WASHINGTON -- Five years ago, I met and talked for some time with Mikhail Gorbachev on a beautiful island just outside Venice. He had grown dour and paunchy then, changed from the upright man who helped Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush overthrow communism in the 1980s.
He didn't smile for three days during the conference we were attending, and when I asked him about democracy in Russia, he simply said that it would take time, as with any country, to develop a true working democracy. Then he sank back into his gloom.
It was no surprise that the remarkable, if moody man just about everyone called "Gorby" should be in Venice. It was an environmental meeting of his Gorbachev Foundation, and we were studying the amazingly effective ways the ancient commercial city of Marco Polo was dealing with its periodic flooding.
Nor was it surprising that the former Russian president, the man who almost single-handedly reformed Russia with glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), was not in a good mood. In fact, since overseeing the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, his popularity among Russians had sunk to a mere 2 percent, and he smiled less and less often. Then his wife died.
And, lest you think only Job had it bad in life, Gorbachev was forced by history to watch Boris Yeltsin, a man of good intention, but an alcoholic who would send soldiers into wars in Chechnya when he was drunk, succeed him.
Unfortunately, American universities and NGOs, also of good intentions, backed a Yeltsin program of giving chits of ownership to the workers in Russian state factories, which were being dissolved. No one seemed to realize individual Russians could not sustain these tiny portions of ownership, and they were immediately bought up by scavengers who formed the basis of Russia's new gangster capitalism.
For his part, President Yeltsin, growing sick and tired, unexpectedly handed the government over to Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent in East Germany who had carefully observed the West from his perch in East Berlin. From then on, the government line hardened and the Putin government soon became known as the "security administration." Which it was.
Through all this time, Gorby was never persecuted by these governments, but neither was he wooed by them, for advice or help. His voice was silenced. The people blamed him for destroying the communist state, their country. Nobody read his ideas anymore. He traveled to Berlin several years ago and had a gala time, but he was the guest of the West -- being feted for giving them Berlin.
Russians saw him as a failure or a traitor. From one day to another under him, Russia went from being a feared major power to a pitiable failed state. One would not be out of line to think that Gorbachev's day had darkened and the short time he had had was over.
And then ...
This winter, on his sickbed and perhaps his deathbed, the 82-year-old man Russia forgot left his hospital room in Moscow to give a daring political address at RIA-Novosti, the Russian national information agency. And did he do it this time!
He started out attacking Putin, saying that in Russia, "politics is increasingly turning into imitation democracy. All power is in the hands of the executive branch, the president. Parliament only rubber-stamps his decisions. The judicial system is not independent." With oil and gas at the center of the monopolized economy, he continued, corruption has become "colossal."
Obviously enthused and awakened by the recent massive protests by the young in Moscow against Putin and his oligarchs who own the economy, Gorby accused the government of "manipulation, the purpose of which was self-preservation at any price," and warned "the problems of the country are not going away, and if all remains the same, they will escalate."
The government was trying to manage democracy from above, but it could not. Real democratic competition between parties cannot be managed. But, "to go further on the path of 'tightening the screws,' having laws that limit the rights and freedoms of people, attacking the news media and organizations of civil society, is a destructive path with no future."
Finally -- amazingly -- Gorbachev made it clear that he was proud of his role in the liberation.
"When people accuse me of having given away Eastern Europe," he said, "I answer, to whom? Poland -- to the Poles. Czechoslovakia -- to the Czechs and Slovaks. Hungary -- to the Hungarians."
Perhaps the extraordinary response to these words came because he had come from his sickbed to deliver them to a troubled Russia ready to hear them. Perhaps it was because Russians have been so disappointed in all the "saviors" who came after him and only sold out the country to a handful of oligarchs. Perhaps they finally realized that he had only tried to connect them to the free world so that they could be free.
President Putin simply seems to be overseeing a security state, where individuals have no rights, where the wealth is controlled entirely by the oligarchs and where Putin's pals make the laws. Gorbachev may be just what those young protesters needed to see in flesh and blood.
Mikhail Gorbachev, at his end, is again the man he was for those short hours so long ago. He leaves a legacy and a lesson for everyone: Your chances for nobility are never over.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)