Screenshot from the documentary’s trailer.

Gorbachev documentary reveals disappointed hopes, selective memory, and the transience of power. From Respekt.

A black and white cat moves quietly along an empty, spacious corridor. Four silent, white telephones on a table create a still life of time suspended. A window curtain flutters in the breeze. Somewhere in the middle of it all, lost in the spaces of his vast home – essentially in exile outside of Moscow – sits the man who once changed the world. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Communist leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, naps in front of a monitor as a report on his key role in the history of the 20th century runs on the screen.   

Thus begins the documentary film Gorbachev. Heaven, which was shown in October at the Jihlava documentary film festival in the Czech Republic before opening in cinemas. Vitaly Mansky, born in Lviv, Ukraine, and now based in Riga, Latvia, has captured a bifurcated view of the 90-year-old. There is the statesman who is above history – a mythical figure associated in his homeland with enormous hope and the feeling of that hope unfulfilled – and an elderly man at the end of his life who loves pirogis and cultivates a selective memory. The result is a poetically stirring yet existentially muted portrait of a politician from another era, intertwined with a portrait of the country that he once ruled and one that, in principle, refused what he offered it.   

The One and Only Gorby

Gorbachev was a global political star during the second half of the 1980s. Without exaggeration, the Nobel Peace Prize winner is one of the most important men of the 20th century. From 1985 to 1991 he led the Soviet Union, first as Communist Party general secretary, then briefly as president. Midway through the 1980s he began lifting restrictions on freedom of speech and reducing supervision by the Communist Party, reforms meant to democratize state socialism and end the Cold War.

In foreign policy, he tried to improve relations with the West. He met with Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and Ronald Reagan. But his reforms ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, with its republics declaring independence. Gorbachev was weakened by a coup, which he barely managed to suppress, and in the end could not withstand Boris Yeltsin. In December 1991 he resigned his post as president; the USSR was defunct within a week.

Gorbachev unsuccessfully tried to make a political comeback in the 1990s. He took advantage of his popularity, appearing in ads and commenting on politics. History has been kind to him, at least in the West, where he is respected as a figure of positive change. In Russia, he is seen more as the person who subverted an empire. That is the interpretation Russian propaganda has upheld under Vladimir Putin. It paints the collapse of the USSR as a catastrophe, which feeds the sense of being an unjustly beaten nation.

Gorbachev lives today in a guarded house provided for him in the early 1990s by the new bosses of the former Soviet republics. He does not own it. He will live out the rest of his days there, like a relic of ancient times, isolated from contemporary Russia. A vehicle with a flashing light on its roof sometimes brings him to the hospital or to the headquarters of his foundation. Many scenes in Mansky’s film were shot “behind the scenes” of this residence, with Gorbachev’s cooks, chauffeurs, and assistant of many years by his side. The director also made a documentary about Gorbachev 20 years ago. He has returned to his subject in an entirely different way. 

Images From Other Worlds

Mansky’s approach is somewhere between that of an inquisitive, uncompromising journalist who demands straight answers, and an admirer of Gorbachev as a politician who changed not just the filmmaker’s life but the lives of a generation. “He gave me the happiest years of my life,” Mansky says in an interview for the Czech magazine Dok.revue. Gorbachev’s name is linked to hope and the potential of epic change; the possibility of a harmonious world, though one that faded fast. Perhaps because of the Russian character, which cannot bear democracy and freedom but needs a dictator’s strong hand, as Mansky suggests.

The director contrasts Gorbachev with Putin, who penetrates the elder statesman’s isolation through the screens of his televisions. The Putin government represents for the director “the most tragic years” of his life. On the one hand, such a contrast pits hope against its loss. On the other hand, this can go even further, becoming an accusatory reminder that Putin also is the consequence of the steps and decisions Gorbachev made when he handed power to Yeltsin without a fight.  

Mansky admires and respects Gorbachev, as do the people Gorbachev employs. At the same time, the director feels a certain kind of disappointment, or rather frustration, when Gorbachev avoids answering questions by quoting classic works of Russian literature, singing his favorite songs, authoritatively falling silent, or by outfoxing him, such as when he claims to not want to reflect on his historical role – no matter what kind of signal that sends. He does not want to talk on the level about what he thinks. About his own government, his past decisions, or about contemporary Russia. He reminisces more about his youth than he does about politics; more about his wife Raisa, who has been dead for 20 years (the couple were inseparable) than about the Cold War.

Nonetheless, the film has multiple layers. It is not merely a confrontation between an inquisitive filmmaker investigating why Russia is the way it is and a former politician who could be losing his memory, or who might remember things perfectly well and just might not want to talk about them. He might be forgetting things. He might not know the answers. It is up to the viewer to decide whether they see in Gorbachev a grandfather who, with the calm of Jedi Master Yoda, responds to the stimuli around him and calls Lenin a god, or whether they see in him the canny former statesman who is protecting his legacy as best he can, who knows he failed, but who wants to believe – and has to believe – that what he did ultimately made sense, even if all around him he sees evidence to the contrary.

But the elderly face should not confuse us. Gorbachev, familiarly nicknamed Gorby in the West, was a politician from a different mold than the elders running the Soviet Union. Western leaders had the feeling that they could do business with him, in the words of Thatcher. He was the future, just as cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the face of the modern USSR in the 1960s. At the same time, however, Gorbachev made it to the very top of the Communist apparatus with the aid of KGB boss Yuri Andropov, who brought him from his regional governor’s post to Moscow. One has to be a certain kind of person to manage that: a pragmatic politician, an experienced fighter. This manifests even years later. The film shows just one moment when he openly expresses regret and admits a mistake: He should have fought Yeltsin.       

The River of Time

The film also is an encounter between two perspectives, with time the main variable. From one angle Gorbachev still has a great deal of time, from the other he has almost none left. One of these men continues to seek answers, addressing big questions related to nation, politics, and the state. The other already knows deep inside that “life is complex, life is life,” that “history is a capricious lady,” and that nothing, in the end, is more important than the presence of a beloved wife.

Raisa Gorbacheva, along with Putin, is an absent but very present figure in Gorbachev’s life. She watches over him from many pictures in the home. She still floats there like a memory of a time that can never return. Mansky adroitly edits or juxtaposes her portraits in shots with Gorbachev to emphasize how important she was to him. Her favorite song cyclically repeats, along with an image of the wide fields that hold a special meaning for Gorbachev.

This documentary film has the rhythm of an old man who loves to eat and who takes an hour to ascend one flight from the ground floor of his home. His friends installed an elevator after discovering that. Static shots make up a large part of the film, often of details of Gorbachev as he sits. His face begins to resemble a still life in a corner of the house or its surroundings, used by Mansky as a backdrop for his words.

Their talk gradually transforms into a contemplation of time, which “does not drip, but flows,” as Gorbachev notes when reflecting on his departure. It flows like a river through a green grove “once upon a time,” and its gurgling reminds us that everything is transient: the big and the small decisions; fame; memory; history; purpose. That can be disturbing – or an immense relief.

Jindriska Blahova edits the culture section of the Czech newsweekly Respekt. Reprinted by permission. Translated by Gwendolyn Albert and edited for clarity.