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Guest column: Gorbachev's views likely impacted during Amherstburg visit

Windsor Star logo Windsor Star 2022-09-24 Lloyd Brown-John
Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev attends the parade marking the Second World War anniversary in Moscow, May 9, 2017. © Provided by Windsor Star Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev attends the parade marking the Second World War anniversary in Moscow, May 9, 2017.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent death should have prompted some reflections by many Essex County residents.

Gorbachev publicly used the term “perestroika” or re-structuring or reformation in March, 1984 — a year after his visit to Canada and Essex County.

Gorbachev fed up with endemic corruption in the Soviet Union sought to launch a more democratic and humane form of socialism. Gorbachev’s socialism emerged from his passion for works of 19th century Russian socialist thinkers such as Alexander Herzen and Vissarion Belinsky.

Herzen is considered father of Russian socialism and its spawn agrarian populism. Belinsky was among early Russian authors and poets termed “Westernizers” or believers that Russia’s future rested in Europeanization and liberal thinking.

Gorbachev apparently knew these authors works almost by heart.

He grew up in a small rural village in rich farmlands south of Russia’s Don River. More precisely, east of the Sea of Azov which separates Ukraine and Crimea from Russia. He retained his love of land and what is often been termed his peasant capacity for caution and common sense.

President Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union as corruption blossomed and its economy was failing. His “peristroika” and “glasnost” (openness) launched the end of the Soviet Union and beginning of a new outward looking Russia.

Of course, what he did not count on was that the Soviet Empire would also collapse and that for many hard-nosed communists was regarded as a fool during that time. He was widely derided as a failure for not taking advantage of that collapse to become wealthy. He died relatively poor.

Gorbachev was the antithesis of current Russian autocrat Putin and his cronies. Arguably, it is the re-construction of that diminished Soviet Empire with its endemic corruption that Putin seeks to restore. Putin and cronies – excluding many of those who have died recently from unexplained accidents – essentially loathed Gorbachev’s legacy.

Freedom, democracy and democratic socialism have proven demonstrably repugnant to autocrat Putin.

Yet, Mikhail Gorbachev will remain as one of the great modern Russians for at least trying to wedge Russia into the 20th century.

Ironically, the idea of freeing the Soviet Union from its Stalinist past with Gorbachev’s “perestroika” and “glasnost” may trace its roots, in part, to here in Essex County or more precisely, Amherstburg.

The Soviet ambassador to Canada was Alexander Yakovlev. He was more or less serving his role in exile after having published an article critical of a continuing anti-semitic stream of Russian nationalism. As the USSR economically stagnated, Yakovlev’s reformist views deepened.

In May 1983, Gorbachev and Yakovlev were invited by Canada’s Minister of Agriculture, Eugene Whelan, to visit Essex County and have dinner at Whelan’s home in Amherstburg.

The two Russians arrived early at Whelan’s house as Gene was briefly detained in Ottawa. Apparently, the two Russians asked Gene’s wife Liz if there was some place they could go for a walk — and as it transpired, a talk.

In retrospect that walk and talk, followed by visits to a Leamington greenhouse and supermarket appear to have provoked Gorbachev to conclude the Soviet Union had a critical need to turn toward a new form of socialism and even democracy.

Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the USSR began during his term as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The April 26, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident and widespread Soviet efforts to cover up the disaster suggested massive internal rot within the USSR and reinforced his opinion change was needed.

In 1989, he launched the first-ever competitive elections. In the years that followed, the Soviet Union vanished and Russia and its empire emerged. However, that empire began to disintegrate and therein lies one basic reason why Gorbachev at his death was largely shunned by retro-empire nationalists such as Vladimir Putin.

Ironically, history may characterize Gorbachev as one of the most significant figures of the 20th century, while Putin may prove to be one of the most reviled figures of the 21st century.

From our local perspective, a visit to the Whelan’s home in Amherstburg may have been one of the moments which triggered Russia’s attempt to join the western world and its economy.

A world-changing historical event in Essex County that should forever be remembered.

Lloyd Brown-John is a University of Windsor professor emeritus of political science. He can be reached at lbj@uwindsor.ca.

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