleagues, friends from East and West, and current officials gathered to celebrate Gorbachev’s 75th birthday. Having come to know Gorbachev quite well in these last twenty years, my husband Stephen Cohen and I were two of the partygoers.
Toasts and vodka flowed freely. Gorbachev and his daughter Irina opened the evening. Standing on the stage set up for the evening, the former Soviet President welcomed everyone by name–literally, everyone–to what he called his last big party "before old age begins". The party favor was handed out–a family album prepared by his daughter and grandchildren. The Governor of Stavropol, the province which Gorbachev led as a Communist party boss in the 1970s, opened the evening. Chancellor Helmut Kohl uttered some dignified words. An opera singer from the Bolshoi sang an aria. Former Presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky chastised the crowd-"Mikhail Sergeevich gave us a chance and we did not take it." Video tributes from former President George Bush, Bill Moyers, Leonardo di Caprio, former President Bill Clinton, and a rambunctious Ted Turner ( who belted out "happy birthday, my good friend Mikhaiiiil") and California Senator Barbara Boxer were broadcast on the banquet hall’s walls. President Putin even sent a telegram of congratulation. (It’s the least the Russian President could do considering that he threw Boris Yeltsin a lavish, state-funded 75th birthday bash in the Kremlin just a month earlier.)
But forget Putin’s telegram, or Kohl’s words or Bush’s video tribute. The high point of the evening came when Gorbachev’s twenty-something granddaughter, Oksana, took charge. Oksana is a kind of musical impresario, a booker of bands, who looks like a cross between Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. I missed the name of her new girl band, but they might as well call themselves "The Slavic Chicks." Three young women, a brunette, a blond and a redhead, in very short and tight black dresses, came out on stage and began to belt out three Russian pop songs. The disco ball seemed to go round even faster, as the crowd dizzy from the pumped up music boogied on the dance floor. And at the back of the room, Gorbachev seemed mesmerized by the scene–ignoring his table partner Kohl for the moment–as he swayed to the music, clapping his hands over his head.
For a brief moment, whatever sadness Gorbachev may have felt as he surveyed the lost opportunities in Russia and the world seemed to melt away into the dark Moscow night as The Slavic Chicks sashayed and sang. Long live The Slavic Chicks.