During my career, I was lucky enough to meet many notable people. But there were not many world leaders among them. If I exclude being in the same room as Margaret Thatcher and bumping into Bill Clinton in Piccadilly on Saturday afternoon, my tally of statesmen is low. In fact, the only Great Person I can claim to have spent any time with is, surprisingly, Mikhail Gorbachev when he came to my office for a farewell dinner in 1993.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s death yesterday at the age of 91 brought back memories of the period of November and December of that year when my company had the task of organising a speaking tour of Britain by the former General Secretary.
My then colleague Geoffrey Bowden handled the task on behalf of the company, but it was down to me to lay on the final event when the great man would dine with leading British politicians in our offices in Little College Street, next to College Green, across from the House of Lords.
On the evening of 7 December 1993, a long procession of cars drew up outside the house where I was waiting with colleagues to welcome Mikhail Gorbachev and his late wife, Raisa Gorbacheva. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I was terrified.
In the record of the signing of the visitors’ book above, you can see Mr Gorbachev flanked by Geoffrey Bowden and Michael Evans, now impersonating the editor of Macfilos. What you don’t see are the stone-faced security men surrounding us on both sides. To this day, I am still fascinated by the powerful signature and the Russian date form — 7.xii.93goda.
I can remember the moment as if it were yesterday; there are some things in life you just don’t forget. It was wholly unnerving to stand next to a man I had seen previously only on television, bestriding the world stage. I visualised him smiling alongside Ronald Raegan or Margaret Thatcher, both of whom did so much to encourage him in his policies of perestroika and glasnost leading up to those momentous events of 1989. Yet the presence, the confidence of a great man, was palpable. Raisa was charming and a stark contrast with previous Soviet First Ladies, it has to be said.
Slight unease rippled across my mind as I handed over my prized sterling silver Montblanc fountain pen, 1 which I had purchased, not expecting such a happy set of circumstances, in Berlin on the day the Wall fell. Would I get it back? One thing is for sure; I could never have asked for it back…
This is how I came to spend an evening with a great statesman and his wife, enjoying a formal dinner in our company offices. It’s one for the book of memories, and they are all the more potent on the day Gorbachev died.
The significance of the pen? I had bought it from a smart pen shop in Fasanenstrasse, Berlin, on the morning after the Wall fell. The evening before, I had watched East German citizens streaming over the border, most of them streaming with tears. Wittenbergplatz, Breitscheidplatz and Kurfürstendamm were crowded throughout the night, and Coca-Cola vans were handing out free drinks on every corner. There was so much emotion, especially when my old friends from East Berlin came over to the west for the first time in nearly 30 years.↩