The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France

Passing Leaders and Parliament: A Moment From My Summer Travels

January 9, 2023

During my summer 2022 travels in Europe, many things happened that I will continue to share in future blogs. At present, a couple of key moments are on my mind, namely the passing of Mikhail Gorbachev. Queen Elizabeth II passed away a little more than a week later while I was still in Europe as well. Though the Queen’s passing was significant in its own ways, I experienced a stronger connection and reaction to Gorbachev’s death and felt called to share that story here.

Mikhail Gorbachev was a real person to me. Inspired by his vision of peace, in 1987-88, Jim Staley and I organized two trips to the Soviet Union, including teachers, veterans, journalists, and high school students interested in making person-to-person contact. In 1992-93 when Jim and I took a year off, we spent most of the time in Eastern Europe where we experienced the effects of Gorbachev’s freeing those countries from the heavy hand of Soviet power.

In 1995, I was invited to the State of the World Forum in San Francisco to meet with people from around the world interested in engaging in vision building and priorities needed for the 21st century, and I would present Waldorf education. Gorbachev had been a founder of this forum and co-chaired it yearly. He was no longer a political figure in the former Soviet Union, but he continued to meet internationally with those wanting a better future. I experienced his genuineness during these days, his comfort in being with westerners, and his deep wish for world peace.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg

When I heard of Gorbachev’s death, I felt as if a complex, well-intentioned hero had passed away. When he died on August 30th, I was in Strasbourg, France, and had specifically gone to Strasbourg to visit the European Parliament, the European Union’s lawmaking body dedicated to resolving issues peacefully through public debate.

I was a child in New York during the Second World War, and I carry memories of the horrors that occurred, and I resolved to stand on the spot where people were devoted to making sure such things would never happen in Europe again. I wanted to sit in the delegates’ chamber even though they were not yet in session and imagine the over 700 members working together despite differences in religion, national policies, and cultures.

As I sat there, I remembered that just a week before I had been visiting Latvia and spent an evening with our good friend Ingrida who works with customs issues within the European Union. I thought about meeting Ingrida in 1990 when she was in her twenties, visiting America as part of a Latvian women’s choir. How different her life has developed from anything we could have imagined back when Latvia was forced to be part of the Soviet Union, and the KGB followed the choir members around to be sure they would not defect.

I returned to my hotel and thought about my day filled with images of insightful people who had worked for European unity. I thought about Gorbachev and how complicated his life was. Many memories came flooding in.

Memories and Resolve

I loved teaching Russian literature to high school students for many years. In fact, I wrote the book Splinters of the Sun, Teaching Russian Literature to High School Students based on my experience. Yet my own family’s experience was that my grandparents and father came from the Pale— the part of the Soviet Union stretching from Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus to Ukraine – and I had never met any of my relatives. Despite doing some ancestry research, we surmised that they had either been killed by the Soviet army during World War II or died in the Holocaust.

Splinters of the sun book cover

Before our 1987 Soviet Union tour, President Reagan had called Russia “the evil empire,” and I was anxious about what we would find. 

When Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika policies, hoping to salvage the failing Soviet economy, he lessened restrictions on political freedom in the Soviet Union. That was the first time Jim and I felt comfortable planning our trip. However, we were still nervous. As our plane was landing in St. Petersburg, I peered out the window and saw a campground with families unloading their cars and putting up tents. Uneasy, I said to myself, “These are just people.”

Once on the ground, we were wary about being followed, and we were worried that contacts we had been given back in California could be located, so I wrote their addresses in code in my travel book. During that busy month, we visited teachers, scientists, social activists, and university students, and experienced their enthusiasm for finally being able to connect with Americans. For many, it was the first time they could actually listen to English in person.

Later that summer, Jim and I were in Berlin standing by the Brandenburg Gate. A few months earlier, on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan had stood there by the Berlin Wall and called out, “Secretary Gorbachev, tear down this Wall.” Although that made good television coverage, it didn’t happen for another few years, and Gorbachev didn’t actually do it. The mood in Berlin was intense and hopeful. 

We returned to the Soviet Union in 1988 with a group of high school students. They made every occasion to meet their counterparts and exchange ideas, as well as the belts and tennis shoes they were wearing. In return, our students received beautiful enamel boxes and pins of Lenin. Their jeans were priceless commodities, and some even exchanged them. 

Jim and I were more comfortable this time, and it seemed to us that openness was increasing. Gorbachev’s name was spoken everywhere, and despite the continued bureaucracy that made everything difficult, the excitement – particularly of younger people – was infectious. One of them commented that now that they had computers, they would never again be closed off from the world.

The Price of Freedom and Independence

Eastern European countries, formerly part of the Soviet Bloc were having massive demonstrations for independence. In 1989, after half a million people gathered in a mass protest in East Berlin, the Wall did come down, although it was through a bureaucratic accident. In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The republics of the Soviet Union were taking Gorbachev seriously and were declaring independence. The Soviet Union was disintegrating, and the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) declared independence on May 4, 1990. The USSR did not recognize these actions, and Gorbachev sent troops to stop the demonstrations, and violence followed. 

Jim arrived in Latvia in January 1991 to be a guest teacher just after all this happened. On my first visit to Latvia in 1992, Jim took me to the park in the center of Riga to show me the spot where the photojournalist Andris Slapins had been killed by Soviet troops. 

In 1992-93 Jim and I spent a year in Eastern Europe. We lived in Riga, the capital city of Latvia. It was freezing at the end of September, but because all heating in the city was centralized, heat would not go on until October 1st. Our host family was embarrassed and searched everywhere to borrow a heater for us. 

However, the more important topic of conversation was language. The anti-Russian and anti-Gorbachev feeling was now intense. Latvia’s population included many Russians, particularly military and younger people sent to work in the Russian factories, as well as intellectuals.

Testing and Change

Now, non-Latvians had to take tests in the Latvian language to keep their professional jobs. Although our host mother, who was of Russian background, usually spoke Russian or English with friends, she could speak Latvian very well. However, she was frustrated that she had to take the test to secure her university job. As Americans, perhaps naively, we thought each change was welcome, but she saw it differently.

In May 1993, we gave a workshop on Waldorf education in Leningrad, and I went to buy wool in a local shop and found that we could only pay with Deutsche marks or American dollars instead of Russian rubles which had been devalued. It seemed that things were changing, although some things didn’t. 

The food situation in grocery stores was still problematic as there was very little available for sale. I stood in line to buy sour cream, but when I got to the front. I was asked where my jar was. I didn’t have one, so the next day I came back with a jar given to me by a student. I stood in line again, but when I reached the counter I was told they were all out. 

The End of An Era

Over the next few years, I kept in contact with friends in Latvia and Russia, and by this time Gorbachev’s situation was different. The hard-liners who wanted to return Russia to what it had been before the breakdown, staged a coup, and Gorbachev resigned, blamed for having brought about the demise of the Soviet Union and never to regain a position in his country’s government. However, he did continue his contacts with western countries and was well-known and respected for his support of democratic institutions. 

When news of his death came, I remembered these past experiences – the hopeful, positive experiences within Russia and the Eastern European countries which had become free to decide their future. I remembered the terrible situations in the Baltic countries where Gorbachev hoped the issue could be solved without violence, but when it couldn’t, he resorted to force. 

One of his close co-workers for 37 years spoke to Gorbachev a few weeks before his death. He remarked that Gorbachev still believed in the idea of the Soviet Union, but he was against the use of force to achieve the goals. He was traumatized by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

I wondered if he had forgotten about what had happened in the Baltics. Had it been his choice? Had he been overwhelmed by nationalistic forces around him that saw him as soft? These and many other questions were going around in my mind that summer day as I reflected in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, a place devoted to the end of war between European countries.