Skip to main content

Suzan Shown Harjo

Cheyenne citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma

Hodulgee Muscogee of Nuyakv Ground

Moscow, first and only impressions

It was January 1990, Russia, winter, blue skies, bright sunny days. Knee-high snow muffled all sounds in downtown Moscow, including in the immense Red Square, an 800,000-square-feet rectangle, where a half-million people appeared at one end for several hours daily, silently protesting many things in the name of peace — mainly, that the Soviet Union was falling apart and that it wasn’t falling fast enough.

Food and supplies bound for the capital city were being hijacked from trains in the wooded hills of the countryside. In the gigantic supermarket where I tried to find fresh fruit, the block-long produce section was empty, with the sole exception of an anemic cabbage, limp-leafed and only the size of a child’s fist. No cabbage! Unheard of in the land where the Russian staple is a central ingredient in shchi soup and other traditional foods of the people’s daily diet.

In the streets leading to Red Square, customers lined up behind delivery trucks where vendors sold merchandise du jour out of packing crates — one was selling industrial-sized flour bags; another had small whisk brooms and dustpans; still another, stockings in packets of one dozen.

Gasoline was so dear that vehicles used heaters sparingly and cut their headlights on the outskirts of town, guided only by Moscow’s street lights and creeping at a turtle’s pace.

While most buildings were darkened and the skyline dimmed, five brilliant Red Stars glittered at full voltage high in the night sky, not only commanding attention, but also rousing curiosity about how their dazzling intensity was achieved. As we learned from tour guides and Kremlin curators, it took five decades of experimentation to get the color and intensity just right for optimal stellar appearance at day or night.

The five-pointed Red Stars, or Kremlin Stars, sit atop five towers on the Eastern Kremlin Wall of Red Square, known as Moscow Kremlin. Varying in size — from three to nearly four meters across, with at least 65-square-feet surfaces — the double-sided stainless steel constructions are accented and given depth by raised gold-plated copper. The tips of the star rays rise to pyramidical points, meeting in the center at a small encircled star outline. The stars are made of a layer of wine red colloidal gold mixed with ruby red glass on top of one sheet of milky white glass and another of clear crystal, illuminated from within and spotlighted from outside, making for spectacular beacons at any hour.

The Red Stars replaced the royal symbols of imperial Russia — two-headed eagles made of gilded copper — that adorned the towers before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. There is a slow-rolling debate about reinstating the double-headed eagles, which remain in evidence on other towers and throughout the décor of official Moscow. While the Red Stars were erected to celebrate and stand for Communist Russia, the discussion is complicated by the history of the color red in Russian, wherein the root word for “red” translates as “beautiful.”

First documented in 1147, Moscow is venerable, but younger than its two nearby capital cities (415 and 535 miles away, respectively)— Minsk, Belarus, founded in 1067, and Kyiv, Ukraine, dated to 482. Formerly the capital of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy and of the Tsardom of Russia, Moscow in 1990 was the capital of both Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the world’s largest country at that time. The USSR’s contiguous lands covered one-sixth of Mother Earth’s surface on two continents, the eastern half of Europe and the northern third of Asia, spanning 8,650,000 square miles, with 287.7 million people, as compared with the United States’ smaller area, 3,536,000 square miles, and 249.6 millions.

The USSR economy of 1990 was in shambles after the nine-year Soviet-Afghan War and the longer Cold War. In 1979, the USSR attempted to occupy Afghanistan, a much smaller country, at 252,072 square miles, which shared the Soviet southern border with China, Iran, Mongolia, North Korea and Turkey. At the start of the occupation, Afghanistan’s population was 13.41 million, dropping to 11.87 million in 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew and left the country to its civil war, which continues to the present time.

The Soviet Union in 1990 was still smarting from the loss to the US-backed Mujahideen insurgents, while the US was years away from occupying the same territory and reaching a similarly ignoble end to its longest war, 1999-2021.

The USSR was not supposed to lose, especially to a non-super power. Successor to the Russian Empire, which stood for centuries until revolution ended the reign of the tsars, the USSR was composed of 15 national republics, the largest of which was Russia. The USSR stood since 1922, nearly 70 years, and would not officially dissolve for another year, until the end of 1991, but it was stretching to the breaking point at the start of 1990.

Moscow Leon Shen Thomas Ban and 1460759_10156264293022789_4221048469294415872_n
unnamed
unnamed-1

Turtle Island delegation to the Global Forum

I was in Moscow at that tumultuous time as a delegate to the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on the Environment (or on Human Development). The Global Forum numbered a thousand delegates, many of whom were knocking each other off the charisma meter, most notably, Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun who would become Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and the leader of Yellow Hat Tibetan Buddhism, Dalai Lama.

The US was ably represented by Sens. Claiborne Pell, D-Rhode Island, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Al Gore, D-Tennessee, who was a founder of the follow-on Interparliamentary Conference on the Global Environment in Washington, DC, both of which informed his 1992 best-selling book “Earth in the Balance.”

Hundreds of scientists formed a caucus that called upon the world powers to end nuclear proliferation and issued other important statements on dangers to the planet.

Global Forum organizers were admirers of Faithkeeper Oren Lyons of Onondaga Nation, Turtle Clan, and asked him to invite 19 other Native people to join him as delegates. Our Turtle Island delegation included, among others, Hopi Interpreter Thomas Banyacya, Onondaga Nation Turtle Clan Mother Audrey Shenandoah, Haudenosaunee Tadadaho Leon Shenandoah of Onondaga Nation, Eel Clan, historian and writer John Mohawk, Ph.D. who is Seneca Nation of Wolf Clan and writer N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa.

We split into small groups, in order to meet with as many people as possible, gathering as the larger group for breakfast to coordinate and during or after dinner to report on our day and organize for the next one. We met with religious, governmental and Indigenous leaders, as well as activists and environmentalists, and talked to the few people on the streets we could communicate with.

We were followed everywhere by spyish persons stepping out of the shadows for who knows who or what. We never went anywhere alone, not even to the restroom.

Global Forum organizers arranged dinners for us at the best restaurants: the House of Actors, the House of Artists and the House of Writers, which actually were the professional workers’ unions’ centers and museums. Their lavish fare made it difficult to believe that just beyond the Houses were citywide food shortages. Several times a day, a stranger in a large coat would sidle up to our group, open his coat, flasher style, revealing cans of caviar in pockets sewn into the lining. Not knowing whether the repetitive occurrence was an attempt to tie us up legally for purchasing contraband or simply a sign of the unsteady economy, we’d just laugh and move away.

The Global Forum took place in the huge Dag Hammaskjold Centre and presented plenary sessions with keynoters and panels of subject experts on each of four days. On the fifth and last day, we met at the Kremlin, sitting where the Supreme Soviet sat in infrequent sessions. Like the US Congress, the Supreme Soviet had two houses — the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities — and each chamber elected a Council of Elders from the provinces, republics and territories.

The USSR was established by the 1922 Treaty on the Creation of the USSR, which was signed by delegates from the Beylorussian (Belarus, Moldovia, Kazahkstan), Central Asian (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), Luthianian (Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Russian, Transcaucasian (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics. Then, the USSR became officially composed of Armenia, Azerbaijan, (Belorussia) Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, (Kirgiziya) Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, (Moldavia) Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Architectural and political tourism

Immediately before we arrived in Moscow, Lithuania sent shockwaves internationally with its characterization of the USSR’s proposed peace package as “a bag of garbage,” a new term in the language of diplomacy. Two months after we left Moscow, Lithuania became the first republic to declare independence from the USSR. All three Baltic States — Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, which border the Baltic Sea — became the first of the former USSR republics to join the European Union.

Our Turtle Island delegation stayed at the 3,000-room Rossiya Hotel, which had been the world’s largest hotel from 1967-1980 and was the second largest in Europe in 1990. Each hallway section of each wing of the massive facility had humorless desk matrons, who would escort a guest to a room, open the door and give over the key, which a guest had to return to a matron upon leaving the room. Upon returning, the guest would find an ultra-neat room with all papers, clothes and personal items rearranged and ready for packing.

The Rossiya Hotel was right next to Red Square and almost part of the Kremlin. Every day, we took in another iconic feature of Red Square, stopping short of gawking at the demonstrators gathered at the opposite end, some holding candles, none talking, not even in whispers.

We toured two structures known worldwide as cultural symbols of Russia. The newer one, built in the mid-1800s, the State Historical Museum is the dark red, burnt sienna stone building with tall, thin spired towers. The second is one of the oldest structures, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, which dates to the mid-1500s. Its most prominent architectural aspects are domes that stand for nine churches and resemble spired onion bulbs—tin-covered in primary colors, most in vertical, horizontal and diagonal stripes and a few in a pineapple pattern—atop turreted towers, framing another tower resting on what call to mind cutout arched entrances to gingerbread houses.

Tsar Ivan the Terrible had the cathedral built to honor his favorite saint and to commemorate the defeat of Kazan’s Tatar and other Indigenous Peoples in 1552, following destruction of its underground drinking water and springs, and the 1556 conquest of Astrakhan, on the sturgeon-rich Volga Delta and its Volga River islands, where Terrible believed the Fountain of Youth could be found. Napoleon Bonaparte so despised the cathedral as symbolic of Russia that he ordered its demolition; the explosives were lit as soon as he cleared Moscow’s city limits, but a rainstorm doused the fuses and saved it, one of many miracles attributed to Saint Basil.

We paid our respects at the Kremlin Wall, or the Revolutionary Necropolis, where ashes of honored Soviet heroes are inurned in niches in the Wall — warriors of the Bolshevik Revolution, the writer Maxim Gorky, the first cosmonaut, the nuclear weapons architect — near the Mausoleum of Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, the founding leader of Soviet Russia and of the Soviet Union.

We also visited the 3-year-old Stas Namin Centre, a non-governmental homage to the Gorbachev reforms. We were shown around the Centre by its namesake, the formerly banned, middle-aged rocker who built the showcase venue for artists, designers, performers and writers, and who named his new band after its location, Gorky Park, which had been Moscow’s first Central Park of Culture and Leisure.

It had only been five months since Stas Namin co-produced the Moscow Music Peace Festival of 1989, which was the first time hard rock and heavy metal bands were permitted to perform in the USSR capital. He introduced our group to many musicians, some of the performing stars of the time, but we were confused when they treated us as if we were celebs.

It turned out that they’d just seen Oren Lyons and me on television. When invited to be interviewed on the largest Russian television station, we did not understand that it meant we would be on the three main channels, with immediate rebroadcasts, so that we were on a Natives 101 TV loop. One of the Centre’s engineers had recorded the program and offered to play it for us, but we were spared from watching it because we were running late.

We explained that we were expected at the Global Forum’s gala reception at the Kremlin. One of the young musicians — Katya Bocharova, a top Russian pop star who went by her first name — had never been to the Kremlin and said so in such a wistful way that we invited her to go with us.

Talking Circle at the Kremlin and “Mistranslation”

Once at the Kremlin, we couldn’t stop staring at the gold picture frames, candelabras and lamps; and the gilded and gold-flocked walls, high ceilings and roped-off tables and chairs. Katya was diminutive and, with her look of wonder, appeared to be a young teenager, but a wise one. She marveled at such opulence when the people were hungry.

And then there was the main reception area. Huge ice sculptures topped the food stations — an ice salmon for the fresh and smoked fish, an ice fruit bowl, an ice vegetable basket and so forth through the breads, cheeses, cold cuts, hot plates and deserts forever. It was outrageous and delicious.

After our group had eaten our way through the reception, Lyons and some others left for another event. As Katya and I were working on a plan that would take her home and me to the hotel, I was approached by a well-dressed Russian man who spoke English, said my name and asked if I would be willing to talk to the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. What? Who? Me? Yes, you and Chief Lyons. There — Oren’s gone, so the chairman of the Supreme Soviet will not want to talk with me alone — whew.

The emissary asked if I would mind speaking to the chairman, who had seen us on television — oh, that show, again — everyone in Moscow must have been watching TV. I said something affirmative and tried to recall what we’d talked about. Sovereignty. Treaties. Our Native Nations and the US as allies, through treaties of peace and friendship, forever.

As we were being taken to a quiet edge of the reception area, I gave my handbag and camera to Katya and asked her to get a picture. Before I realized what was happening, very large men in dark suits literally made a talking circle and I was inside it, face to face with the chairman and introducing myself as a Cheyenne citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, and Hodulgee Muscogee of Nuyakv Ground, the daughter of a Cheyenne mother, from a Dog Men Society family, and a father who was a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Associated_Press_International_News_Unknown_Count_040721011183

The emissary and translator, who did a great job with all that, presented me to the chairman’s stunning wife, who had beautiful, kind eyes. Raisa Maximovna Titarenko Gorbacheva, who lived from 1932-1999, introduced herself as having been born in Siberia to a Siberian mother and Ukrainian father. This makes her a person of color. Her husband introduced himself by his full name, too, saying his mother was Ukrainian and his father was Russian and he was raised in Russia, in part by his Ukrainian grandparents.

Gorbacheva and her husband met in college in Moscow (as I read the next day). She was a philosopher and educator with an advanced degree in the form of brigades’ collective farming that emerged from the Revolution. Gorbachev grew up working in a farming collective and became a lawyer with a higher degree in agriculture. Both their families had roots in Chernihiv, Ukraine.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

As if to punctuate our impromptu meeting protocols, there was a loud click and I saw one large man holding Katya’s arm and another holding my camera. No, she’s my guest, Katya — it’s my camera — I asked her to hold my purse and take a picture. I’m so sorry. As I continued to confess error, another large man on the opposite side of the circle was saying something fast and stern that caused the two men flanking Katya to freeze. Katya’s arm was returned to her, she opened my bag and the offending camera was deposited inside.

When the incident started, I noticed that Gorbachev and Gorbacheva made the same gesture, reaching out with one protective hand to touch the other’s shoulder—the synchronicity of longtime sweethearts.

The translator restarted us with a quick apology for the “mistranslation,” as if he had inadvertently said “camera,” but meant “no camera.”

Conversation with Chairman Gorbachev

The chairman started speaking in a calm and calming voice — deep and low-pitched, a bit raspy, resonant, animated — an actor’s voice, an orator’s, a storyteller’s. He used repetition and a musical rhythm for emphasis. I could hear the reverberations through the language differences, but that wasn’t conveyed in the translation, so I couldn’t know exactly what he was emphasizing or how poetically he was saying it.

Throughout our long conversation, Gorbachev smiled and laughed at any opportunity— wide, easy smiles, small chuckles and a few belly laughs. He maintained constant eye contact and listened in a more physical way than most people do, turning and tilting his head often, as if getting better reception from one ear than from the other, and lifting his head, as if his ears were higher on his head (what vocal coaches call the “hearing with deer ears” way of listening for the note, timbre, meaning).

Starting with the big question, he asked what it means to have small sovereignties within a large sovereignty. I channeled Oren Lyons and said what I was sure he would say, as he so often did, “There are no small sovereignties.” Inherent sovereignty is an inside quality that a nation or country either has or doesn’t have—there are no degrees or quantities of sovereignty.

His next question started with something about a grant of sovereignty. I responded that inherent sovereignty cannot be granted or given and does not derive from the outside; it originates within and radiates out.

That point was driven home to me in an unforgettable way during the 1973 annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for which the American Indian Press Association had volunteered me to run the press office. NCAI’s main panel was titled, “Sovereignty: Granted or Assumed?” Not one panelist spoke to inherent sovereignty or made the point that, if something were granted or assumed, it would be something other than sovereignty.

It took a physical demonstration on the convention floor and a podium takeover for one set of tribal leaders to make that point and related issues clear to the other members, many of whom saw sovereignty as a “militant Indians’ catchphrase.” The spokesman for that protest was Winnebago Tribal Chairman Reuben A. Snake, Jr. NCAI would have changed enough by the 1980s to have me as executive director and him as president.

Snapping back to the talking circle, I introduced the subject of treaties, saying they were manifestations of nations recognizing one another’s inherent sovereignty. I kind of lost him with the difference and similarities between nation-to-nation treaties and coerced treaties that remain treaties nonetheless, and he pulled the talk back to sovereignties.

He asked how Native peoples exercised sovereignty, interrupting himself to reference that he heard me say on TV that both Native Americans and American Indians were inaccurate and to confirm that Native peoples and Native Nations were my preferred terms. Most courteously, he used the latter two terms throughout our conversation.

For examples of exercises of sovereignty, I started with setting citizenship criteria and standards and making determinations of citizenry as solely Native sovereign prerogatives and duties of nationhood. While the US Supreme Court a dozen years earlier stopped federal entities from usurping that authority, Native Nations were disentangling at least a century of federal interference that continued to cause confusion and disruption.

I brought up the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 as an example of needed legal reform that was signed into law. Unlike most politicians on first hearing about tribal child welfare programs and tribal court child custody proceedings, he was right on target in asking about language and other cultural priorities and the recognition of grandparental and extended family rights. He understood the practical need, legal reasoning and the importance of children remaining in the culture, and he understood its sovereignty context. It was a genuine pleasure to have that quick exchange with him.

He wanted to understand the source of co-management authority, regarding tribal, federal and state management of Pacific Northwest salmon and sturgeon, shellfish and their habitat. I explained that it was an agreement in the treaties — the “in common” language — that was the basis for the 50 percent allocation of harvestable catch between Native and non-Native peoples. Before the treaties, the Native peoples had the inherent sovereign authority for sole management, 100 percent, but they traded half the fish for land and other US protections.

He wanted to know more about the treaty language respecting fishing purposes (ceremonial, commercial and subsistence) and fishing locations (on and off-reservation in usual and accustomed places).

Surprised that the high court chided the state of Washington in 1979 for its recalcitrance in upholding the treaties, he asked if that was unusual. I said I thought it was, although there were harsher statements, such as in an 1886 Supreme Court decision describing states as often the Indians’ “deadliest enemies.”

I raised tailor-made project agreements as dependent on the parties recognizing the rights of each other to authorize and do the task alone or with partners. He rephrased and asked if he had my meaning: with recognition of the rights, the terms can be anything the parties want, because they are the means to exercise the rights and not a way to settle the existence of rights. Right!

And that brought us to the thorny subject of jurisdiction (and the long history of federal and state entities trampling on tribal jurisdictional rights, which I didn’t begin to discuss). I did say that, while it would take many generations to sort out the legal mess, there was growing appreciation that it was a broken system and that it should and could be fixed. And, again, recognition of rights and responsibilities is the hard part — terms, or ways to exercise rights, are easier.

He asked if borders defined jurisdiction. Yes, but so does the purpose and location — as with fishing, gathering and hunting areas and sacred places — and the status of the land or water — treaty, ceded, original, adjudicated, statutorily settled territory, for example. He asked if there were Native law enforcers and defenders. I touched on the Muscogee Nation Lighthorse Police, the Onondaga Nation Warriors and other policing service entities before realizing he meant something else, and said that we have armed forces, but we don’t have armies.

Our issues of jurisdictional boundaries are for the purpose of our protection against violators of tribal law and perpetrators of violence, and for service delivery and civil enforcement, rather than for defensible borders and preparation for potential armed conflict. I think we both realized that would be a much more involved discussion.

He surprised me by asking if Native languages, as with the buffalo, still were near extinction. The buffalo were making a comeback, but languages were going in the other direction, especially after generations of children in federal boarding schools were prohibited from speaking, singing or praying in their languages.

I gave a quick rundown of the state of Native languages, saying that they were endangered, as were so many of the world’s Indigenous languages, but that we were about to have an important federal boost to help with language revitalization, in the Native American Languages Act of 1990 (the contours of which were fixed as we spoke, but the bill would not be passed and signed into law for another nine months). The new law would be responsive to Native peoples’ high priority of language as part of the cultural reclamation movement, as well as language as a characteristic of sovereignty and using language to exercise, express sovereignty.

Having heard from some Indigenous Russian people earlier that week about language, music, dance and regalia often being treated as the sum total rather than parts of a whole people, I made that point, without referencing the source, and provided an example of this from remarks by the Nicaraguan representative at a meeting in Merida, Mexico, in 1980. It was at a Congreso held every four years by the Inter-American Indian Institute, a treaty organization founded in 1940 by most countries of the western hemisphere.

While singing the praises of the new revolutionary government, he was asked to describe Nicaragua’s Indian policy. There are too many language groups in our country to deal with separately. We have selected the three largest language groups to deal with and the ones too small to survive on their own will be absorbed into the general population.

The Costa Rican and US delegations, composed of 25 and 30 Native people, respectively, objected to the Nicaraguan statement and policy. Even after a lengthy discussion on the failures of assimilation policies in several countries, he declined to consider the Nicaraguan peoples or nations as such, and insisted on calling them “language groups.”

This produced a long head shake from the chairman, who only asked for reconfirmation that the offending speaker was a government official. Yes, the then-new government’s Minister of Culture.

When the chairman asked me to compare sovereignties within the US to those in the USSR, I declined, saying I lacked competence, not knowing enough about the peoples within the USSR to make such an assessment.

I asked if he could explain so I could understand the differences among ethnicities, nationalities and republics in the USSR. His answer was much like those we had received from representatives of some United Nations’ countries to the difference the letter “s” makes, as between peoples and people—he didn’t quite see the difference, at least not a material one.

In international forums, the “s” issue was ever present, because we were drafting, discussing and negotiating the UN position on what we always called the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which had been in the works for 15 years by 1990 and was 17 years from being finalized and adopted by the UN countries, ultimately with the “s”).

The USSR’s 1990 “s” position was agnostic. I asked if the chairman would provide an instruction to his representatives for the plural. I informed him that the US had a position in opposition to adding the “s”— but that the Native peoples were working to change that and we continued to raise it with other UN members.

My memory flashed on a State Department communique I read once that characterized a Native friend at a UN meeting in Geneva as being “a bad actor,” and reacting that I didn’t think he could act at all. I wondered if somewhere I was being written up as “a bad actor.”

As soon as I returned to the Rossiya Hotel, I wrote notes of the talk within that circle. More than wanting a contemporaneous record, I needed to make certain I understood what I had just experienced. I still do not know how long we talked, but making notes of it took all night.

The “Nationality Issue” in USSR then; Russia now — enter Putin

The “nationality issue” was at the heart of peoples’ revolutionary movements leading up to the talk of dissolution of the USSR. The fact that the independence movements’ expressions were addressed as “ethnic unrest” and “national groups’ protests,” rather than as priority declarations of distinct peoples and nations, contributed to and accelerated the Soviet Union breakup.

A 1988 physical protest in Moscow by Crimean Tatars called for their resettlement in Crimea from Russia, to which Stalin “deported” them over 40 years earlier, but their return home was denied. Also denied was the 1989 request by Armenian People in Azerbaijan to go home, but Armenian unification was rejected with an unsatisfactory pledge of more autonomy. This led to gang murders of Armenians in Azerbaijan and anti-independence killings elsewhere. USSR troops sent to quell violence actually increased it and Gorbachev stopped deploying troops to quiet independence demonstrations.

Knowledge of this background helps to better understand the war Russia is waging in Ukraine today. It also helps to appreciate what happened in 2014, when Russia “annexed” Crimea from Ukraine and the world did little or nothing to stop it. Russian leadership now claims that it is “liberating” Ukraine, insisting that Ukrainians are Russians, even though they speak different languages and have different cultures and origin histories.

When Mikhail Gorbachev, who lived from 1931-2022, began his journey to the Stars, he was not given a state funeral, but rather a state-lite observance—“elements of a state funeral” was the official term from the Kremlin. He lay in state at the House of Unions, as have many Soviet leaders since Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, who ruled with an iron fist for 30 years. It was Stalin’s repressive policies that Gorbachev sought to reform through perestroika, a comprehensive socio-economic restructuring in place from 1985 to 1991, and glasnost, which loosened restrictions, for example, on corrections that could be made to propagandized historical accounts, as well as on journalists and what they could publish and on filmmakers and what films they could make and people could see.

The large turnout of mourners paying their respects to Gorbachev contradicted reported state whispers that he was widely blamed for the USSR falling apart. Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and other critics blame Gorbachev for, not only “losing the republics,” but for “losing the Cold War” by not opposing German unification, and that both losses caused the fall of the USSR.

Putin churlishly declined to attend Gorbachev's funeral, because of his busy schedule, no doubt trying to dream up ways to force Ukraine back into his 30-years-empty soviet genie bottle. His denials that Russian atrocities are being committed against Ukrainian people support the charge by Ukrainian leadership and witnesses that he sanctions sexual violence, torture and even massacres and mass graves as tactics of war.

Russian on both sides of his family, Putin was born in St. Petersburg (formerly, Leningrad) and his grandfather was a personal cook for both Lenin and Stalin. When the USSR fell in 1991, Putin chucked his 16-year KGB intelligence career for politics, quickly rose to Russian leadership and shaped a self-perpetuating autocratic government. He has undone nearly all of the Gorbachev reforms.

Irrespective of Putin’s opinion, Gorbachev’s record of service and achievement is distinguished by any objective measure. He was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for “his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community.” A Social Democrat following the end of the USSR and its ruling Communist Party, he served as Chairman of both the United Social Democratic Party of Russia and the Social Democratic Party of Russia. The last leader of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991, he was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991, the only President of the Soviet Union from 1990-1991, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet from 1989-1990 and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1988-1989.

Coda

After the breakup of the USSR, the Gorbachev Foundation co-hosted conversations on social justice and environmental challenges. I was invited to two convenings by US institutional sponsors, but was unable to attend. While regretting missing those opportunities, I also was glad. Another meeting, however interesting, certainly would disappoint, because it could not touch that moment in time in Moscow in that talking circle.

At the end of our talking circle in 1990, I started to say conventional pleasantries and shake the hands of Gorbachev and Gorbacheva. They startled me with great bear hugs that make me smile even as I write this.

In 1990, they were 58, I was 44. No one knew the USSR would cease to exist in less than two years. No one would have believed that the radiant Raisa Gorbacheva had only nine more years to live. We were trying to do our best for our peoples to do better. We were taking chances to get closer to that goal, no matter what the odds against success might be. We were strong, able and optimistic. All things were possible.

New ICT logo

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, journalist, poet, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples recover more than one million acres of land. By January 1990, she had led the 22-year campaign that protected and returned Ancestors and sacred objects, reformed museum policies and established the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. In 2014, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.