IIn my entire life, no one has had an impact on the world like Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on August 30 at the age of 91, I did. Although Vladimir Putin will try to pull down the digital blinds, the pulling back of the Iron Curtain is right up there with Neil Armstrong walking on the moon as the most inspiring events I’ve ever witnessed on television. But unlike the moon, the world Mikhail Gorbachev landed on was one I walked on myself. Two epochal events: one signals the human ambition to challenge the limits of where we might live; the other redrawing the boundaries
from where we actually live.
For a quarter of a century, my wife Ali has worked with an Irish NGO, International Organization for the Children of Chernobyl. Along with other Irish volunteers, Ali makes regular trips to the region; on one such trip she met Anna, one of several thousand children brought to Ireland for surgical procedures. Anna was adopted by a family in Cork and became Ali’s godmother. And as the universe would have it, Anna was with us one weekend in 2002 when Gorbachev stopped by. Anna was born with severe physical disabilities due to her parents’ radiation poisoning, after nuclear accident in Chernobyl. When she entered the room where the great man was sitting, we felt the poignancy of this unexpected meeting.
A drawing of Mikhail Gorbachev that Bono sent to the former Soviet president as a birthday card on his 90th birthday
Gorbachev’s voice dropped to a murmur as he explained that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 had convinced him that the Soviet Union could not continue as it was: “I thought, if the state cannot control a nuclear power plant of such importance, then the state no longer functions as a state. The state is kaput… When we see the devastation that the splitting of an atom can cause, then it is untenable; this can never be acceptable. The Soviet Union was no longer viable; it must find a new path—a path that must include rapprochement with the West.
So this was the moment when Mikhail Gorbachev changed his own history and ours. We discover that history does not have to shape us. The world is more flexible than we imagine, and things don’t have to be the way they are. History is clay and can be kicked or punched, fenced or even stroked, into a whole new shape.
This piece was adapted from Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, to be released November 1 by Knopf.
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