by Bhavesh Jinadra by CNB
Roanoke Times Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: WEDNESDAY, April 14, 1993 TAG: 9304140265 SECTION: VIRGINIA PAGE: A-1 EDITION: METRO SOURCE: DANIEL HOWES STAFF WRITER DATELINE: CHARLOTTESVILLE LENGTH: Long
JEFFERSON INSPIRED ME, GORBACHEV SAYS AT UVAThomas Jefferson must have been smiling Tuesday when the final leader of the Soviet Union - a government responsible for the death and imprisonment of millions - hailed "the march of freedom" worldwide.
It seemed an incongruous picture:
Mikhail Gorbachev striding across the University of Virginia, accompanied by a governor who only decades ago would have been barred from the grounds because of his color.
Here was the former general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party confessing an attraction to Jefferson's belief in "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and celebrating his hostility to any tyranny over ideas.
There, before nearly 12,000 gathered on The Lawn to celebrate Jefferson's 250th birthday, was the former commander-in-chief of the Red Army saying he "often turned to Jefferson" while leader of the Soviet Union.
"I found one thing to be true: Having once begun the dialogue with Jefferson, one continues the conversation forever."
Gorbachev, a lawyer by training, learned of Jefferson while studying the Soviet theory of state and law, then grounded in the Marxist notion of class struggle. Jefferson had other ideas, believing that individual rights often superseded those of the state.
Now, "the march of freedom is finally becoming worldwide," Gorbachev said through his longtime interpreter, Pavel Palazchenko.
Jeffersonian ideals "convinced me that without profound democratic [changes], any reforms would fail," he said. "I wanted [restructuring] and reform to proceed in a peaceful and orderly manner. Here again, I agree with Jefferson who said the . . . revolution should proceed in an orderly manner without violence."
Gorbachev discerned parallels in the American struggle for democracy more than 200 years ago and the unfolding Russian struggle for democracy:
Should there be a presidential democracy or a parliamentary democracy?
How will governmental powers be divided, who will do the dividing and how will the plan be implemented?
As the Russian economy transmutates from centrally-controlled to market-driven, how will competing interests be balanced?
Gorbachev offered no answers, though he suggested that Jefferson's concept of democracy enabled the nascent United States to mature, expand and change "while assuring stability."
Jefferson's "first and most valuable lesson . . . is the lesson of humanism, of respect for the human being," he said. "The pursuit of happiness - which is inherent in mankind - is an eternal process."
Gorbachev, known for deftly tailoring messages to his audience, used the language of Jeffersonian democracy to defend his own policies - and criticize the administration of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, his political nemesis.
Jefferson's now-controversial conclusion not to attack slavery, even as he penned the Declaration of Independence, showed an unwillingness to assault certain social conventions of his time, Gorbachev said.
Allen Lynch, a UVa professor specializing in Russian affairs, detected an implied denunciation of Yeltsin's decision to introduce "economic shock therapy" in Russia, fostering dissension and dissatisfaction among Russians supportive of democratic principles.
Gorbachev "certainly was using this [speech] as a veiled defense of his own past policies and as a criticism of Yeltsin's policies," Lynch said. Gorbachev advocated more gradual economic reform and insisted that the Communist Party could be the agent of change in the Soviet Union.
In Gorbachev's defense of Jefferson, Lynch saw the former Soviet leader trying to deflect criticism of his own political blind spots and his apparently sudden embrace of Jefferson's ideals.
Later, during ceremonies at Jefferson's Monticello, Gorbachev more sharply defended Jefferson - and maybe even himself:
"What's important to me is, Jefferson understood the challenges of his time and was able to measure up to the challenges of his time," he said. "So let us not ask too much of Thomas Jefferson, but ask ourselves and those who follow Jefferson whether they - whether we - have done enough."
To be sure, Gorbachev - whom Lynch described as "toastmaster general of the world" - endeavored to cloak himself in the mantle of Jefferson. Some wondered about the intellectual honesty of Gorbachev's new-found political kinship, giving rise to sidelong charges of revisionism and expediency.
Even Gorbachev's aides, who held a morning news conference, chuckled when asked to pinpoint Gorbachev's embrace of Jeffersonian ideals.
"Of course, Gorbachev has changed a lot during his political career," said Alexander Likhotal, the former president's chief adviser. "He's a very flexible politician; he's not orthodox."
Peter Onuf, UVa's Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor of history, dismisses such criticism. "We somehow think the great ideas of the Western tradition are somehow our property, and they couldn't have been an inspiration to Marxists and socialists.
"You could ask the same thing of Jefferson: Were his ideas hollow and meaningless because he owned slaves?" Onuf said.
But the thousands crowded onto The Lawn didn't seem to care about academic ruminations. They stood and cheered as Gorbachev, Gov. Douglas Wilder and UVa President John Casteen led the academic procession from the Rotunda to the dais in front of Old Cabell Hall.
Following Gorbachev's introduction by Wilder came a standing ovation.
Thirty-three minutes later, after the speech and intermittent translation finished, came another. Cameras were everywhere; so were shorts and sunglasses on this brilliantly sunny April day, perfect for showcasing Mr. Jefferson's academical village.