While checking in at Philadelphia Airport for the flight back to the UK I picked up a freebie copy of last Sunday’s Financial Times. The colour magazine is usually a good read. This time it was.

Twenty years ago (18 August 1991 to be precise) Mikhail Gorbachev was on holiday on the Black Sea coast of the Crimea when some old-guard Communists launched a coup aimed at preserving the USSR. Despite lots of inquiries and autobiographies, there are still a number of unanswered questions about what really happened and what the role of Gorbachev actually was. Was he held under house arrest or was he simply waiting to see which side would win before declaring his hand? As it happened, the coup failed, the USSR folded, Boris Yeltsin came to power and Gorbachev went down in history as the man who ended Communist tyranny and opened up the ‘Evil Empire’ to the fresh air of democracy.

The article in the FT magazine (by Charles Clover) describes events well – despite making the rather odd observation that the eight Party bosses and generals who launched the coup had “formed a state emergency committee, known by it’s clumsy Russian initials ‘GKChP’, to take temporary control of the Soviet Union.” Why are these initials ‘clumsy’? Not in Russian they aren’t. It’s a bit like a Russian suggesting that CIA is ‘a bit weird’ or MI5 ‘oddly English’.

Anyway, reading the article reminded me of a conversation I had a couple of years ago over dinner with the former Chairman of the Senate of Kazakhstan (effectively the Vice-President). It was in the margins of a meeting of the Secretariat of an interfaith conference. I don’t often meet people who knew people who shaped that part of history, so – nothing ventured, nothing gained – I decided to ask the question that really puzzled me: why is Gorbachev revered in the West, yet Yeltsin- a drunkard and a buffoon – revered in Russia? I suggested that Gorbachev re-shaped history, but Yeltsin was an opportunistic joke, normally laughed at in the West because of his behaviour when ‘under the influence’.

The answer surprised me. ‘You are judging like a westerner. In Russia a man who can drink and hold his drink is respected; the weak man who gave away an empire is not.’ Or words to that effect. Apparently, I was misreading the culture. What I saw as weakness was seen ‘domestically’ as strength; what I saw as strength (from the outside) was derided as weakness at home.

It reminded me that we can only understand ‘the other’ when we learn to look though his/her eyes and see how the world looks through that cultural or linguistic lens.

It also helps explain how and why Vladimir Putin maintains such popularity inside Russia: the strong man who restored pride to Russia and flexed his muscles internationally in a way that most Russians thought they would never see again. It wasn’t for nothing that he allowed himself to be photographed half naked with a gun in the wilds of Russia.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Somewhere over the Atlantic

It has been fascinating listening (in the car on the drive from London to Liverpool) to all the stuff on Germany 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I did a 30 minute slot on a radio station this morning and was interested to listen to the memories of Germans from the east and west of that surprising and momentous day two decades ago.

GorbachevBut, amid all the memories, it has brought to my mind a different event.

Last year I was in Astana, Kazakhstan, for a conference and was seated at dinner one evening with the Chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Tokayev is a very fluent English speaker and a politician of broad experience. I think there were seven or eight of us around the table and the conversation ranged widely over all sorts of political matters. Being a little opportunistic, I thought I’d grab the chance to ask questions I could never ask anyone else: Tokayev knew Gorbachev and Yeltsin and worked closely with both of them.

YeltsinI asked him why it was that Gorbachev is seen in the West as a great hero – the one who liberated the East and ended the Cold War – and Yeltsin is seen as an egotistic drunk who was an embarrassment to everyone who saw him. His response surprised me. He said that Gorbachev was a loser (my word) who sanctioned a massacre in Kazakhstan only several years before Glasnost kicked in and then oversaw the collapse of an empire; Yeltsin, on the other hand, was admired for his strength, political ability and his drinking. Apparently, in Russia a man who can hold huge quantities of alcohol is revered rather than resented.

This made me realise again that it is too easy to assume that everybody sees the world through the same lens. The way we judge ‘strength’ in the West might be totally different from how it is viewed in the East. It was fascinating listening to Tokayev telling stories of people who are legendary in my world, but for very different reasons and from very different perspectives.

It is a similar story in Germany today. Ostalgia (as it is being called) refers to the sort of romantic memories of the old German Democratic Republic. The world of the Berlin Wall was easier to understand: east and west, capitalist and communist, etc. But there were things of value in the east: universal health care, full employment (even though much of the work was not great), cheap travel, good education, etc. One German commentator I heard this morning noted that ‘you cannot put a price on freedom’, but that freedom comes at a price: freedom to fail, to be unemployed, to lose, to be poor, and so on.

The events of this night 20 years ago remind me that freedom must never be romanticised – but it must be highly valued. The fall of the Wall brought losses as well as gains. But life is like that. Isn’t it?