LARAMIE — If he could, Mikhail Gorbachev would be out on the streets of New York protesting Wall Street and economic inequality, the former Soviet Union president said in a speech Friday at the University of Wyoming.
But speaking before a crowd of 6,500 at UW’s Arena-Auditorium, Gorbachev focused more on his past accomplishments in ending the Cold War than his take on current events, including the political situation in Russia.
Speaking through a translator, the 80-year-old said though many hoped for world peace and stability after the downfall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, such a “new world order” hasn’t come to pass.
Access to clean water is the world’s No. 1 issue, he said. And billions live in poverty and hunger.
In the United States, Gorbachev said he had sympathy for Occupy Wall Street protesters who have demonstrated for weeks against Wall Street bankers, though he spoke out against violence and extremism.
“They protest against poverty, against injustice, against inequality, against corporate greed,” he said. “And I’ve been there. At Wall Street, I would be with them.”
Gorbachev refrained from directly criticizing the current Russian political system, which has become more authoritarian under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party. Gorbachev never mentioned Putin by name, though he urged Russians to keep participating in elections.
“Today, there is a lot of discontent. Many people are unhappy,” he said. “And some are saying what about those elections, we know in advance the result of those elections. No one will take our individual opinion into account. And I say to the Russian people: Go and vote.”
Gorbachev’s hesitancy came in contrast to comments he made in Moscow in August, when he criticized Putin’s governing party as a bad copy of the Soviet Communist Party. He also called for direct elections of governors and individual seats in the Russian Duma.
Gorbachev appeared in good shape throughout the speech, revealing a dry, sarcastic sense of humor.
He even accomplished the rare feat of holding his own with the always-feisty Alan Simpson, the former U.S. senator from Wyoming who moderated the event.
Asked if he had advice for the United States on the current war in Afghanistan, given the USSR also invaded the country under his rule, Gorbachev said that America had previously sent aid to both the Taliban and former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein.
“Look at the senator, how he kind of crouched a bit,” Gorbachev said as Simpson slumped in his chair. “He knows it.”
Gorbachev had words of praise for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, with whom he worked during the final days of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991.
He said he and his staff expected Reagan to be combative, but they found common ground that allowed them to build a strong relationship and reach agreement on many issues, including reducing their countries’ nuclear arsenals.
But Gorbachev said it would be wrong to think that Reagan or the United States was the cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Instead, the USSR fell because of economic and internal problems.
“The West likes to boast,” he said, “It’s like a disease, I think.”
He also said he and other Russians weren’t impressed by Reagan’s famous 1987 speech in front of the Berlin Wall in which he urged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
“In our country, we were not particularly concerned about that speech,” Gorbachev said. “We knew that the president’s first profession was an actor, and so he kind of acted the part.”
Afterward, Anton Kim, one of eight UW students who submitted questions to ask Gorbachev, said he was disappointed the former Russian leader didn’t talk more about Russian politics today.
“I thought that was what he was going to talk about,” said Kim, a graduate student who grew up in the former Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. “It’s crazy he didn’t talk about it. He’s usually very straightforward.”
Kevin Markovich of Butte, Mont., said he enjoyed hearing Gorbachev’s perspective on dealing with Reagan. But he said the speech overall was somewhat bland.
“He could have kind of gave us a more informative look at the decisions that were made, how his country made those decisions,” said Markovich, the father of a UW student. “He kind of flossed over those a little bit.”
But many others who saw Gorbachev said they enjoyed the speech and were thrilled to see one of the world’s most important political figures.
“My favorite part was when he was talking about how the American perception that we won the Cold War was a disease,” said Steven Mark, a University of Colorado student. “I’ve been saying that for years — and everybody always laughs at me.”
UW student Mike Schedel, a junior geology major from Denver, said he made sure to come out to see Gorbachev.
“This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of things,” he said. “It’s not every day that the former president of the Soviet Union comes to your university.”
Gorbachev was paid a $125,000 speaking fee, which was covered by donors, according to UW spokesman Chad Baldwin.