Gorbachev

“Beel”, he said, “Come”. The speaker was Mikhail Gorbachev, lately President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was past eleven in the evening at the Palliser Hotel in Calgary in March of 1993, the end of the first full day of a ten-day cross-Canada tour. Typical of each day to come, the program had included public appearances, meetings with the media, an official lunch and dinner. Now it was time to relax and recover from the lengthy flight from Moscow via Vancouver. Or so I thought!

Summoned into the presidential suite along with the other nine members of his entourage, all of us expected to say a hasty good night. That was not to be. Without missing a beat the President bade us all sit down at the large dining table, myself at his right hand. He thought for a moment, then said in Russian, “We need whiskey,” whereupon I ordered up a couple of jugs of the finest from room service. The party went on till 1:30 a.m. and included a number of folksongs lustily belted out by all, including the President. If the rest of us were droopy-eyed by the time we were released, not so with Gorbachev himself. A man of prodigious energy, he was the life of the party, one moment holding forth on the incredible productivity of Canadian agriculture, the next challenging one or other of his tablemates over criticism that he had been too soft on demonstrators in the last days of the Union.

 This was to be the pattern throughout the journey. Indeed, on the flight from Moscow as everyone else was sleeping, he sat wide-eyed and insisted on grilling me on all manner of themes related to Canadian politics and the economy. The schedule each day was full, to the point of being hectic, but this did not alter the midnight routine. “Beel, come!” Then, “Sit.” Gorbachev did not speak English except for a few words. And so I ended up at his side each night, surrounded by former members of the Soviet Politburo and senior bureaucracy, listening with the greatest of fascination to the jokes about Brezhnev’s daughter, the nastiest of comments about Boris Yeltsin, newly acceded President of the Russian Republic and principal player in engineering an end to the Union, and so on. Yeltsin was due to visit Vancouver in a couple of weeks and to stay in the same presidential accommodation as Gorbachev. Said Gorbachev to me, holding his nose, “Better open the windows wide and air the place out. Very smelly.”