Mikhail Gorbachev: Former Soviet leader's bond with Scotland
At a time when the Cold War still posed a major threat, it was a bright Scottish political scientist and historian who convinced Margaret Thatcher that Mikhail Gorbachev was someone Britain could do business with.
In September 1983, Archie Brown, a lecturer in Soviet institutions at the University of Oxford, attended a seminar at Chequers designed to explore Anglo-Russian relations.
Brown, born and raised in Annan, told the-then prime minister the young man who was wielding increasing influence in the highest decision-making authority in the Communist Party was different from his predecessors.
Gorbachev, he explained, was “the best educated member of the Politburo”, but more importantly, also the “most open minded”.
There was wariness from Thatcher’s officials, and understandably so. Only six months previously, Ronald Regan had famously described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”. Yet Thatcher took Brown’s advice on board, and decided it would be a good idea to invite Gorbachev to Britain.
So it was that the following December, Gorbachev, who had by then been appointed chair of the Soviet foreign affairs committee, flew west for a seven day-long visit at Thatcher’s request.
Britain and the wider world witnessed a Soviet politician who bucked the trend; one who was prepared to build better international relations, and who adopted an open and direct manner when addressing the need for economic reforms in his homeland.
That 1984 visit was a seminal moment in 20th-century history, and helped pave the way for the end of the Cold War and the creation of modern democracies across eastern Europe.
At Chequers, Thatcher and Gorbachev spoke for five hours. The discussions were often frosty, with Thatcher interrogating him about the Soviet centralised command system and the merits of free enterprise and competition.
But if a sign was needed the two could have meaningful dialogue, it came when Gorbachev told her he had no intention of recruiting her to the Soviet Communist Party. Thatcher burst out laughing, and Gorbachev quickly followed suit.
As Brown later reflected, that meeting provided a “huge boost” to Britain’s emerging policy of engagement with the Soviet Union.
The constructive tone and impish humour Gorbachev deployed during his one-on-one with Thatcher was evident throughout the rest of his 1984 trip, but so too was a wariness amongst officials that things were moving too fast, too soon.
When Gorbachev travelled north to Edinburgh, he was due to attend a grand banquet held in his honour by George Younger, the-then secretary of state for Scotland. The venue – the Great Hall in Edinburgh Castle – was suitably impressive, but there was a problem in the form of the small barred window to the right of the main fireplace.
The opening, known as the laird’s lug, had been used by King James IV to eavesdrop on meetings. The KGB, wise to its clandestine purpose, asked that it be bricked up. In the end, the death of Dmitri Ustinov forced Gorbachev to cut short his trip, and the banquet was cancelled.
In truth, his time in Scotland that winter was all too brief. He visited Holyroodhouse, and attended a brief meeting at the Caledonian Hotel with Malcolm Rifkind, then a Foreign Office minister, and Younger. Even so, the latter declared the trip a “very great success” that had “ushered in a new phase in relations”.
When Gorbachev returned to these shores seven years later, everything had changed. The Iron Curtain had been torn down, and he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the leading role he had played in bringing about the radical changes in East-West relations.
To that end, vast and jubilant crowds awaited him at Aberdeen, the first port of call on his six day-long visit.
After a dinner held in his honour at the Beach Ballroom, where he gave a peace lecture, he was awarded the Freedom of the City by Lord Provost James Wyness in a ceremony at Music Hall.
With no room to spare, a live screening of the ceremony was also broadcast in the city’s former Capitol cinema, with callers besieging council telephone lines to secure one of 1,000 free seats.
The honour was bestowed on Gorbachev for his “unique contribution” to freedom, democracy, justice and peace. To loud applause, Wyness told him: “You will be remembered as one of the great statesmen of the 20th century.”
In return, Gorbachev said he accepted the honour with great emotion, and expressed confidence the ties between Russia and Scotland would remain strong.
“You have many friends in Russia, and people in Russia know and love Scotland, its culture, its literature and its history,” he said. “I wish you many sunny days, many days of peace, prosperity and calm.”
After Gorbachev travelled by horse-drawn carriage along Union Street to a reception at Aberdeen Town House – the route packed with around 20,000 people, including thousands of school pupils who had been given the morning off – that affinity was evident.
The organisers, mindful of Soviet tastes, had gone to great lengths to secure stocks of as wide an array of vodka as possible. But when the time came for Gorbachev to order a drink, he had only one request – whisky.
That 1993 visit also saw the-then 62 year-old address the prestigious Lothian European lectures in Edinburgh’s McEwan Hall. He spoke passionately and eloquently for around 80 minutes condemning his successors in Moscow as “cowboys” who had plunged his country into crisis.
While his criticism of Boris Yeltsin attracted the headlines, Gorbachev’s reflections on the common destiny of Europe and Russia were equally notable. “We are getting rid not only of old fears, but also of recent illusions,” he explained. “We are learning not only to talk, but also to listen to each other.”
Afterwards, Gorbachev was asked how he felt to be back in Scotland. “Very good,” he said. “I can’t recall such warmth.” The feeling, now as then, was mutual.
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