Conversations with a companion

 

Unfortunately, I never got to know Mikhail Gorbachev personally. Through a private friendship with one of his closest advisors, Prof. Jury Andreyevich Ossipian, I was nevertheless able to learn in many conversations about the ideas that Gorbachev had as the basis for his political goals.


Prof. Ossipian was a physicist with his own institute for solid state physics near Moscow. He was Vice-President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and, as Presidential Councillor, scientific advisor to Gorbachev. After his election as President of the Russia-Germany Society, he had expressed the wish to come to Bavaria for a fortnight with his wife Ludmilla. As I was a contractual partner of Intourist Moscow at that time with my travel company and, moreover, as Vice-President of the Society Russia - Germany (which lives on today as the "Bavarian Eastern Society"), I was asked to invite Prof. Osipian for this visit to Bavaria.


At first I did not know what role Prof. Ossipian played in the Soviet Union. On the evening of his arrival, my wife and I invited the Ossipian couple and my parents to dinner at the Seehaus restaurant. It was a lovely evening, the beer garden was well attended. Prof. Ossipian visibly liked it, he said to his wife: "Raissa and Mikhail would like that too". This was a first clue for me. When I came back to Moscow shortly afterwards, its significance became clear. I was picked up directly at the plane by a state limousine and driven with blue lights and siren on the then reserved "politics lane" to the centre of Moscow.


In many private conversations we discussed the new direction of Soviet policy. Glasnost and perestroika were the "magic words" that ushered in change. However, and Prof. Ossipian agreed with me, practically nothing was known about the economic processes. State consumption - military, secret service, many social benefits - ate up most of the gross national product. Nor was it clear from what source the state finances came. A flat tax of 7% was withheld from wages. Wages at that time were in the low three-digit rouble range.


One of Gorbachev's first measures was the anti-alcohol campaign. As usual, the evil was eradicated by the root: Vines were destroyed, bottle factories destroyed. But the biggest problem soon became apparent: alcohol tax was one of the most important sources of income for the state. But one could not fall back on the supposedly existing gold reserve either. This had been used by Brezhnev to appease the discontent of the population with consumer goods bought abroad. At the end of the Brezhnev era, there were allegedly only two tonnes of gold left in the vaults out of the original 2,000 tonnes.


Moreover, for years (and decades) there had been a failure to invest in modernising industry. In Moscow, for example, bread was still baked in the 1980s with German ovens that had been manufactured in the mid-1920s. Prof. Osipian often complained about the fact that the most modern technology could not be procured because of the Western policy of restrictions. At the time, I suggested that we try using second-hand machines, which could be used in the same way, but required more manpower. My argument was also that this would also make the work processes comprehensible.


At the end of the 1980s, it became increasingly clear that the Soviet Union could no longer keep up with the Western countries. Consolidation seemed only possible through a more liberal approach to the treatment of the socialist satellite states. Internally, however, there was already great resistance at that time. Hardliners in the nomenclature saw their influence dwindling and tried to save their influence.

 

I had an interesting conversation with Prof. Osipian about this. I told him that the opinion in the West is that if the Secretary General pulls a string, the walls in Vladivostok will shake. The answer was a loud laugh. Astonished, I asked why. Yes, he said, that was exactly what I was talking about with Mikhail two days ago. The result was: "We don't know either". Even then, there were cross-connections and networks on many levels that no one really saw through. The KGB was always involved, of course.


Originally, Gorbachev did not want a change of system; he had set out to make the system more humane and open - as Dubcek tried to do in the Prague Spring of 1968. Only in the course of time did he realise that this feudal system could not be reformed. By giving up rule over the states in Eastern Europe that were striving for freedom, he tried to bring about change in his own state as well. This did not succeed; in 1991, parts of the armed forces, the KGB and the armed forces of the Ministry of the Interior staged a coup. Yeltsin ended this coup with his courageous appearance before the White House in Moscow. However, this was then also the beginning of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.


In the mid-1990s, I met Prof. Osipian again during a visit to Moscow. We agreed at that time that Mikhail Gorbachev would go down in history as the preserver of world peace, the bringer of freedom to Europe, but the destroyer of the Soviet Union.


Many states in Europe owe their freedom to Mikhail Gorbachev, and Germany was reunited with his help. We bow before a great statesman.

 

Hermann Pönisch

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