The news of the death of the last USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Tuesday got little attention outside of the former Soviet Bloc. Thirty-three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world has moved on. But for a generation of us growing up behind the Iron Curtain, he changed the course of our lives and allowed us to pursue careers we never thought possible.
When you type Gorbachev’s name into Google, the search engine’s top suggestion is “Gorbachev Pizza Hut,” a reference to the famous 1998 TV commercial featuring the politician who became the first and only President of the Soviet Union.
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In it, he and a little girl walk into a restaurant and share a pizza. As older and younger patrons recognize him, they begin to debate in Russian, with an older man arguing that because of Gorbachev, there is economic turmoil and political instability, and the younger one countering that because of him they have opportunity and freedom. Ultimately, an elderly woman chimes in, saying, “Because of him we have many things — like Pizza Hut.”
Ironically, the ad encapsulates the complicated legacy of Gorbachev, whose policy of “glasnost” replaced propaganda with freedom of the press. But his commitment to socialism, which he thought could be saved by “perestroika,” and some indecisiveness in the face of stiff internal opposition left the door open to the rise of nationalism and the return of authoritarianism that culminated with the current war in Ukraine.
And yes, Gorbachev’s reforms also brought fast-food chains to Eastern Europe. It was a big deal, with families putting on their Sunday bests for a visit to McDonald’s, which was treated like a dinner at a Michelin star restaurant in the early years of democracy.
The introduction of unhealthy food choices aside, the “glasnost” and “perestroika” ushered in under Gorbachev in communist countries like my native Bulgaria did change the lives of my “lost in the transition” generation for the better. Encouraged by the prospects for free press, I added a journalism major to my theoretical physics one. The doors to the West opened figuratively and literally, with Western culture able to travel east freely, and Eastern bloc citizens able to travel freely to the West for the first time, allowing me to come to the U.S.
And most importantly, censorship, which had been stifling artistic expression and criticism of the communist regime, was starting to dissipate. One of the first symbols of that was Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance. Made by the Georgian director in 1983-84, it had been shelved and banned by the regime in the then-Soviet republic. Fearful that his film would be destroyed, Abuladze reportedly kept the only remaining copy under his bed.
In the new political climate initiated by Gorbachev — and reportedly with encouragement from the then-Soviet Foreign Minister, Georgian Eduard Shevardnadze — Repentance was released in 1987, first in Georgia and then across the Soviet Union, where it drew record audiences and became the flagship film of the “glasnost” movement.
The movie, which relies heavily on visual allegories and metaphors, is built around the trial of a woman who keeps digging up the corpse of her small town’s mayor, Varlam, because she believes he does not deserve a burial as he was responsible for a Stalin-like regime of terror that led the disappearance of her parents and friends. (You can watch a trailer below.)
The film won several awards at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Golden Globe. Despite its release in the Soviet Union, many Soviet Bloc regimes did not allow the movie in their countries as they saw the parallels to their own atrocities. East German papers famously ran editorials denouncing Repentance despite it not being shown there after West Germany’s ZDF broadcast it in October 1987 and the film started spreading like wildfire into the East via underground channels.
As the grip of Eastern Europe’s communist leaders began loosening, leading to the regimes’ 1989 fall – along with the destruction of the Berlin Wall – Repentance officially was released across the region and quickly became required viewing, emboldening people to speak up – and act. As we were watching and rewatching the movie, its last line became an instant classic.
In the final scene, an old woman asks a woman in a window whether the road she is on leads to the House of God. She is told that the road is Varlam Street and does not lead to the church. The old woman then replies, looking both bewildered and disappointed, “What good a road is if it doesn’t lead to the House of God?”
The line became a symbol of the wrong direction communism took our countries — and their people — for so many decades; it is still being used in political speeches and editorials in Bulgaria.
So, as we assess the mixed legacy of Gorbachev, for everything he got wrong, he did help make a course correction for Eastern Europe, which got on the road that leads to democracy. And Starbucks and McDonald’s on every corner.
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