Kyiv, Ukraine – Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms began when I was 10, and I saw their course as part of my teenage transformations.
What made me an adult killed the USSR, the country I was born in and used to be proud of. I hated Gorbachev for that – because he destroyed my home and hopes, annulled my parents’ careers and life’s savings.
In the West, they lovingly called him “Gorby“. But most of the adults around me – who found themselves disillusioned and destitute, clinging to the smouldering ruins of the Communist dystopia – called him “Gorbach”, a humpback.
It took me decades to realise that Gorbachev gave me and almost 300 million Soviet citizens freedom – to say, write, watch, read and believe in what we want; to choose a career or a place to live in, to travel abroad – and not to be brainwashed by boring, mind-numbing propaganda.
As it turns out, most of us did not deserve this freedom, because it has to be fought for and won. That’s what Ukraine is doing these days, and that’s what most Russians are too scared or complacent to stand up for.
Back in 1985, when Gorby took the helm, I was a primary school kid in Soviet Uzbekistan and was in charge of Vladimir Lenin’s “corner” in my classroom.
It was a dozen booklets describing the Soviet founder’s exemplary childhood and lifelong struggle to create a Communist utopia, the most just and advanced society in human history.
I was proud of living in it, genuinely hated America and its top-hat-wearing capitalists, and was very scared of a nuclear war.
I had nightmares and calculated whether my little town outside the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, would survive the nuclear mushroom. The town hosted a nuclear research facility that was, most likely, supposed to be hit by a separate bomb.
My three dozen classmates and I were told there was no God, but we treated Lenin like one. We were also told that we lived in the era of “developed socialism”, and that getting to real Communism would only take a couple more decades.
We didn’t realise that our ethnic diversity stemmed from deportations and purges.
Next to me were Crimean Tatars and Greeks, Volga Germans and Koreans whose ethnic groups were deported to Central Asia en masse for their alleged “collaboration” with Nazi Germans or their Japanese allies.
Ethnic Uzbek, Armenian and Ukrainian children in my class studied in Russian because their parents wanted them to have a future in the Russo-centric world.
Most of the Uzbeks had Quranic names – but everything related to religion was banned.
I began my journalistic career when our primary school teacher asked me to deliver 10 minutes of weekly “political information” sessions for the class.
I started watching news shows, reading newspapers – and retelling my notes to the class.
They barely cared.
They mimicked their parents when saying they hated Gorbachev. The grown-ups did not like his rural accent, the red birthmark on his face, his rambling, stream-of-consciousness speeches and the things he said about changing our way of life.
His reforms were never meant to be radical and groundbreaking. He wanted to reshape Soviet socialism, but never doubted the “greatness” of Lenin’s legacy.
But then he simply lost control of the changes – and his own voice drowned in them. He tried to suppress inter-ethnic pogroms in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and sent tanks against the crowds of people in the Baltics demanding independence.
His attempts at violence were inconsistent and contradicted his own policies of openness and transparency. The Communist dogma gave way to the truth, and it was very far from pleasant.
The squall of news reports and publications of classified documents made us realise that the Soviet colossus and its propaganda machine stood on millions of bodies of “people’s enemies” frozen into the permafrost of Siberian gulags.
Among them were my maternal great-grandfather (a Muslim cleric in western Siberia) and paternal grandfather (a descendant of Prophet Muhammad in central Russia) who were executed in the late 1930s at the height of Josef Stalin’s purges.
It took me years to find out the dates and details of their deaths – and to understand why and how their widows and children ended up in Central Asia.
The thaw brought on by Gorbachev’s reforms didn’t end with a tropical paradise. When the ice melted, we saw the dead bodies, the dirt and the ruins of utopian buildings, and it was up to us to clean things up and build a new world.
But my classmates and I were teenagers filled with hormones and curiosity. What perestroika gave us was colours and nuances. The world was no longer black and white. It was no longer limited to land between Kamchatka and Kaliningrad, Tallinn and Tashkent. We could watch Western music videos – and listen to domestic rock musicians, whose lyrics were far more powerful than anything Gorby said.
We could read translations of once-banned books such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago – or Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
Skin magazines and erotic videos filled newspaper kiosks and silver screens, and the founders of “cooperatives,” or the first independent businesses, earned dozens of times more than my parents.
They were the real capitalists – without the top hats, but in old German cars, fashionable clothes, with criminal backgrounds and stunning girlfriends.
Inflation turned my parent’s savings into nothing. My mom gave up her job at the nuclear facility to sew sports hats in the basement of my music school.
I started selling swimsuits, jeans and shoes on weekends at a giant flea market. Once I had to run away from corrupt cops – and threw a pair of sneakers in their faces.
And yet, we could barely afford meat and basic food, because government-owned shops almost stopped selling them, and markets and bazaars were exorbitantly expensive.
Who was guilty? Of course, Gorby.
“Serves him right,” I said on August 18, 1991, when a friend said he was arrested by Communist leaders who resisted perestroika.
I was sweeping the dusty asphalt in front of a grocery shop where I worked and was paid in increasingly worthless Soviet roubles, onions and sugar.
Within days, Gorbachev was freed. Within months, the USSR fell apart, even though nine out of 15 Soviet republics voted to stay in it.
But future Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared Russia’s independence from its imperial self, and in late 1991, Gorby signed a decree abolishing his own job.
Instead of the huge motherland of Communism, we found ourselves in 15 “newly-independent states” in the middle of a painful and chaotic transition.
Tens of millions blamed Gorby for this transition that rendered their careers useless, for the organised crime, loss of contact with relatives in other ex-Soviet republics, and the emergence of kleptocratic, corrupt governments.
I put Gorby out of my mind for a time, though his legacy kept reshaping my life. I studied English so I could make some quick money as a translator, buy a bigger TV and have a house built for my parents.
In 2003, I won a scholarship to study journalism in San Jose, California in the United States. I got back to Uzbekistan to start a job for the Associated Press but had to leave for Moscow because Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s president at the time, started political purges that rivalled Stalin’s.
As a journalist, I revisited my attitude towards Gorbachev — and this time, it was less one-sided. Between 2007 and 2013, I interviewed him several times. He still lived in Moscow, was still talkative, and was still debating how the USSR could have developed had it not collapsed.
I realised that this man was the only true antagonist of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin – and his predecessor and my former idol, Lenin.
Most of Gorby’s failures were far greater than Stalin’s and Lenin’s biggest achievements.
My daughter weeps for the children killed in Ukraine – but she doesn’t have to fear a nuclear apocalypse. At nine, she’s been to seven countries and took a dip in three seas – while I left the former USSR for the first time at age 28.
I told her today that a great man died – and I wept for him.
But she was more preoccupied with a pair of new leather boots with cat pictures on them – something her mother and grandmother could not possibly imagine when they were nine years old.