My Meeting with President Gorbachev
Meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (Moscow, July 1990)
(Abridged translation of an essay in The Complete Works of Daisaku Ikeda1)
The car made its way toward the Kremlin beneath a brilliant blue sky. The date was July 27, 1990, and it was a Friday. I was scheduled to meet with then Soviet president Mikhail S. Gorbachev at 10:30 A.M.
The car moved through the soft morning light. Passing through the Kremlin’s heavily guarded crenellated walls, we arrived at the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet building. At the entrance, we ascended a flight of stairs that brought us before a set of stately wooden doors typical of Russian architecture. Beyond the doorway, we rode the elevator to fifth and highest floor.
We were led down a long hallway adorned with an exhibition case displaying china and other gifts from various countries. Passing through a waiting room, we were ushered through a large white door that opened into the meeting chamber. The room had a simple decor. As I entered the room, Mr. Gorbachev appeared from a door at the opposite end.
“Good morning!” I said, extending my hand. “I am delighted to have this opportunity to meet you!”
“The pleasure is mine,” he replied.
I had brought my own interpreter. However, in keeping with protocol for heads of state, it was decided that we would use Mr. Gorbachev’s interpreter.
The first words I uttered were, “I have come to have an argument with you.” I was inviting him to engage in broad-ranging and fruitful debate.
Mr. Gorbachev’s interpreter Victor Kim, who would later accompany the president to Japan [in April 1991], seemed somewhat puzzled by my remark. I suppose it’s only natural that an interpreter should hesitate for a moment when a guest begins a dialogue by abruptly saying, “Let’s argue.”
Just then, the interpreter accompanying me, a graduate of Soka University, jumped in and skillfully conveyed my words with the intended nuance. Soon there were smiles all around.
I continued: “Let’s make sparks fly, and talk about everything honestly and openly, for the sake of humanity and for the sake of Japan–Soviet relations!”
Mr. Gorbachev, his face flushed with color, replied without missing a beat: “I am well acquainted with your extensive activities, but I didn’t realize you were a man of such passion. I, too, am fond of straightforward dialogue.” He then let out a hearty laugh. He was skilled in repartee and his mind worked very quickly. Furthermore, true to his reputation, he had a keen wit.
The Soviet president continued: “I feel as though you and I are longtime friends. It is as if we are old and dear friends rejoicing in their first face-to-face encounter.”
In the center of the room was a large conference table. After our wonderful initial exchange, we took our seats across from each other.
Mr. Gorbachev was joined on his side of the table by the well-known author Chingiz T. Aitmatov, a member of the Presidential Council; Rector Anatoli A. Logunov of Moscow State University; Chairman Gennadi A. Yagodin of the State Committee for National Education; Anatoli S. Chernyaev, a presidential aide; Karen N. Brutents, first deputy head of the International Department of the Communist Party Central Committee; and Vladislav I. Dunaev of the Novosti Press Agency.
I am not a politician or an economist, but a private citizen. I think it is precisely for that reason that I have been able to engage in frank and open dialogue with world leaders, unfettered by the constraints of political protocol or narrow economic interests.
I said: “Today, on behalf of the people of the world who are waiting to hear your message, and for the sake of future generations, I would like to take the role of student and ask your views on a variety of matters.”
Extending his arms in a gesture of welcome and broadly flashing the famous “Gorby smile,” the president replied: “Before I have even had the chance to welcome you as my guest, you have taken the words out of my mouth!”
Leaning forward, he continued: “You—my ‘student’? Nothing could be further from the truth. It is you who are making tremendous contributions to humanity while upholding the values and ideals of humanism.
“I am very familiar with your ideas, and I have a deep interest in the philosophical side of your activities. The ‘new thinking’ that is part of our program of perestroika is like a branch stemming from the trunk of the philosophy that you espouse.”
His comments about me aside, I found the president to be someone with whom I could really talk and be understood.
The Historical Significance of Perestroika
Daisaku Ikeda and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev meet for the first time (at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 1990)
What is most important for our lives? It is the pursuit of the answer to this question that gave rise to Mr. Gorbachev’s ideas about changing society. Not once did he waver in his stance as he set about implementing perestroika—an unprecedented experiment in human history—and promoting reform.
As human beings, of utmost importance is how faithfully we can live to the cry of our conscience and to what extent we can act in accord with our inner voice of justice. Understanding the struggles Mr. Gorbachev must have gone through to stay true to his convictions, I could not help but say to him: “I am a supporter of perestroika and the ‘new thinking’ you seek to foster. Our ideas have much in common. In fact, this is only natural, as we both focus on the human being. Our humanity is the great common denominator.”
Mr. Gorbachev nodded in agreement as I spoke.
When I commented on his youthfulness, the president’s dignified face broke into a smile. “Being called young makes me particularly happy,” he said. “That’s because one year at perestroika ages you five years.”
He further remarked: “President Ikeda, I have the highest regard for your intellectual and social activities. One reason for this is because all of your endeavors have a spiritual element to them.
“At this point, we are trying to gradually incorporate the spiritual elements of ethics and morals into government. Although this is a difficult task, I believe that success in this endeavor will yield tremendous results.”
In the rigid world of Eastern-bloc politics, the very idea of emphasizing spiritual factors had been at one time unthinkable.
To believe in people’s innate goodness and advance steadfastly upholding the ideal of humanism. To emphasize spiritual values. In such aspirations, Mr. Gorbachev and I shared a common ground.
“New ideas tend to be looked upon at first as absurd,” Mr. Gorbachev stated emphatically. “Reformers are always in the minority in the beginning. Therefore, it is a mistake to immediately dismiss budding plans or fresh ideas as outrageous.”
I was in complete agreement. That was precisely what I had wanted to convey.
Amid a great storm of persecution and insult, the SGI had initiated a kind of religious renaissance. For this reason, I could truly empathize with Mr. Gorbachev’s situation.
Sitting upright, Mr. Gorbachev vigorously continued: “When I proposed constructing a world free of nuclear weapons and resolving conflict through dialogue rather than violence, many people laughed this off as utopianism. But look at what is happening; these ideals are now being actualized.”
He was filled with self-confidence. He positively shone.
During our meeting, Mr. Gorbachev went straight to the heart of things as he explained the process leading to perestroika. His face taut and his tone direct, he said, “Mr. Ikeda, what I want to say next is very important: Everything that I have accomplished up to now has been made possible because there have been able and intelligent people around me, some of whom are present here today. All I have achieved has been the result of my association and unity with these people. In other words, it has been due to an alliance of government and culture.”
At this juncture, our discussion really livened up.
One person can have both a political side and a cultural side. It is a union of these mutually influential areas that brings forth the innate potential of the individual, thereby elevating both sides to a higher level. On this point, as well, we were in complete agreement.
The First Visit to Japan by a Soviet Head of State
Discussions with Soviet President Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders at the Kremlin in Moscow (July 1990)
By elevating the quality of culture, we can elevate the human being, which in turn causes the elevation of government. This was the point I was making during my meeting with President Gorbachev when I said that it is essential that politicians possess philosophy and a poetic spirit. Our conversation was filled with such passion and excitement that it felt as though time were standing still.
The president also said: “The first step in perestroika was to give everyone freedom. However, the question now is how to put that freedom to use: . . . Perestroika has reached a decisive stage. This is a time of change not only for the Soviet Union, but for the entire world.”
Describing the image of people speaking their minds freely, the president remarked with a smile, “In the national government, as well, the Supreme Soviet has turned into a kind of theater.”
“One that is filled with lots of good actors!” Dr. Yagodin interjected. At this, the room erupted with laughter. The president immediately added, “It’s more popular than any soap opera on television!” Hearty laughter continued. It was a lively atmosphere.
This newfound freedom brought about even more dramatic changes. Seeing the incredible effect of perestroika, I was struck yet again by the immense power of the human mind. Everything that Russia was able to achieve was made possible by a change in the human heart.
There was one aim that I hoped to achieve in my meeting with Mr. Gorbachev; that is, the realization of a visit by him to Japan. At that time, there was much speculation whether such a visit would actually happen. That’s because just two days before our meeting, discussions with a national delegation of Diet members from Japan had broken down, bringing any plans for a visit back to square one.
As our discussion turned to relations between our two countries, I changed its direction by commenting that his courtship with his wife Raisa was well known.
He humorously retorted that that was something he had started to forget, adding: “Since Moscow State University Rector Logunov is present, and it was when my wife and I were both students at that school that our romance began, I think it would be inappropriate to discuss the matter now.” Amid everyone’s laughter, Mr. Logunov gave a friendly shrug.
I then asked where the couple went on their honeymoon and why they didn’t visit Japan.
The president immediately replied: “I will answer your first question when I make my trip to Japan. As to the second question, I can give you an answer at any time. I very much want to visit Japan, and I believe this desire will be realized.”
I then expressed my hope that he and Mrs. Gorbachev would make their visit either during the spring when the cherry blossoms are in flower or during the autumn to see the crimson maple leaves.
When I told him I was eagerly looking forward to welcoming them in Japan, the president said: “Most of the talks I have had with Japanese until now have been extremely constrained. The bottom line is that when people begin to communicate in a spirit of cooperation, any differences can be resolved. Nothing will be achieved if either party is stuck on issuing preliminary conditions or final ultimatums.”
In response to my suggesting that he visit Japan as soon as possible, he decisively stated: “I will definitely visit Japan: . . . The lack of dialogue between our countries is not normal.” And he voiced his wish to make the trip in the springtime.
Thus, the decision for the first visit ever by a Soviet head of state to Japan had been made. News of his comments were widely reported, including on the 7:00 P.M. news in Japan that day, as a breakthrough in relations between the two countries. The story was also covered on the front page of the Soviet newspaper Pravda under the headline “President Announces Intention to Visit Japan.”
A Warm Send-off
Our dialogue was full of excitement. Had circumstances allowed, I think we could have continued talking for hours on end. But I made a move to wind things up. We had covered a great deal of ground over the course of an hour. “You are the busiest person on the planet, a leader who is responsible for half of the world. For me, a private citizen, to tie up any more of your time would be a huge loss for the rest of the world. I will therefore take my leave.”
I excused myself, and the president gave me a friendly send-off. As we were leaving, I noticed him say something to my interpreter. He had apparently told her warmly, “I will definitely visit Japan.”
“The Ability to Keep On Fighting Is a Matter of the Spirit”
Hosting Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Mrs. Gorbachev in Japan (Soka University, Tokyo, April 1993)
True to his promise, Mr. Gorbachev came to Japan in April 1991, the year after our encounter. I met him at the Akasaka State Guesthouse in central Tokyo. I will write about this meeting as well as the ones that followed at a later date. In the end, our encounters became a two-volume dialogue titled Moral Lessons of the Twentieth Century2
On November 20, 1997, a day of brilliant autumn colors, I welcomed the Gorbachevs to Kansai Soka Junior and Senior High School in Katano, Osaka. On that occasion, Raisa Gorbachev, herself an educator, made an impassioned appeal to the students: “You will experience all kinds of hurts in life. Not all of them will heal. Nor can you always realize all of your dreams. But there is something that you can achieve. There is a dream that you can make a reality.
“Therefore, the person who triumphs in the end is the person who gets up after each fall and pushes onward. The ability to keep on fighting is a matter of the spirit.”
Sadly, Mrs. Gorbachev passed away from acute leukemia on September 20, 1999. However, the Gorbachevs’ humanistic philosophy has been deeply engraved and will be carried on in the hearts of the young leaders who will shoulder the 21st century.
It is now 10 years since the Berlin Wall came down. At the ceremony marking that anniversary, Mr. Gorbachev showed the world that he remains healthy and in high spirits. His achievements, which had great impact on the 20th century, will shine brilliantly for all eternity.
The other day, I received a message from Mr. Gorbachev proposing that we “undertake a new project together—for the sake of humankind.”