Two memorable events this past week held my attention: The first was Serena Williams’ challenge to defy all odds and add to her record of 23 major tournament wins in her quest of winning the U.S. Open. The other was the passing of Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of what was at the time the Soviet Union.
Prior to the Open, Serena had said she was prepared to accept the post-tennis phase of her life and pursue other interests she has developed in her business and in spending more time with her family. Regardless of the outcome of her performance at the Open, she was receiving plaudits for her contribution to the tennis world. Her showing on the courts opened the gates for other players of color, female and male, to participate in what, with few exceptions, formerly had served as a cotillion for white competitors.
Insofar as both white and Black Americans alike cheered Serena on, Americans, for a brief moment, had suspended their angry discourse embodied in identity politics. I, like so many of the rest of us viewing the U.S. Open hoped that somehow, she could pull off the unlikely feat of beating players of a higher ranking that were far younger than her 40 years. And after she defeated Anett Kontaveit, the second seed of the Tournament, we started to believe that she might do it. However, all hopes were dashed in her next match, in which she fought valiantly, but lost to Ajia Tomijanovic. Even the great ones, such as Serena, are subject to the passing of time and its effects on the human body. You could see that she was struggling in the third set of the match by her bodily movements and facial grimaces, but given her competitive nature and strong determination, we were kept hoping.
The death of Mr. Gorbachev recalls what this very unique and brave man tried so hard to accomplish during his management of the Soviet Union. He was a leader who saw the decay and rot of the society he attempted to repair. And with the crumbling of the Soviet Union precipitating the fall of the Berlin Wall and the many countries that had been a part of the Soviet bloc now crying for freedom and democracy, to the West he looked as if were a savior. The abrupt changes creating what appeared to be newfound democracies served as the thesis of the philosopher, Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama postulated that human history was moving toward an idealized form of government through the mechanism of liberal democracy. Now that idea appears more like a fairy tale than any sort of utopia that Fukuyama had predicted.
Prior to Gorbachev’s arrival on the scene, because Western leaders had been continuously disheartened by his uncompromising predecessors, there was little trust, at first, in this new head of State. But Mr. Gorbachev looked at the empty store shelves, surrounded by the gloom of his fellow Russians, due to the waste inflicted by the command-bureaucratic system. Furthermore, much of the expenses contributed to the military machine at a steep cost to the well-being of his people. So, he began to introduce what was termed petroiska or rebuilding and glasnost or openness. In implementing this totally new vision of the Soviet Union, he knew he had to alter the past strategy of his precursors that underpinned the Cold War. Consequently, Gorbachev initiated a thaw in the relations of his people with the West. After meeting Gorbachev, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of England, relayed to President Ronald Reagan and the world the following message: “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” Soon after, Gorbachev and Reagan engaged one another in an historic agreement to dismantle much of each side’s ballistic missiles.
The Daily News, a popular tabloid paper in New York City, reflected the sentiment of the West when it’s headline in the late 1980’s read: Gorby Comes to New York. it felt like a cataclysmic event. There was joy in the streets. Indeed, Gorbachev, or Gorby as he had become affectionately called, proved to be a much different leader than his political forbears, and had won the hearts of his former Western foes. Unfortunately, his own people did not share this very high regard viewed by the West.
So, what went wrong? Several years ago, Lisa and I were on a trip to New York in which we had to change planes in Charleston, North Carolina. Upon boarding my wife and I sat next to a woman who had led a management training in Charleston. Although fluent in English, she had a slight accent that sounded to me Russian. When she showed us her card, her last name Romanov, verified my thoughts. When I inquired about her name, she confirmed that she was related to the very distinguished Romanov family that had belonged to the reigning house of Imperial Russia for about 300 years until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Intrigued by both her name and person, I asked her if she had lived in Russia during the time of Gorbachev and the breaking down of the Soviet Union. She nodded yes and, she then related a rather sad story about her life during her teenage years.
She revealed to me that her father had been in the Russian Navy and had secured what sounded like a sinecure in the Politburo. However, when the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed, he lost his job, became despondent staying at home, not knowing what to do with himself. Almost overnight he went from having a prestigious job to having nothing at all. The consequence of this loss resulted in the dissolution of her parents’ marriage insofar as her father had apparently lost all sense of purpose and value. Because many Russian people suddenly found themselves out of work, she told me her father’s plight was not unusual. Although I don’t recall how she came to America, it was evident that in New York City she had gained a modicum of success as a management consultant with a program she had designed on her own in conjunction with being an athletic trainer. I believe the situation she described about her father reflected the underlying chaos that must have existed in Russia when Gorbachev was at the helm.
I think what this woman experienced, though a microcosmic event, helps illustrate the reason Gorbachev, though freeing the Soviet Union, did not save it. Deep down Mr. Gorbachev still considered himself a member of the Communist Party so his intention was not to eradicate what currently existed but to reform it. So, he was not a revolutionary with the intention of tearing down a system and replacing it with something better. To reform a system whose foundation has been one of coercion, fear and corruption is a tall order for anyone human to fulfill. Gorbachev came to understand this in his later years when he commented: “The old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working, and the crisis in the society became even more acute.” It would have required a great deal of strategic planning and cooperation to fill the vacuum of so many positions lost. Perhaps it actually would have required a revolution of sorts to accomplish this goal. But Gorbachev did not want to sever, completely, the ties he had with the Politburo. Sadly, Mr. Putin, a successor, has replaced the goodwill and hope of Mr Gorbachev with a reign of war and terror.