February in Moscow was generally, along with November, the dreariest month of the year. Dark and gloomy, the days were still short, and the black ice underfoot on Moscow’s ungroomed sidewalks increasingly treacherous. But inside the Canadian Embassy in Moscow, the beginning of February saw a flurry of activity. The Minister, Barbara MacDougall, was coming on a visit, which was to be the precursor for a visit by the Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, later in the spring. Canada–Russia relations were in a very positive space. For reasons no one could really understand Boris Yeltsin and Brian Mulroney had hit it off on a personal level. Both were gregarious and retail politicians by nature, but the resemblance pretty much ended there. But no matter. The Minister was coming and, in a reflection of the good relations between the two countries, had been offered the opportunity to deliver a lecture to be followed by a reception at the highly prestigious State Institute of International Relations, known by its Russian acronym GUMO.
Responsibility for the event was split between the Embassy, where I was in overall charge of the visit, and the Canada desk in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Issuing the invitations for the Minister’s speech followed by a reception was to be split between the two with the Embassy taking care of the diplomatic corps and the small but growing community of resident Canadian business people. The Canada desk would invite senior Russian officials engaged in relations with Canada, key academics, and the heads of the various foundations sprouting up in Moscow. A mistake was made. Mikhail Gorbachev, head of his own foundation, was invited. Accusations were lobbied that this had been an error on “the Canadian side”. The accusations were rebuffed, but it was clear that Gorbachev could not be uninvited. And his office quickly accepted on his behalf. In his state of near purgatory he did not receive all that many invitations it would seem, and he also had good memories of Canada, it being one of the first foreign countries he had visited as a member of the Politburo with responsibility for agriculture.
On the day of the Minister’s speech and reception, February 5, Gorbachev’s office called. He would regrettably not be able to attend the speech but would be present for the reception. What time was the reception expected to start? I provided my best estimate.
That evening at GUMO guests were welcomed and invited to take their seats in the auditorium where the Minister would speak at a podium with a large painting of Vladimir Lenin directly behind her. No money had been spent on interior decoration since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Just as she started to speak I received an urgent message. Mr. Gorbachev would be arriving early. For reasons that were a bit hard to understand, he was still allowed to use the special express lanes going to and from the Kremlin on the main thoroughfares and reserved for senior members of the government. So he had made excellent time. He would not go into the auditorium and interrupt the Minister’s speech, but perhaps he could wait somewhere quietly and then join the reception? Quick decisions were made. I would look after Mr. Gorbachev and we would wait in the Institute’s library, which was located in the basement. Barely a minute went by and there was a whoosh of the door letting in a blast of cold air. Accompanied only by his long-time aide and translator, Pavel Pavlichenko, Gorbachev came quickly up the stairs, exuding energy and vivacity. I introduced myself and motioned him into the library. There two doughty women, of the kind known in Soviet times as dezhurnaya, were waiting to greet him. Once introductions had been completed Gorbachev remarked, “You know, I have actually never been here before. As a student I applied for admission to the Institute, but I was turned down. But Raisa and I used to walk by it regularly, as we lived nearby and I would pass it on my way to the gym. The gym had exercise machines, particularly a rowing machine, which I enjoyed using.” One of the Russian women moved her arms as if she were steering a row boat, and asked, “How did it work?” “I’ll show you,” he replied. In seconds he was on the floor demonstrating, bent knees moving back and forth in co-ordination with his arms. He kept it up for nearly a minute and then bounced to his feet.
Turning to one of the two Russian women, he asked if they worked in the library. On her affirmative reply he asked what kind of books and other items were available. Puffing herself up visibly she responded proudly, “We have every issue of Pravda since No. 1.” “You know”, said Gorbachev, “I read Pravda every day for years and years and years until I left government. But there was so much I didn’t read.” He then described the book club he and his family had set up at their dacha and the classics of literature and some non-fiction they were reading in Russian translation and then discussing. As quickly as he had discussed his reading habits, he turned to me and asked, leaning in closely, what were the principal themes of the Minister’s speech? This was a question to which I knew the answer as I had worked on multiple drafts. Somewhere in the middle of my second sentence I realized with whom I was speaking and tripped up over my words. I apologized and went back to the beginning of the sentence I had made a hash of. Gorbachev leaned forward and looked at me intently, “At least you speak more than one language”, he said. At that moment a round of applause started above us, and the Minister’s speech had clearly ended. “I guess it’s time to go”, he said thanking us as he turned to leave the library. I escorted him up the stairs to where the reception was to be held and brought him to the Minister’s side. Once introductions had been made I was no longer needed. I turned to take up my charge of greeting other guests. including the officers from the Canada Desk of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all the while wondering about missed opportunities and the fickle hand of fate.