- Performer worked with Gorbachev for 37 years
- Says he is shocked, upset by the events in Ukraine
- According to Gorbachev, he still believed in the idea of the Soviet Union
- But he was against the use of force to achieve goals
MOSCOW, Sept 1 (Reuters) – Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, was shocked and bewildered by the conflict in Ukraine in the months before his death and psychologically crushed in recent years by Moscow’s deteriorating ties with Kyiv, a said his interpreter on Thursday.
Pavel Palazhchenko, who worked with the late Soviet president for 37 years and stood by his side at numerous US-Soviet summits, spoke with Gorbachev a few weeks ago by telephone and said that he and other had been struck by how traumatized he was by the events in Ukraine.
“It’s not just the (special military) operation that started on February 24, but the whole development of Russian-Ukrainian relations over the past few years that was really, really a blow for him. It really crushed him emotionally and psychologically,” Palazhchenko told Reuters in an interview.
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“It was very obvious to us in our conversations with him that he was shocked and confused by what was happening (after Russian troops entered Ukraine in February) for all sorts of reasons. He didn’t just believe in the proximity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, he believed that these two nations were intertwined.”
President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine on February 24 in what he called a “special military operation” which he said was necessary to keep Russia safe from an expanding military alliance. of NATO and to protect Russian speakers.
Kyiv says it posed no threat and is now defending itself against an imperial-style unprovoked war of aggression. The West has imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow in an attempt to convince Putin to withdraw his forces, which he shows no sign of doing.
In photographs of the 1980s summits with US President Ronald Reagan, the bald, mustachioed figure of Palazhchenko can be seen time and time again alongside Gorbachev, bending down to capture and relay every word.
Now 73, he is well-placed to know the late politician’s state of mind in the run-up to his death, having seen him in recent months and been in contact with Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina.
Gorbachev, who was 91 when he died of an unspecified illness on Tuesday, had family ties to Ukraine, Palazhchenko said. He was speaking at the Moscow headquarters of the Gorbachev Foundation where he works, and where Gorbachev kept an office dominated by a giant portrait of his late wife Raisa whose father was from Ukraine.
CONFLICT OVER UKRAINE
During his tenure, Gorbachev attempted to hold together the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, but failed after the reforms he implemented encouraged many to demand independence. .
Soviet forces used lethal force in some cases in the last days of the USSR against civilians. Lithuanian and Latvian politicians remembered these events with horror after Gorbachev’s death, saying they still blamed him for the bloodshed. Read more
Palazhchenko said Gorbachev, who he said only solved problems through political means, had either not been aware of some of these bloody episodes in advance or had “very reluctantly” allowed the use of force to prevent chaos.
Gorbachev’s position on Ukraine was complex and contradictory in his own mind, Palazhchenko said, because the late politician still believed in the idea of the Soviet Union.
“Of course, in his heart, the kind of mind map for him and for most people of his political generation is still some kind of fantasy land that includes most of the former Soviet Union,” Palazhchenko said.
But Gorbachev would not have gone to war to restore the now-defunct country he presided over from 1985 to 1991, he suggested.
“Of course, I can’t imagine him saying ‘that’s it, and I’ll do anything to impose it’. No.”
While Gorbachev believed it was his duty to show respect and support for Putin, his former interpreter said he spoke out publicly when he disagreed with him, for example on the treatment of the media . But he had made the decision not to “provide a routine comment” on Ukraine beyond endorsing a statement in February calling for a swift end to hostilities and consideration of humanitarian concerns.
Gorbachev’s relations with Ukraine have sometimes been difficult. Kyiv banned it in 2016 after he told Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper he would have acted the same way Putin did in 2014 when he annexed Crimea.
“I am still with the free will of the people and most in Crimea wanted to be reunited with Russia,” Gorbachev said at the time, referring to the outcome of a referendum that Kyiv and the West called illegal .
Some Ukrainians also blame him for the initial Soviet cover-up of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
THE VERDICT OF HISTORY
While admitting that some Russians and residents of the former Soviet empire held extremely negative views of Gorbachev for the economic and geopolitical turmoil that followed the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Palazhchenko argued that Gorbachev’s legacy was still substantial.
He not only helped end the Cold War and reduced the risk of nuclear war, he said, but willingly dismantled totalitarianism inside the Soviet Union and gave Russia a chance to freedom and democracy.
“I think he remained optimistic about the future of Russia,” despite the “mutilation” of his own heritage and what he sees as “unfair criticism,” Palazhchenko said.
“He thought the Russians were very talented people and once they were given a chance, maybe a second chance, that talent… would show.”
Palazhchenko, who recalled US-Soviet Cold War highs and chatted in a limo with Gorbachev after the White House talks, said he and his colleagues now faced the task of sifting through papers and Gorbachev’s books in the late politician’s state-owned dacha outside Moscow as there was much material that had not yet been systematically cataloged in his archive.
Visibly angered by criticism of Gorbachev since his death by some people on social media whom he called “hateful”, Palazhchenko said his former employer believed history would judge him rightly.
“He liked to say the story is a fickle lady. I think he believed in it and expected the final verdict to be positive for him.”
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Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Mark Trevelyan
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