Gorbachev relives perestroika at photo exhibit

29th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Food shortages, press freedoms, shots fired at demonstrators: a photo exhibit in Moscow shows the many facets of perestroika that, 20 years on, leaves its author Mikhail Gorbachev with some regrets.

Three hundred photos on display at Manezh Square opposite the Kremlin recall the earth-shattering events of 1986 to 1991 -- a period when the Berlin Wall fell, Gorbachev shook hands with Ronald Reagan, and a 1991 coup sounded the death knell of the once-omnipotent Soviet state.

But before moving on to the main attraction, visitors linger before a 1953 portrait of Gorbachev just before his marriage to Raisa, a woman who became an international celebrity in her own right.

With a hat that makes him look like a swank Hollywood actor, Gorbachev hardly resembles the Nobel Peace Prize winner who will celebrate his 80th birthday on March 2.

"No other era has ever brought as much hope as perestroika. It was as dramatic as any epoch of change", said Irina Gorbacheva, the ex-Soviet leader's daughter and vice president of his foundation.

The black-and-white photographs relive a time of deep pain and immense expectations.

There are the empty shop shelves that every Russian of a certain age remembers with dread to this day. On one man's hand, the number 196 is written to show his place in the endless line to buy meat.

Then comes a subtle change. The youth suddenly stop dressing in the depressing, grey Soviet manner, developing spiked hair and donning jean jackets.

Banned books appear in print and international films make their way to the theatre as alternative art comes alive.

Communist symbols are trampled under foot: the Soviet red flag with hammer and sickle is used to cover girls posing half-naked for Playboy.

But other photographs recall bloody dramas that demonstrate just how high the political stakes were at the time.

Soviet tanks are shown rumbling through the tiny Lithuanian capital Vilnius in their unsuccessful 1991 bid to win back control of a television tower, where 14 unarmed civilians were slain.

Similar scenes were also on display in Georgia, where Soviet troops fired on demonstrators in 1989.

And of course there are some surreal shots from the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl, which remained hidden by the authorities for days and wound up contaminating hundreds of thousands of people.

"Of course I have regrets," Gorbachev told AFP at the exhibition's opening. "We made big mistakes and failed to complete" perestroika.

A cautious critic of the current regime, Gorbachev also criticised the freedom restrictions in present-day Russia.

The country is "in a greater need of the freedom of expression" than it was when he was head of state, Gorbachev said.

Gorbachev has remained far more popular in the West than he has at home, where he is condemned for burying the Soviet Union, and some Manezh visitors said they had simply come to relive an important part of their lives.

Perestroika was "an unforgettable time," said 58-year-old Vera Shchukina.

Their final verdict on the man who changed history -- as it always seems to be with Gorbachev -- was still out.

"Certainly, we were tired of communism and stagnation, but he should have done things in a different way," said pensioner Tatyana Krasnova, who abandoned scientific research to become a vendor so that she could feed her children.

"The capitalism that followed was too wild," Krasnova said.

But she praised Gorbachev for being something of a cultural revolutionary, a man who loved his wife deeply and awarded a prominent role to women in Soviet society.

"His policies were empty, but his enormous love for Raisa deserves a great respect. This was something uncommon in our country," said Krasnova.

Known for her elegant dress and social charm, Raisa Gorbacheva died of cancer in 1999 as a peerless first lady.

Compared to other top Soviet spouses who existed in name alone, Raisa thrived under the public limelight and accompanied her husband everywhere he went.

Several photographs show Mikhail and Raisa together at official ceremonies, including a photo of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher staring attentively at a cut of Raisa's suit.

© 2011 AFP

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