By R. Paul Dyck
An opportunity to experience one of the world’s most important personalities firsthand is rare. However, the arrival of one of the most renowned statesmen of recent times provides such a chance to University of Calgary students.
On Thurs., Oct. 12, former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev will speak at the U of C as part of the James S. Palmer Lecture series.
"The lecture’s general theme is the current Russian state, free enterprise and social good," said Manager of Community Relations Alison Buie. "It is [Gorbachev’s] only Canadian speaking engagement of the tour."
The lecture marks the second time Gorbachev has spoken at the U of C. His first visit to Calgary took place in 1993, when he signed a partnership between the U of C and the Gorbachev Foundation.
"The U of C is affiliated to the Gorbachev Foundation on campus and here at our International Centre," said Buie. "His connection here is probably one of the reasons why he has agreed to come back."
The highly anticipated nature of the event stems from universal recognition of Gorbachev as a vital figure involved in shaping today’s international system.
"The Cold War, which structured all of world politics in the period of 1945 to 1990, occurred in part because of the Communist regime, and Gorbachev was the person who oversaw the collapse of communism," said Coordinator of Central and Eastern European Studies Heather Coleman. "He was both the cause and the major player in the ending of the Cold War."
Gorbachev was leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, during which time numerous reforms led to increased openness between the Soviet Union and the West, increased freedoms for the Soviet people and the end of the Cold War. However, these reforms also led to the dissolution of both the Soviet Union and the Communist Empire that dominated Eastern Europe for most of the 20th century.
"He launched a reform program intended to sustain socialism itself, and the irony is that when he let the genie out of the bottle, the reform program got out of control," said Coleman. "He ended up overseeing the collapse of the system he tried to reform."
Although the West continues to praise Gorbachev for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, debate still exists on whether these were the outcomes Gorbachev intended and whether the reforms were beneficial to the Russian people.
"In the West we want to believe that with the new freedoms that they have–and they indeed do have a substantially larger degree of freedoms–that [the freedom] supercedes any possible costs," said Political Science Professor Robert Huebert. "The reality is that the social structure that the Soviet Union had, in terms of education and health, probably was better than what the Russians have now."
In spite of these issues, most agree that Gorbachev played a pivotal role in the events of the past 20 years, and also within the 20th century.
"You can get into all sorts of debates: ‘Did he do it intentionally?’; ‘did he do it with good intentions?’ It doesn’t matter," said Huebert. "The point of the matter remains is that the forces he unleashed within the Soviet Union were, to a very large degree, those forces that ultimately led to the relatively peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the ultimate collapse of communism."
According to Coleman, students benefit from the chance to hear from figures who shaped history considerably, as Gorbachev did.
"It’s not very often that you get to see that powerful of a person," said Coleman. "It’s an exciting opportunity to see someone who had his finger on the button, who was one of the two most important people in the world for five or six years."