In honor of Gorbachev, who carried my suitcase 2
Mikhail Gorbachev. Photo by Sergei Karpukhin/REUTERS

How Gorbachev changed Russian culture, and carried my suitcase

The Russian cultural scene owes its diversity and ability to survive to the perestroika period, writes DW editor Anastassia Boutsko, who recalls a very special tale.
Deutsche Welle | Sep 02 2022

At the end of March 2008, when I was in advanced pregnancy, I flew from Frankfurt to Moscow. There was no way around it as I had long before committed to working on a film on the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. The Berliners were to play on May 1 of that year in Moscow; Russia was still European enough at the time.

My stomach was as massive and heavy as my suitcase, which I dragged up the stairs to the plane. "Davayte, let me help," said an older male voice behind me. Without thinking much about it, I passed on the suitcase and climbed the last few steps.

At the entrance of the plane, the whole crew was standing at attention: the captain, the second captain, all the flight attendants. Why? Was it for me? I wondered, a bit unsettled, even though I knew Lufthansa Airlines allowed me to fly at this stage of my pregnancy.

But then I heard: " Mr. Gorbachev , it is an honor for us to welcome you on board," the captain saluted. I turned around — and lo and behold, recognized my porter, it was the last leader of the Soviet Union, where I was born.


Unpopular reformer

"Well, that reconciles me with him to some extent," my father said when I arrived in Moscow and told him about the bizarre encounter. Like most of his social class and generation (a composer, born in 1938), he shared the displeasure, even an aversion, towards Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

They resented everything Gorbachev did: His alleged distance to culture (he indeed was not an avid theater and concert-goer), his unheroic appearance, his South Russian dialect, which was considered uncultivated.

Even his battle against alcohol consumption won him no friends, neither among the workers and peasants, nor in the intelligentsia. Instead, in that arena, the charismatic drunk and first Russian president Boris Yeltsin drew far more sympathy points.

DW culture editor Anastassia Boutsko
DW culture editor Anastassia Boutsko

And, in any case: a Communist apparatchik as a freedom bringer? People did not want to believe and accept that. Instead, people wanted to think that it happened to Gorbachev "by mistake" — just as they did about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany.

It is also a fact that the dawn of glasnost and perestroika brought not only freedom for many cultural creators, but also the collapse of their own laboriously built little world as well as economic ruin. Wages and salaries dropped dramatically; savings were eaten up by rapid inflation. The theaters had no money for new productions; the film industry lay fallow; the concert business hardly functioned anymore.

So, as an artist, the relatively well-to-do Soviet citizen with a dissident attitude, one was degraded to being a loser who could not feed his family. Depression became commonplace; a wave of suicides washed through cultural circles.

The situation in the cultural capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, was bad enough, but it was even more dramatic in the provinces. There, the cultural industry practically came to a standstill — for years, if not decades.


Freedom and its price

On the other hand, they had it now — the freedom they longed for.

A stream of books flooded the country. Everything that had been forbidden or was barely legible, authors like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, Zinoviev and Zamyatin, Shukshin and Voinovich — everything was suddenly, readily available to buy. In 1988, censorship was officially abolished. "The Gulag Archipelago" and "Doctor Zhivago" prominently displayed at check-out counters — who would have imagined it?!

When the books could not be printed fast enough, literary magazines helped out. The sales of "Novy Mir," "Znamya" and "Yunost" skyrocketed.

Previously forbidden manifestations of Western culture also sprung up like mushrooms. "Video salons" were created, private mini-cinemas in which Hollywood movies were screened on VHS cassettes in terrible quality. And the music of German band Modern Talking also drifted out from kids' rooms — much to the dismay of parents.

He was popular in Germany: Gorbachev in June 1989 on the balcony of the Alten Rathaus in Bonn
He was popular in Germany: Gorbachev in June 1989 on the balcony of the Alten Rathaus in Bonn

We're the kids of perestroika

What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, so the saying goes. Russian culture also recovered and flourished in the 1990s.

Gorbachev was no longer president; the Soviet Union had disappeared.

New authors such as Pelevin, Yerofeyev and Parshchikov emerged from the troubled ocean of Russian literature.

The visual arts, long isolated, were connected to the rest of the world.

New exhibition platforms — such as the Ludwig Museum branch in St. Petersburg —  were created and provided impressive spaces for presenting contemporary art to the public, after having been long hidden away in cellars and back rooms.

The alternative scene flourished; the new Russian film industry also regenerated itself and reflected the upheaval in the country from the mid-1990s onwards.

Russia was given just two decades of freedom. The extent of Gorbachev's reforms can only truly be appreciated in contrast to the severe restrictions on freedom in today's Russia. His death feels like the extinguishing of the last ray of hope, as the onset of eternal darkness.

Oh, right...My suitcase?! A colleague said I should auction it off. But I prefer to keep it — as a souvenir of the last president of my country, who simply boarded a plane and flew from Frankfurt to Moscow without any security guards or sharpshooters whatsoever.

This article was originally written in German.