When Gorby missed out on a visit to Scotland

The world has lost a great statesman this week with the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, writes Vanessa Glynn.

Though now reviled in Russia, and disrespected by the odious Putin regime, many eulogies from Western leaders and international commentators have rightly been written to mark his achievements as a peacemaker and visionary for his own country and the wider world.

I have a particular sadness at his passing because as a young British diplomat, working in the Soviet Department of the FCO, I helped to organise his groundbreaking visit to the UK in December 1984.

This was the visit where he, not yet leader of his country but already a man of a very different calibre from the atrophied Politburo lookalikes who governed the sclerotic Soviet empire, first met Margaret Thatcher.

He was ostensibly visiting London as part of a parliamentary visit but the FCO, and, to her credit Thatcher, rolled out the red carpet for the rising star with whom the UK and US hoped it could “do business”. Thatcher and Gorbachev got on very well and, at a time of real Cold War tension, this filled us all with hope that relations with the Soviet Union could be more co-operative.

Gorbachev was a breath of fresh air in his temperament and attitudes.  Unlike the stiff and paranoid behaviour of his political and diplomatic colleagues, he smiled and chatted, he was charming and relaxed. He brought with him his chic wife, Raisa, who made a bee-line for Harrods with her credit card.

Little remembered, perhaps, is that he was particularly keen to include stops in Scotland during that first visit. He was interested in the Mossmorran Natural Gas Liquids Plant near Cowdenbeath, so we worked with his team and with stakeholders in Scotland to give him a VIP tour. Imagine such co-operation with Russia on gas supplies now! 

Sadly, Gorbachev never made it to Mossmorran; as he was on his way to Scotland news came through that Dimitry Ustinov, one of the ruling Soviet troika, had died and he returned urgently to Moscow. The grand welcome dinner organised for him at Edinburgh Castle that evening was cancelled, but I was always glad that the food was not wasted, but sent instead to Edinburgh old folks’ homes.

It would be another few months before Gorbachev became Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and leader of his country. Sadly, his reforms did not create a democratic, peaceful Russia for the long term but those of us privileged to have seen and heard him during that turning-point visit knew we had met a man of historic significance. He never did return to Scotland.

Farewell to a great European and let’s hope that one day we have leaders of his quality in our world again. 

Featured image by Veni Markovsky via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported