It was something of a shock to open up my daily Euronews link on 2 March to see an image of Mikhail Gorbachev on his 90th birthday. He's much stouter now, and apparently needs assistance in walking. It took me a moment or two to retrace the facial features we were so familiar with when he dominated international news headlines from 1985-91. Such a short period of time and yet how profound his impact.
The youngest Soviet leader we had ever known went out among ordinary people, actually smiling, chatting away, wearing his iconic soft trilby and raincoat – on other men the uniform of dark-spectacled, grim-faced KGB spies. This was billed as 'socialism with a human face'. Former Soviet leaders were never seen doing that. Kissing babies maybe, patting pretty little girls on the head, but not fraternising with crowds as one of them.
He was much admired in the West. The Cold War seemed over, John Lecarré's spy fiction to have had its day. Mrs Thatcher, not normally associated with socialist fellow-travelling, famously remarked on his visit to London in 1984, 'I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together'. He was later photographed with Ronald Reagan in ranch gear, complete with cowboy hat. He was nicknamed Gorby. One of our neighbour's grandchildren called a pair of frisky new kittens Glasnost and Perestroika. The latter was a bit of a mouthful to call home, but it represented how warmly Gorbachev was welcomed at the time.
The Soviet Union as such came to an end, but, as we all know, it didn't end well. A career in politics rarely does. Gorbachev tried to tackle the evils of alcohol consumption and failed. Chernobyl happened. He encouraged reformers, released dissidents like Andrei Sakharov. Progress towards changing hearts and minds was made. A nuclear disarmament treaty was signed. But he didn't improve the daily lives of ordinary people in the time he had. He thought it would be a matter of years. He was wrong. Hardliners weren't happy and pushed back. The old guard staged a coup. Boris Yeltsin was briefly a hero, but he drank too much. Now we have the distinctly chilly, and chilling, Vladimir Putin, who distrusts the West and doesn't believe in democracy.
Gorbachev hits his 10th decade, yet another example, perhaps, of the old adage of a prophet being not without honour, save in his own country. Which brings me to the past couple of weeks in Scotland. I watched two full days of the Holyrood inquiry. What a sad state of affairs. Slowly, but surely, we were making our way through this wretched pandemic, with all its frustrations and concerning consequences, not to mention the fallout from Brexit, when we were blindsided by this monumental waste of time and money. I would so like our country to be governed well, to feel comfortable in it and proud to be part of it, but this makes me unhappy.
Last time I wrote, I referred to the 'bearpit of politics'. It's got worse since. Who knows what will have happened between today as I write this and the day it is read. I was appalled by the actions of an organisation calling itself 'The Majority' arbitrarily setting up billboards in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen calling on the First Minister to resign, even chartering a helicopter trailing a banner with the same message. This is not the way to do things, and certainly not pending either the Holyrood committee report or the one into alleged breaches of the ministerial code.
The international press doesn't seem to have paid it much attention. It isn't important enough for the world stage. What strikes me forcibly is a sorry tale of one very wounded lion determined to roar his humiliation in public and bring whoever he can down with him, using every legal device possible to trip up and confound those he accuses of a malicious conspiracy against him.
Okay, 'the supreme court in the land', as Salmond was keen to emphasise, cleared him of criminal behaviour, despite his behaviour having been manifestly inappropriate. Another man might have been glad to walk away from that result in peace and with dignity. Instead, he chose to seek revenge, in particular on the woman he had groomed, politically, when she was very young, as his friend and protegée in the cause of Scottish independence. After his resignation in 2014 and the baton passed unopposed to her, he seems to have expected her to continue to refer, if not defer, to him. Instead, she chose to run her own show. When he tried to call in a favour, she refused. A massive blow to his ego.
When it comes to the law, sexual harassment is a thorny business. We know that few rape cases come to trial. Substantiating evidence is generally thin on the ground. That the complainants were let down is incontestable, though I thought some of the prosecution evidence during the criminal trial raised more questions than were answered. The old Hollywood casting couch meets Holyrood? But they are the ones who should be complaining now, not the former First Minister. Perhaps what constitutes criminal behaviour in this regard needs to be more clearly spelled out so that no future complainant can be upset by a flawed case. Maybe that is impossible. Frankly, powerful men should learn to keep their hands to themselves and in this day and age women colleagues should not feel pressurised into intimate compliance for the sake of their careers.
Mikhail Gorbachev was, like Alex Salmond, alleged to be difficult to work with – charismatic individuals often are – but he was never guilty of drunkenness or womanising. A point worth remembering. This may sound prissy, but as citizens and voters of whatever party, we have a right, do we not, to be governed by people, however clever and indeed charismatic, whose moral conduct is also above reproach?
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh