Meeting Gorbachev is a worthwhile documentary that can hopefully penetrate the now-once-again-deepening fog of Russophobia that has overpowered the US outlook toward Russia for over a century now.
Mikhail Gorbachev should be considered the most influential figure of the latter 20th century. He rose to the title of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 and played the primary role in ending the Cold War, reforming (and unwittingly abolishing) the Soviet Union and massively reducing world nuclear weapon stockpiles. His most stunning action—for which he deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize—involved the unilateral withdrawal of Red Army troops from the German Democratic Republic (what most people in the US call “East Germany”). This was an unprecedented action that broke the Cold War mold of tit-for-tat between the US and the USSR; in Germany, Gorbachev instead made a military maneuver that was viewed by most as deleterious to Soviet foreign policy interests without even seeking a similar move by the US. He acted alone and in the name of peace.
Meeting Gorbachev, fittingly, is made by Werner Herzog (and his frequent collaborator Andre Singer), himself a German and a beneficiary of the former Soviet leader’s most beneficent act. Herzog points this out in the film, which consists of three interviews between the filmmaker and the aging ex-General Secretary paired with biographical narration by Herzog following Gorbachev’s life from his peasant birth to his post-resignation life. The director tells Gorbachev that while he may be beloved in most of the world—notably not in the US, which has never truly celebrated a Russian or any Russian accomplishments—it is in Germany that he is most celebrated for his role in the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent reunification of Germany.
Overall, Meeting Gorbachev is a straightforward exploration of the life of this most extraordinary man, whose singular vision of reformism and open-mindedness led to the one of the most momentous and unexpected twists in recent world history. No one—not even Gorbachev—could have foreseen the nearly-immediate consequences of glasnost and perestroika and the film does a good job of capturing that. It also provides something of a slice of Soviet life portrait in tracing Gorbachev’s childhood in the years immediately following the Great Patriotic War (what Russians call World War II), which is both inherently interesting as well as quite novel for US audiences.
The film is more of a survey of Gorbachev’s life and times, rarely going deep on a subject. This is often disappointing; Herzog has the unique privilege of interviewing him and does the viewer a disservice by not asking more difficult or detailed questions. Even in discussing Gorbachev’s most obviously positive moments—such as withdrawing the Soviet forces from East Germany—Herzog only goes skin deep. When it comes to Gorbachev’s darker decisions, such as sending the tanks into Lithuania in January 1991—leading to what Lithuanians call “Bloody Sunday,” when 11 nonviolent activists were killed—Meeting Gorbachev is not too soft but rather completely silent. It is never mentioned. A more detailed approach to these seminal, world-historical events would have only made the film that much more engaging and informative.
As it stands, Meeting Gorbachev is a worthwhile documentary that can hopefully penetrate the now-once-again-deepening fog of Russophobia that has overpowered the US outlook toward Russia for over a century now. One moment that stands out in particular is especially poignant in emphasizing how US viewers can benefit from a shift in perspective: when asked about the end of the Cold War, Gorbachev insists that US-Americans are wrong to claim that they won while the Russians lost, because for him it is clear that everyone won the Cold War. We all won, he tells Herzog: no one lives in ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation any longer and no nuclear weapons were deployed.