On March 11, 2002, the sixth-month anniversary of 9/11, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last president of the Soviet Union, delivered the Tenth Annual Harriman Lecture. Bringing Gorbachev to Columbia was one of the early signs that Harriman Director Catharine Nepomnyashchy had big plans for the Institute:
“I felt that one way to make my mark was to have an unexpected or particularly big Harriman lecture.” The Gorbachev event set the tone for the rest of her directorship. In Nepomnyashchy’s own words, “The ante was up about visibility.”
The lecture, titled “Russia: Today and the Future,” drew a crowd of over 500 people to Low Memorial Library Rotunda with an overflow audience watching the live feed in Lerner Hall. Gorbachev traced the history of the Soviet Union, presenting his own analysis of the system he had helped dismantle with his historical reforms known as perestroika. He came across as a candid and engaging speaker and his analysis bore no trace of bitterness or resentment. His greatest regret about his presidency, he shared, was that he started perestroika too late.
“This is a person of enormous importance and simply listening to the way his mind works is intellectually fascinating,” President Lee Bollinger later told Columbia Spectator (March 14, 2002). “It’s interesting to think about what the world would look like today if he had started his reforms earlier.”
With a characteristic forward-looking optimism, Gorbachev still harbored hopes for Russian democracy back at the rise of Putin’s regime. “Remember, America’s democracy has evolved over 200 years,” he addressed his American audience with a twinkle in his eye.
“You could give us a year or two more. We need time to succeed.” And he closed his lecture on the same optimistic note, “And once again, I hope.”
Twenty years later, we mourn not only the man but the hope he embodied.
Read the report of the event, with extensive quotations, in the Columbia University Record (March 15, 2002)
For more about the Gorbachev lecture and the gala dinner that followed, go to Masha Udensiva-Brenner’s profile of Nepomnyashchy, published in the inaugural issue of Harriman Magazine.