Former Soviet President and Nobel Laureate Mikhail Gorbachev visits George Mason for two-day conference

by B.J. Koubaroulis

Former Soviet President and Nobel Laureate Mikhail Gorbachev visits George Mason for two-day conference

A sold-out crowd of 1,575 students, faculty and others stood and applauded as George Mason University President Alan Merten welcomed former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to the Center for the Arts podium for his keynote address on Tuesday, March 24, 2009.

Gorbachev was the keynote speaker at the two-day conference “1989: Looking Back, Looking Forward.”

During the March 24 and 25 event, Gorbachev -- a 78-year-old former Nobel Laureate -- offered a critical perspective on how the lessons of the Cold War should be applied to the promotion of peace.

“We have lived through these 20 years, but I don’t think we truly understand them,” Gorbachev said as he stood a few feet in front of both the American and Russian Flags.

He offered insight into his decision-making during his time in office and also spoke about the lessons that should be learned from the global politics that followed the Cold War.

During his lecture, Gorbachev noted three key threats to global peace – security, poverty, and the environment.

By offering details of his time in office, in particular his role in nuclear disarmament, Gorbachev drew parallels between the past and the present and gave listener’s insight on the many global security issues we still face. Security, he said, is key. However, he noted that the world must demilitarize politics.

“Right now, there is a real possibility for a conversation between Russia and the United States,” said Gorbachev, who called for the reduction of nuclear weapons.

While he lamented the opportunities missed by world leaders following the Cold War, Gorbachev said that, after recent meetings with President Barack Obama, he was optimistic that “Things will be changing for the better between our two countries.”

Poverty, he said, has become a “fertile ground for extremism” and the global environment is “near collapse.”

On March 25, T. Mills Kelly, Associate Professor in the Department of History and Art History and Associate Dean, moderated a roundtable discussion with Gorbachev, Judge William Webster, the former Director of the FBI and CIA, and Sergey Chumarev, First Counsellor of the Russian Federation.

Kelly mixed questions from the crowd of about 750, covering topics like global economics, the rise of new global powers, and human rights.

Webster, Chumarev, and Gorbachev drew on their personal histories and participation in past events to share their perspectives, both in reflection and in making suggestions for the future.

“China, India, Brazil and South Africa will play a more prominent role in international relations,” Chumarev said.

The roundtable discussion was followed by breakout sessions with many scholars, both from George Mason and from abroad, who held discussions in intimate settings.

The event, sponsored by University Life and the Office of the Provost, drew students, faculty, and others to George Mason’s Fairfax campus.

Raymond Beverage, a 52-year-old who was on active duty with United States Army from 1974 to 1998, attended Tuesday’s keynote address with his son, Andrew, a junior administration of justice major at George Mason.

“In our training, we used to have pop-up targets on the shooting range that we called ‘Ivans,’” Raymond Beverage said. “Now, I’m here with my son and so much has changed. The circle has come back around.”

Wes Bryan, a sophomore history major from Springfield, Va., attended the conference because he is a Russian history buff.

“This is a once in a lifetime experience,” Bryan said.

Edward Palmi and Sam Hewett, British students studying abroad at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, made the near one hour commute to Fairfax because “Gorbachev is part of the history we’re studying,” said Hewett.

“We’re going to get to see him in the actual flesh,” Palmi said. “It’s incredible, thinking of who he was and what he did.”