A boy is born to peasant parents near the village of Privolnoye, in the north Caucasus, and has a truly rural upbringing; sometimes, he sleeps next to a calf in the stable to stay warm at night. The boy’s mother never learned to read; his father went off to fight the Germans in World War II and, on his return home, told the boy, “We fought until we ran out of fight. That’s how you must live.” And those first years after the war, when the boy was in his mid-teens, included more than their share of struggle. The area around Privolnoye had been occupied; infrastructure had suffered significant combat damage, and drought led to severe famine in the first years after the war. But the rains eventually came, and the father and son won government medals in 1949 for piloting a wheat harvester 20 hours a day and bringing in a bumper crop for the collective farm.
“It is hard to imagine that from such a godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere,” Werner Herzog intones near the beginning of the new documentary he co-directed with André Singer, Meeting Gorbachev, “one of the great leaders of the 20th century emerged.”
The story of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is extraordinary in its historical sweep, a truly Dr. Zhivago sort of tale that starts literally on the farm in the 1930s, includes his improbable rise from the provinces to the center of Soviet political life, the Politburo, and, after the deaths of a series of aging Soviet leaders in quick succession, to an even more unlikely accession, in which he assumes leadership of the entire country as General Secretary of the Communist Party. There, Gorbachev created and directed the Soviet Union’s perestroika and glasnost reforms, struck landmark nuclear arms control agreements in surprising collaborations with US presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, received the Nobel Peace Prize, and survived an attempted coup that indirectly led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Through interviews with Gorbachev and several important figures involved with his public life—including former US secretaries of state James Baker and George Shultz—Herzog succinctly tells the Gorbachev story in its political and policy aspects, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in its human terms. Meeting Gorbachev is in many ways an epic tragedy. In global terms, it is the story of how Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet system and integrate it with the West—and how that effort ultimately failed, to the great detriment of the world at large and its security. It is also an account of the personal tragedy of a man who hoped to bring political and economic reform to his country but who has come now—in his eighties and in ill health and still, obviously, mourning the death of his college sweetheart and longtime wife Raisa—to be a relatively isolated figure, considered in some Russian quarters akin to a traitor to his country.
In a short conversation with Herzog—a renowned filmmaker with a penchant for the offbeat—I asked about his aims in making Meeting Gorbachev, which opens this week in the United States, and for his thoughts about the current state of US-Russian affairs. His responses made it clear to me that he thinks a meeting of the minds between US President Trump and Russian President Putin on nuclear security matters is no more unlikely than the Gorbachev-Reagan era of détente that now seems such a horribly missed opportunity—such a fading image of the disappearing past—for lasting East-West rapprochement.
John Mecklin: I’m the editor in chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, so for its subject matter, we’re obviously interested in your film. Which I’ve just finished watching all the way through for the second time. I was wondering what you were hoping to accomplish with it? Do you think you got there?
Werner Herzog: It’s not easy to speak of what I tried to accomplish. I think as a natural concomitant you get the feeling that there should be better times between the West and Russia. The demonization of Russia is a great mistake of the Western media and Western politics, and we should try and seek a climate that was created by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the most improbable characters you could ever put together in one room.
JM: The film really made that clear; I did not know Gorbachev’s background, coming from such a peasant upbringing. Was that a surprise to you when you started this, that he came from such humble beginnings?
WH: I knew about it, but not in such detail. I did my homework before I started the conversations with him.
JM: Obviously this story is almost a tragedy of sorts; did Gorbachev talk much about current era leaders, Putin and Trump? Did he ever bring them up? Because it’s…
WH: No. He didn’t want it. It was explicitly clear he would not like to go into the current political situation. He always made it clear through his entourage, “Let’s not go into the ephemeral things.” This has to do about him, and it has to do about his history and his role in world history.
JM: Did you see it as an attempt by him to sort of rehabilitate himself in Russia? Or was he more just wanting to memorialize what had happened?
WH: I don’t think he ever makes an attempt to rehabilitate himself. He is habilitated so to speak, and he’s established as a monumental figure in world history. There’s nothing to rehabilitate. But I have to say that some parts of the Russian public see him [as] a traitor, and that in my opinion is a tragic misunderstanding. But the climate seems to change. We had a screening just a few days ago in Moscow, at the Moscow Film Festival, which I didn’t attend. But my co-director, André Singer, attended it, and he reports there was a huge crowd, huge applause, and very clearly a warm applause for Gorbachev. So things are apparently shifting.
JM: That’s wonderful to hear, and that was one of my questions: Is this going to be shown in Russia and how widely?
WH: The film will be shown in Russia, yes. But it’s played first at the Moscow Film Festival. As far as I’m informed it will be shown on television.
JM: Good, so it will be generally available, which is good to know. I’m just old enough to always wonder: Half of my readership is so young, they weren’t even born yet when a lot of this happened. Why do you think people under 35 or so—why should they watch this movie?
WH: I think because there are conflicts in the world, and literally this main major conflict between East and West has a long history in precedent. And it points in the direction where politics should go in my opinion. If [we] could have a rerun of Reagan and Gorbachev, it would be great.
JM: It certainly would be. Seems so improbable right now, but maybe things can change.
WH: No. They’re not. No, no, no. They’re not completely improbable. The most improbable of all has happened in Donald Trump speaking to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and I find it very, very remarkable, a very positive signal, and a test; it diffused a very dangerous situation for the moment. We have to see what will come out in the long term.
JM: It is an unusual time. Maybe you are right. Maybe it’s more possible than it seems.
WH: Yes these things are always somehow possible. It’s so strange, but these things are happening.
JM: Just a point of curiosity for me, did the Russian government create any problems with access to Gorbachev to make this movie?
WH: No, not at all. I think the current government respects Gorbachev even though there seem to be some differences in opinion. But I think the current president respects Gorbachev and vice versa. They have differences in opinion obviously.
JM: I have picked that up in previous reporting I’ve done on this, that there doesn’t seem to be real enmity there. As a last question, because I know you’re busy, I wanted to say: I was very affected by the movie, by what a tragedy it really is. And it seemed like such a big subject. It has such amazing historical sweep and color. It’s like: Gosh, this could be like Dr. Zhivago, a three and a half hour movie. It’s just amazing. And I just wondered: Did you ever feel constrained by the documentary form, or was this how you wanted to tell it?
WH: That’s a good question. I had to be limited to a documentary format, but of course, it has huge things in it. At some moments you seem to look deep into the soul of Gorbachev, in particular when he talks about his wife who died very, very early. And she was so important for him, and just the love of his life and his confidante, and his political advisor and omnipresent… Sometimes he even seemed to look into the soul of the whole country, into the soul of Russia. When, for example, at the end of the film he recites a poem that’s so deep and so wonderful that I repeat it immediately in a written scroll at the end of the film. So it’s more than just a political event, it’s the soul of a man and the soul of an entire country. And that, of course, would be a subject for a great novel.
At the end of the film, Gorbachev sums up his feelings about his efforts to bring reform to the Soviet Union by saying, “We wanted to have democracy in our country, and we made progress in that. But we didn’t get to finish the job, as certain forces took control of state power and property. These forces didn’t want democracy; it didn’t suit them.”
Herzog then asks Gorbachev what he wants on his gravestone. Gorbachev answers indirectly by recounting what a friend had as his epitaph: “We tried.”