I often tell my students and other audiences the story about how I wrote my dissertation on Soviet policy toward the Third World and how my career benefited from this being a hot topic throughout the 1980s, but then how the Soviet retreat from the Third World and elsewhere under Gorbachev resulted in this topic becoming increasingly unimportant by the early 1990s. I then relate how I lamented this development in a Washington Post op-ed piece published in January 1991 entitled, “Gorbachev Ruined My Career.”
“My only consolation,” I then observe, “is that he ruined his own career too.”
But things changed, I go on to say, after Putin came to power. His assertive foreign policy led to so much renewed interest in my expertise that in February 2008 I was able to publish another op-ed piece, this time in the Moscow Times, entitled, “Putin Saved My Career.” I conclude by saying that Putin’s policies have not only kept me in business ever since then, but they appear likely to do so for many years to come.
Yet although I have told this story to many people in many places, I never expected that it would come to the attention of Mikhail Gorbachev himself. Yet it did. Here’s how:
A few years ago, Gorbachev accepted an invitation to speak at George Mason University. One day shortly before he arrived, I was informed that Jack Censer (who was then the Dean of our College of Humanities and Social Sciences) wanted to include a book of mine as one of four that would be presented to Gorbachev. The book Jack chose was one I had published in 1989 entitled, Gorbachev’s Military Policy in the Third World. This was not my most recent book, but it had the advantage (I was told) of being the only book by a GMU faculty member with Gorbachev’s name in the title.
On the evening of March 24, 2009, I was one of the estimated 1,575 people who came to the GMU Center for the Arts in order to hear Gorbachev speak. C-SPAN, it turned out, also sent a crew to record the event.
Gorbachev gave his speech through his interpreter, who had accompanied him from Russia. When the speech was finished, Jack Censer came up on stage to make the book presentation while microphones were being set up for the question and answer session. “I want to offer to President Gorbachev a gift from the University,” Jack said.
After a little back and forth with his good buddy Mikhail over whether being given this gift meant that the lecture had been good, Jack went on to say, “Let me explain the gift. The gift is something [of] a tribute to you. There are four books. One book is by a political scientist and [he] is at George Mason, and it is basically about you.” After this was translated for him, Gorbachev nodded.
“And, I give you a little story about that,” Jack continued. Much to my surprise and amazement, he then proceeded to tell Gorbachev, the 1,575-strong audience, and everyone watching C-SPAN 2 the whole story of my two op-ed pieces describing how Gorbachev, by his liberal reforms, had put me out of business, but how Putin had put me back in business.
When all this was translated for him, Gorbachev smiled. Through his interpreter, he observed, “That is interesting.”
A moment later, he added, “It means that he is doing a better job.”
Putin, I have no doubt, would agree wholeheartedly.
The conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Jack Censer can be seen beginning just after 29 minutes into the C-SPAN 2 broadcast of “Mikhail Gorbachev on the Cold War” at http://www.c-span.org/video/?284802-1/mikhail-gorbachev-cold-war