Herzog’s documentary highlights the tragedy of being Gorbachev

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Werner Herzog meeting Gorbachev
Werner Herzog meeting Gorbachev

By Gurmukh Singh

TORONTO: German director Werner Herzog’s `Meeting Gorbachev’ is one of the best documentaries being screened at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as record crowds have thronged its screenings. 

And it sums up the tragedy of being Gorbachev.

In the form of long interviews filled with images and footage of the cataclysmic events in his life, this documentary captures the rise of Gorbachev in the Soviet communist party — from his `godforsaken place’’ of Stavropol Krai to Moscow as top leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko died within three years in the mid-1980s. 

It shows how Gorbachev, who took the helm in 1985, unleashed reforms of perestroika (for central planning) and glasnost (for democracy) which led to the collapse of the USSR six years later.

In Gorbachev’s words, “perestroika was on top of my agenda” when he took over.

The opposition to his reforms led to a coup against him by hardline leaders when he was holidaying in the Crimea in August 1991. By the end of 1991, it was all over as various Soviet republics decided to go their own way.

Gorbachev says he wanted only reforms by devolving more powers to regions and blames `reckless’ leaders such as Boris Yeltsin for the collapse of the USSR. 

“I am sorry for my own people,’’ Gorbachev tells Herzog.

The break-up of the Soviet Union is his tragedy. “I regret it to this day.’’

Gorbachev says he still carries deep pain inside him. “Yes, it is hard. It is my internal problem.’’

But he qualifies his tragedy by adding, “We tried.’’

Werner Herzog with Gorbachev
Werner Herzog with Gorbachev. TIFF

Herzog credits Gorbachev for his sincerity to end the cold war as he said he was ready to meet Reagan anywhere — “even in Hiroshima.’’ Indeed, after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the two leaders did meet in Iceland to discuss disarmament and the documentary captures their iconic handshake.

However, Gorbachev says, “Americans thought they had won the cold war and it went to their heads…it was our joint victory.’’

The former Soviet leader also comes in praise for his statesmanship in ending the Afghan war, allowing German reunification and assuring no intervention in Hungary. 

Herzog, who shot the documentary in October-December last year and in April, told the Toronto audience that the 87-year-old Gorbachev is very very ill. “He was delivered straight from hospital right in front of our camera and then straight back to the ambulance.’’

Herzog’s co-director Andre Singer said that people in Russia today mistakenly blame Gorbachev for breaking up the USSR. “Ironically, he was the one didn’t want this. It was Yeltsin and heads of various republics who saw their opportunity for independence.’’

According to him, Gorbachev is very relevant to today’s world. “The significance of Gorbachev is that how lessons from that era can humanize politicians of today.’’

The documentary also highlights Gorbachev’s `unique, special’ bond with his late wife Raisa which became the bedrock of his political life.

“The family life of Gorbachev was very very intense and close with Raisa. He was blessed with a woman who was of that calibre, had such support for him, such a deep understanding for him.’’

As Gorbachev tells Herzog, “When she died, my life was taken away from me.’’

No one knows how the world would have looked like today if Gorbachev had succeeded in implementing perestroika and glasnost.

What a tragedy!

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