Nobel Laureate Mikhail Gorbachev Shares Leadership Insights at Judson University’s Second Annual World Leaders Forum
(Elgin, IL - April 21, 2012) “I believe in people. In the time of change that is happening everywhere and that has penetrated all countries of the world, I believe change is necessary,” said Nobel Laureate and Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to a full chapel audience at Judson University. “I believe we must make choices. We must address the social problems in the world,” he noted.
Gorbachev’s response was part of the question and answer session during his keynote address at the Christian University’s second annual World Leaders Forum on Saturday, April 21. More than 750 guests convened at the Elgin campus for the VIP reception and keynote in the Betty Lindner Campus Commons and the lecture in Herrick Chapel (1151 N. State St.) for Judson students, staff, faculty and alumni.
During his keynote address, titled "Peace in the 21st Century," Gorbachev painted a very bleak picture of life in the Soviet Union when he was young, sharing memories of his early childhood when Germans occupied his village during WWII, and later, the poverty-stricken rural community under the rule of Soviet leaders. His parents were illiterate; his town had no education to offer beyond the eighth grade. Yet, Gorbachev says, he loved to study and so he worked hard to achieve honors at school in a nearby district, and later at Moscow State University where he earned a law degree in 1955.
Gorbachev highlighted the extreme risk that it took to bring about the extreme changes that took place in his time as president of the Soviet Union.
"The Soviet Union needed to start moving toward democracy, freedom, and respecting individuals' rights and religious beliefs. We needed to realize that all these things were absent from us." He explained that it was only through recognizing those key elements of a functioning government that he was able to move his country toward lasting change.
"In America a lot has been done to advance democracy. The laws here really can protect the individual. I do not mean to overpraise you," he said, much to the crowd's amusement, adding that America still faces many problems.
Gorbachev recalled a time when he visited the U.S. prior to the 2008 elections. An individual asked him what his advice might be to America at a time of such great transition.
"This is something new! Normally you are the ones to give advice," he replied to the American, and pointed out that though no country has learned to live globally, the U.S. has made the continued mistake of imposing one economic model on the rest of the world. That policy has to change and emphasize a more respectful model that suits the rest of the world, Gorbachev explained.
"I wish you all success in your studies, and success to change your life, change your country, change your industry, change the world," he said in closing to the crowd. "Only people who target real problems with real solutions can succeed."
These thoughts echoed his earlier speech, titled, "Leadership Insights: My Time with Ronald Reagan," at the VIP reception, where he spoke to a room full of corporate sponsors and dignitaries. There, Gorbachev reflected on the relationship that formed between him and the U.S. President as they worked to resolve tensions between their respective countries and end the Cold War.
He shared first impressions of Reagan after the two met for the Geneva Summit in 1985, just after Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev considered Reagan "so conservative; a real dinosaur," while Reagan's first impressions, leaked to Newsweek and subsequently the world, considered Gorbachev "a diehard Bolshevik."
"It was just that kind of exchange of 'pleasantries,'" Gorbachev chortled. He explained that both he and Reagan returned home from that first summit, and from the Reykjavik summit in 1986, discouraged by the mutual lack of cooperation. Yet, Gorbachev pointed out, those first interactions paved the way for a healthier relationship between the two most influential countries in the world.
"What happened at the Reykjavik summit and after it was not a failure, though I took it very hard when an agreement was not signed," he explained. "It was a breakthrough that paved the way to success for the future, and it is within this framework that we eventually reached an agreement for nuclear arms reduction, a framework that we still operate from today."
Gorbachev's time as president of the Soviet Union ended more than 20 years ago, and though some students present for his address were not even born when the events he recounted took place, his experiences and insight proved surprisingly relevant, as Judson History Professor Craig Kaplowitz highlighted in his introductory speech at the main event.
"We now struggle with how to use military force to keep peace as new threats join old ones and proliferation of nuclear arms continues," Kaplowitz explained. "And this is why we should feel privileged to hear from a man who knows from experience what it costs to pursue peace."
Gorbachev expressed skepticism over the newly elected Russian government and President-elect Vladimir Putin when asked whether he believed that the country would continue to move forward, saying, "It will be very difficult for Putin. Putin and his team are only thinking about how to cling to the power. It could end very badly."
Yet he also expressed hope and a positive perspective when asked what he thought about avoiding nuclear catastrophe with countries like Iran and North Korea, saying that peace will only be achieved successfully through diplomatic means rather than military force. Gorbachev urged his audience to value freedom and to value and respect human dignity. He reiterated his belief that the implementation of social reforms to protect human rights brought about the most significant changes to his country.
Gorbachev took time to answer questions about his life from the audience at both the VIP reception and chapel lecture. He recalled his response to someone that asked him, "What do you want written about you in the encyclopedia?"
"I want it to say, 'He was a good guy,'" Gorbachev said, and smirked. "I have gone through many tests and trials. I took risks that took courage. It took courage to launch reforms in the Soviet Union. That was the work that was the most difficult and took the greatest risk."
In answering a final question at the main event, Gorbachev expressed appreciation for his American counterparts.
"It has taken centuries to build a country that represents all people of all races, cultures and religions around the world," he said. "I respect the openness and directness of Americans. Given the right alternatives, you will be able to understand and do a great deal to help others. Keep up the good work; respect others, respect other nations."
As Gorbachev stepped off the stage, Judson President Dr. Jerry Cain came forward to conclude the presentation. came forward to conclude the presentation.
"So here is your assignment," he said to the crowd. "Go home and write in your journals, 'I had a great day at Judson. I was up close and personal with a world leader who dared to change the world, dared to tear down a wall, dared to do away with nuclear weapons.' And then ask yourself, 'What can I do to change the world?'"
The World Leaders Forum, which has been established to fund Judson's new Entrepreneurial and Business Leadership Program and the Judson Student Scholarship Fund, brings recognized world leaders to Judson and the surrounding community annually.
The university hosted former U.S. President George W. Bush as the keynote speaker for Judson's inaugural World Leaders Forum on April 13, 2011. If you would like to hear about future World Leader Forums, send us your information.
Located in Elgin, Ill., since 1963, Judson University offers a Christian, liberal arts and sciences education through its Bachelor of Arts degrees for more than 60 majors/minors, graduate programs, online, certification and accelerated adult degree programs. For more information, visit www.JudsonU.edu.