Interview with János Zolcer, author of “Gorbachev's Secrets”
Former Soviet president reveals private life to trusted friend
“Gorbachev’s Secrets” is an interactive Hybrid Book containing a unique and lively insight into the life of its subject in and out of the spotlight. It collects 35 stories over 450 pages with 200 photographs, 250 virtual footnotes and 100 Quick Response, or QR, codes to video links. One exclusive link enables readers to hear Gorbachev sing a love song to his wife of 46 years Raisa, who died of leukaemia in September 1999, shortly before Zolcer and Gorbachev met.
In this interview with The Budapest Times, Zolcer recalls how at the beginning of 2000 he began production of “Secrets of Power”, a series of five documentary films about some of the most important politicians in the world, with Gorbachev agreeing to his invitation to be the presenter. Together he and the former president of the Soviet Union visited US President George H.W. Bush, Israeli President Shimon Peres, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
Since then, Zolcer has accompanied Gorbachev on some of his world travels and become a confidante, enabling him to recall the former leader’s humble early days, including many earthy and unknown stories in contrast to the high-profile public life that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism, and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Little is known about Gorbachev otherwise, so “Gorbachev’s Secrets” offers a man at home with family and friends, away from global superpower issues.
The book comes with a plausive foreword by Gorbachev, and Zolcer hails the reformist as the greatest politician of his time whose changes at home and abroad finally opened up a closed nation and repressive political system through means of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness).
Zolcer was born in Czechoslovakia in 1956 and is of Hungarian origin. Originally a journalist he became a successful TV producer in Germany and Hungary, whose achievements have been recognised wider afield. Now he is the author of this compelling book.
Please tell me something about yourself before your friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 1986 I moved to West Germany from what was then Czechoslovakia, where I had been a journalist. Two years later I founded the Zolcer TV production agency and reported mainly from Eastern Europe to television networks around the West. By the beginning of the 1990s I had my own offices in 20 countries worldwide. In 1999 I had an idea, I would like to get to not only know but also introduce some of the great politicians from that particular time who changed the world for the better. This was how I chose Gorbachev to be a presenter for this project.
How did you meet him?
We met in 2000 in Vienna. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former German minister of foreign affairs, arranged the meeting. I told him about the idea for the television series “Secrets of Power”, which he liked very much. So we got to work almost immediately. Since I also speak Russian – Gorbachev only speaks Russian – an agreement was soon reached. It also helped that I am obviously from the Eastern hemisphere myself. Gorbachev liked and trusted me right away. He repeatedly said to me: “You are definitely one of us.”
What inspired him to work on this project?
I knew this was very high-levelled and prestigious work. It would have made no sense for me to prepare, let’s say, a two-hour interview with any of them at short notice and compile an immediate film-take right away. Therefore I wanted to get to know them first, for one to two weeks, and have sufficient quality time to study and get acquainted with them. But finally, one distinct individual stood out from all these people of the same high calibre, as it really was Gorbachev who opened the essential, historical “curtains” then. It was very inspiring the world had finally changed beyond this point with Gorbachev as initiator. This followed by Bush, Kohl, Peres, Genscher, Reagan, Thatcher and a few others. So I meticulously wanted to get to know and further document these people in depth and those times. And with Gorbachev’s help I got the unique chance to assemble the different distinguished politicians at one table, discuss matters with them from different angles, to reach some sort of objectivity. My book was now a chance to show the particular achievements of Gorbachev – we became friends over time – who really went out of his way to change the world, peacefully and respectfully.
It’s difficult not to mention your friend’s name without obvious traces of politics. Although an outstanding individual from the 20th century, many still give thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev and sense it was a very clever, tactical ploy for him to start the process of “opening up”, which clearly defined his legacy. Whilst there are still those who resent him. Why is this?
Yes, the majority of today’s Russia still resent him, in the East European countries the ratio is about 50/50, while in the West the majority glorify him. Why do they resent him? Because many feel the welfare state, although it had existed on a fairly but moderately minimal basis, did provide some security prior to his presidency, before it took a sudden turn for the worse due to him. Today, everything still remains uncertain for many. Therefore they long for the return of the former system, even if this provides a very low standard of living and denial of human rights and general freedoms.
Furthermore, many think the present-day systems in the East are still highly corrupt and dysfunctional. Securities have, it seems, gone. Therefore, for many people even communism is more preferable than the present-day system, as judged by a failing thirty-year post-Soviet perspective.
Because of all its troubles, the Soviet Union was close to its end prior to Gorbachev’s presidency. Gorbachev tried to save it, reform it, but later it became clear, even for him, in his position, it was not possible. The country and its economy mainly collapsed due to the heavy burden relating to its excessive military spending and ambitions. By the end of the 1980s things were out of control, the rest was inevitable. And yes, the people were starving. There was a coupon system, whether it was for butter, cigarettes or a cap and so forth, and everyone had to stand and wait in long queues before getting anywhere with the shops. It was for this reason Gorbachev had said to his wife on March 11, 1985, on the day of his election: “It is impossible to continue living like this. Something must be done!”
How do you and he define those times of great historical change from 1989 when things were tense as well as mostly joyous?
The situation was still generally bad. Alcoholism, lack of industrious work, productivity and stagnant international relations and so forth had taken its toll on the people and the country. Gorbachev didn’t even know where to begin. Also his wife Raisa warned him that everything will have to start all over again with a new beginning. According to Raisa, even the reforms would not help so soon. As the communist system was so opposing to all else. Nevertheless, Gorbachev took a chance and trusted to his best ability, but while his reforms were gladly welcomed by 50 percent of the people, the other 50 percent didn’t and the second-line party chinovnyiks (officials) boycotted them throughout the country. So whatever order Gorbachev gave out, few passed through beyond the realms of the Kremlin walls. Therefore, it was virtually impossible to reform with so little to begin with, on a very large, monumental scale like this, with a huge, multi-level, multi-ethnic country with all its various manifold ways and interests in a democratic way. As much else had only functioned dictatorially, as it did for the tsars, the communists and now for Putin.
Your biography clearly reflects on another side to this world-famous figure, in a serener setting away from the media glare. The book has received much critical acclaim. Tell me something more about it. How have his family and friends taken to this revealing publication?
Gorbachev has read several chapters of the book, I translated them into Russian for him. He liked it very much. I cannot vouch for his family.
When not in the political spotlight, how does he spend his time? What are his general interests? His philosophies? How about family life? Where do they all live now?
Gorbachev now resides at a state-owned “dacha” in Moscow. He can only walk using a walking-frame. He is often in hospital. When he is on better form he reads books, articles, chats with his colleagues. He enjoys watching old Soviet films. His daughter Irina lives in Berlin. There are also his two grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Raisa, his late wife, was clearly his companion who stood by him at all times. Did you ever meet her? If so, please tell me something about her and her role during the height of her husband’s presidency?
Prior to my meeting him and not much before then, in September 1999 Raisa died of leukaemia. I know his daughter and grandchildren well. I have talked a lot with some of his close friends, colleagues, former bodyguards and interpreter. I have a good relationship with his present-day staff too. There are only a few people around him these days. On his birthday an old friend and his doctor were with him. Various colleagues also congratulated him online, via Zoom.
What about Gorbachev’s visits to Hungary? When, who did he meet, and what was his business here?
He has been to Hungary a number of times. At the beginning of the 1980s, when agricultural secretary, Gorbachev came to Hungary on a study tour. Later he met with the last communist prime minister Miklós Németh. Gorbachev also came during his term as secretary general and made negotiations with late communist president Kádár and took a stroll along Váci utca. An invitation to the late Gyula Horn’s birthday also respectfully came in, and also he visited me. We walked alongside the River Duna promenade and ate exquisite fish soup at the splendid Horgásztanya. He has fond memories and enjoyed everything here.
Thirty-plus years later is he a satisfied, contented man after all his lifetime achievements?
A reformer can never be either satisfied or contented – this is what he said to me. He is not satisfied, since the process that he began has, at least for now, stopped, and reversed in some cases. But on the other hand he knows he has not lived in vain, because regardless of imperfections he at least let free the spirit of freedom to fly across the world without global conflict and bloodshed. But how people use their freedom is not his responsibility.
Who does he and admire in the political world today?
Earlier he liked former French president Mitterrand. I don’t know about present-day ones
What is Gorbachev’s final message to the world?
Let it not be me to answer this question