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.