I missed meeting Mikhail Gorbachev four years ago, at a centenary conference of the Nobel Peace Foundation in Oslo, which matched a selection of Nobel Peace Prize winners with a selection of academics. I had accepted the invitation because he was going to be there, but he didn’t show up, and my opposite number turned out to be Kim Dae Jung of South Korea, an admirable figure no doubt, but not the man who did more single-handedly to save the world from the danger of nuclear war than anyone. And who, single-handed, ensured that the transition in the USSR and the Soviet empire did not end in a bloodbath, as it did in Yugoslavia.

This year I was luckier. The World Political Forum (President: M.S. Gorbachev) sent an invitation from Turin to take part in a general assembly on ‘1985-2005: Twenty Years that Changed the World’, to commemorate the moment when, having succeeded to the leadership of the USSR, Gorbachev launched his peace offensive at the world and perestroika at his own country. I jumped at it. It was a fan’s chance to pay tribute to a hero, even a tragic hero.

Why Turin? Why not? Turin has more historical affinity with Gorbachev’s project than Davos, with its World Economic Forum, has with a get-together of triumphant capitalists. It is, after all, the city of Gramsci and Togliatti, birthplace both of the Italian Communist Party, whose policy inspired the pre-perestroika Gorbachev, and of fighting liberals like the distinguished and admirable Franco Venturi, partisan commander and historian of the European Enlightenment and of Russian Populism. Severe and intellectually serious, no Italian city has a better record of anti-Fascism, even among its big businessmen. It also has a Jewish community of considerable repute.

Turin is a city I have always liked, in spite of its taste for the architectural styles of princely 19th-century national and early industrial pomposity. Unlike Milan, it has not lost its cohesion, or its organic links with the surrounding mountains. It has a genuine academic milieu and an Academy of Sciences which once had Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, as its honorary president. I first went there in its period of glory when it was both the Italian Detroit under the royal Gianni Agnelli (the ‘Avvocato’) and the powerhouse of Italian intellectual and literary distinction under the equally royal but financially very much rockier Giulio Einaudi, son of the man who became the first president of Italy. His was the most prestigious publishing house in the country (Pavese, Calvino, Vittorini, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, not to mention Gramsci), and, for a couple of decades after the war, probably the finest in the world. He would take (under-royaltied) authors like me to dinner at the opulent Cambio restaurant, unchanged since Cavour had planned the transformation of the Kingdom of Savoy into the Kingdom of Italy at its tables. In the last war every member of the firm, Einaudi claimed, had joined the armed resistance. I was touched to see that even in 2005 the invitation to the Gorbachev conference was signed by someone writing under his letterhead.

Those days are gone. Both Giulio and the ‘Avvocato’ (to whose death La Repubblica devoted no fewer than eight pages) are dead. The end of Fordism has lost the city a quarter of its population, the end of Communism has brought the Albanians and Romanians. Fiat, its labour force cut from 60,000 to 15,000, is struggling; I am told the Chinese are considering an offer. The old Lingotto assembly line is a display space for book fairs. The last time I was there, British Airways, its eye firmly on the business-class executive, had given up direct flights from London, leaving the route to Ryanair, but this year they were competing again with the cheapo carriers at the beautiful airport, chaotic with skiing tour parties. Turin is not what it was, except for Juventus and the wonderful circle of the Alps that surrounds it. Will even Juventus keep its supremacy without the dead Agnelli’s backing? The local economy is putting its money into next year’s Winter Olympics, which will, it hopes, revive its fortunes. And then, what about a future as a convention centre? The grandees of Turin and Piedmont who welcomed and sponsored us evidently regard an occasion that can attract 13 ex-presidents and ex-prime ministers, nine ex-foreign ministers, and a few flights full of diplomats and government insiders, as something that gives prestige.

I can recall no experience like it. Historians rarely find themselves in the presence of their subjects en masse, even today when TV gives us daily familiarity with the faces of national and world decision-makers. It is an unexpected sight, like visiting Madame Tussauds and finding that the wax models have been replaced by the originals. We shake their hands, we share the same tables at meals (well, not quite the same, since there is usually the equivalent of a high table for Mikhail Gorbachev and the real grandees), we can ask them questions to which they will give friendly but usually anodyne answers. The security is less obvious than in a museum.

Upwards of a hundred middle-aged and elderly men and the usual handful of women are sitting at one side of a long rectangle of tables, in the hall of a military academy in Victor Emmanuel baroque, looking at each other across a wide space and listening to simultaneous translations from and into the usual languages plus Polish (the Poles have sent two ex-presidents of very different views, and an ex-premier). At right angles to me, at the top table, I observe the shrunken, sharp-eyed Giulio Andreotti, seven times Italian prime minister between 1972 and 1992, the stiff-backed military figure of General (later President) Jaruzelski, who suppressed Solidarity and negotiated the end of Polish Communism, and Mikhail Gorbachev himself, amazingly well-preserved, handsome and affable, but looking smaller than he is next to his huge neighbour, Helmut Kohl, the longest-serving chancellor of the Germany he reunified in 1990. A place has been kept for ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was late in arriving from Brazil. Even a cynical old historian is impressed by such a line-up.

I find myself seated between Reagan’s National Security Adviser in 1981 and a French ex-spook, and opposite an anti-Sharon Israeli I talked to at lunch and who turns out to have been deputy head of Mossad in pre-Likud days. I also recognise a Czech apparition from a past I would like to forget: Rudolf Slansky junior, expelled from the Party for his part in the Prague Spring, later a Charter 77 protester. He even seems to me to look like his father, executed in 1952, the most prominent Communist victim in the last and most overtly anti-semitic of the show ‘trials’ of Stalin’s Eastern Europe. Somewhere along the table Lech Walesa is explaining that neither Russian policy nor Polish Communists had anything to do with Poland regaining independence: it was all due to Solidarity and the pope. (My neighbour, who had signed the cheques for the CIA’s Polish operations at the time, is unimpressed.) Walesa has the air of a Polish John Prescott, only bigger. He has not carried the last 25 years as well as the other Poles.

What is even stranger, I find myself in an assembly of political ghosts. Leaving aside the Chinese, who avoid public discussions, a surprising number of those who made the world-changing decisions of the 1980s are here. But those who run their countries today are absent. Nobody represents Putin’s Russia, Wolfowitz’s Washington, Schroeder’s Germany, or Blair’s Britain. Only the unchanging logic of French foreign policy provides continuity in Paris. There is a chasm between 1985 and 2005. Apart from the regional politicians of Turin and Piedmont and Italy’s minister of European affairs, silently representing Berlusconi, the only working member of a government here appears to be the former Soviet dissident Nathan Sharansky – now, alas, in Sharon’s cabinet. Even the Western backroom boys of the period have retired from politics, if not from business. The world changes of the past twenty years are being discussed by those who have been left behind by them. Of course an occasion such as this, designed to celebrate Gorbachev, is not the time when speakers go out of their way to make hard historical judgments about a man for whom almost all of them have a sincere admiration. But celebration is far from the mood of the meeting. It is hard to avoid the impression that not many of those in this hall, from East or West, feel happy either about what has happened in the former Communist states or to the international situation since Gorbachev’s fall.

Still, in spite of the worry about Bush’s America that unites this forum, there is a difference between those from the West and the East. Our systems continue. But for them this is essentially a gathering of what the heirs of the French Revolution used to call the ci-devant, and the heirs of the 1917 Russian Revolution the byvshie lyudi, the ‘former people’. Few of those present from the East had been long-time dissidents. Sakharov’s widow, Elena Bonner, stands out, as does Alexander Yakovlev, once Gorbachev’s closest ally, who now denounces everything about the Soviet era. Most are people with a lifetime of loyal and successful service to their regimes behind them, whose world has gone for ever. Nobody talks nostalgia, though the speeches of the former Yugoslavs hinted at it, but for many in this building, which will remind some of the settings of their own ancien régime, it is a sort of wake for a system in which they believed, and which has died, and for hope – even the lesser hope of reform – abandoned only reluctantly, if at all.

But what of the kibitzers, the experts and academics – mostly from the USA – who make up the numbers? The old Soviet hands among them are in their element: greeting old friends and sources, filling in gaps, defending their interpretations, swapping memories of Moscow and Warsaw. But the fall of Communism, though part of my life, is not ‘my field’; their scene is not mine. I am here merely as a historian who has written about the century through most of which he lived, who wants to understand it better, and who hopes to find that his own writings about it stand up in the presence of the people he wrote about.

In a way it is the question all historians ask themselves: does mere personal association with relics of the past throw light on the past, and if so how? It plainly does, but we do not know how. Almost always it is places we have in mind, not people. Topography speaks, even without people: a dry landscape in Brazil makes it easier to understand back-country evangelists, a minor hill-fort in mid-Wales the no-man’s-land of medieval marches. At times cities used to speak louder than words, and some still do: St Petersburg, for instance, or, until its gadarene post-Communist decline, Prague. Has the Turin meeting been an experience comparable to the one I recall, once upon a time, standing on a cold winter morning before the old unreconstructed Finland Station in Leningrad? Have I learned much more from the meeting than I might have done by reading books or attending a smaller and less grandiose colloquium on the last years of the Soviet era?

The answer to both questions is no. Is this because human beings grow old and obsolete more quickly? Is it because people in a social landscape are more perishable than buildings or rivers? Is it because, as every historian and journalist knows, nobody gets much from interviewing presidents and premiers? Much better to talk to the people paid to keep their eyes and ears open and who are used to gossip: journalists and intelligent diplomatic envoys. (Fortunately there were plenty of these.)

Still, I did not go to Turin expecting to learn that much more about perestroika but, like most of the rest of us, to pay our respects to an admirable, a remarkable, a good and honest man. If the historian in me was slightly disappointed, the fan of Mikhail Gorbachev was not. Was he a great man? I do not know. I doubt it. He was – he visibly continues to be – a man of integrity and good will whose actions had enormous consequences, for good and bad. I regard it as a privilege to be the contemporary of this man. Humanity is in his debt. All the same, if I were a Russian I would also think of him as the man who brought ruin to his country.

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