When Gorbachev was at Judson U. in 2012: Warnings on Putin, American consumerism, environment
Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev advocated respect for freedom and human dignity and exhorted America to move toward an environmentally sustainable economy based on more than consumerism alone at the World Leaders Forum (on April 21, 2012) at Judson University in Elgin.
The 81-year-old Gorbachev was greeted by a standing ovation as he walked slowly, almost tentatively, toward the podium, but his tone was clear and confident during his speech to an audience of about 600 at Herrick Chapel.
Gorbachev, who traveled to Elgin with an entourage of six, including his daughter and granddaughter, was introduced as a "true world leader" by Judson University President Jerry Cain.
Gorbachev spoke in Russian with simultaneous English translation, and he began by encouraging Judson's students to always seek knowledge. He recalled growing up with illiterate parents in Russia's hinterland with no electricity or access to radio; he traveled to a high school 90 kilometers away to finish his studies, and later was accepted -- somewhat miraculously for a villager like him -- by Moscow University.
After graduating, he began his quick ascent among the ranks of the Communist Party.
Gorbachev then spoke of the courage it took to push for reform once he was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985. Some in his country criticize him to this day for his actions, he said.
But freedom can't be taught, it must be lived, as exemplified by the challenges facing Russia today, he said. In the past few months, tens of thousands of people protested in the streets of Moscow against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
"If Putin and his team are thinking about how to cling to power and how to fool people, that will end very badly," Gorbachev said. "It's my impression that Putin would like to change the situation, but he's always afraid to start to change."
The recipient of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize gave a strong admonition about the challenges the world is facing.
"Just under half the people in the world are living on less than $1 or $2 per day. This is a disaster. They cannot afford education, health care," Gorbachev said. "We thought that after the recent global financial crisis things would be different, but nothing has happened."
The leaders of the G-20, comprising 20 finance ministers and central bank governors, must earnestly work toward their goal of ending poverty, he said.
Gorbachev praised Americans for their openness and directness, and he said he believes the U.S. continues to have the strongest economy in the world. Still, Americans must learn how to live in a global world.
"We cannot try to impose any system from above, which is what America has tried to do. We cannot have an economic growth model based entirely on the profit motive of consumption, of consumerism of resources."
Gorbachev also called for the need to begin transitioning to an environmentally sustainable model, and he called the environment "the crucial challenge to our entire civilization."
Judson graduate student Jessica Palmerin, 24, of Aurora said it was amazing to see in person a leader who helped shape today's world.
"I prepared, and I saw a documentary before coming today," she said. "Just realizing the impact he had, and the courage it took for him to reform his country, and how so many people didn't support him. It seriously shows you the price of peace."
Elgin residents Lorna and Gary Gowler, Judson alumni, attended the event in the very chapel where they got married in 1978. Lorna Gowler said she was pleasantly surprised to hear Gorbachev speak against the use of military force while advocating for diplomacy and political pressure to solve the crisis with North Korea.
"I liked a lot of what he said," Gowler said. "Americans like to tell others what to do, but when other countries show us what they can do, we are humbled. When he said we should respect other nations, I wanted to stand up and scream,' Yess!'"
Gorbachev answered a few questions submitted in advance by audience members. One of them came from Angelo Bravos, director of donor relations at Judson, who asked Gorbachev what he thought when President Ronald Reagan demanded in 1987 that he tear down the Berlin Wall.
"We were really not impressed by that statement. We knew what President Reagan's original profession was," Gorbachev said, eliciting much laughter. Then he went onto to praise Reagan. "He courageously cooperated in dramatically changing the U.S.-Soviet relationship," Gorbachev said, later adding, "Reagan was a very strong leader, a good partner and, I will say, a great president."
Judson accounting major Lukasz Kierys of Palatine submitted a question asking about Gorbachev's faith.
Gorbachev's answer? "I believe in the people."