The death of Mikhail Gorbachev on August 30 made me recall his visit to Emory University thirty years ago. It was May 11, 1992, and fifteen thousand graduates, friends, and family members filled the Emory Quadrangle to hear the Commencement address delivered by the last person to preside over the Soviet Union. It was the largest Commencement crowd in the University’s history, and that Commencement became the benchmark for all future Emory graduation exercises in terms of size, security—and celebrity (the last criterion not always met to the satisfaction of the students).
The year before, Eduard Shevardnadze had delivered the Commencement address. He had been foreign minister of the USSR until its dissolution and would later serve as first president of the Republic of Georgia. His granddaughter Tamuna Mosashvili was a student in Emory College, and a burgeoning academic and health-sciences relationship between Emory and Georgia paved the way for his appearance. Building on that experience, Emory President James Laney decided to invite Gorbachev as a follow-up act.
Out of power since 1991, Gorbachev had decided to go on a speaking tour of the United States, including a stop at Westminster College in Missouri, where Winston Churchill had delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946. Emory was able to lure Gorbachev by promising a meeting with President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Presidential Center might serve as a model for the kind of post-political career Gorbachev could have.
I was part of the delegation that met Gorbachev at the Atlanta airport, where he arrived on a private jet supplied by Malcolm Forbes, the publisher of Forbes magazine. The irony of name of the plane carrying this communist leader was lost on none of us waiting on the tarmac—Capitalist Tool.
Interest in hearing this former head of the Soviet Union was so intense that people with no connection to Emory and from as far away as Florida wanted to attend the event; the Quadrangle had to be fenced off for the first time to ensure that graduates and their guests would have seats. Even so, the graduates could receive only a limited number of tickets, making for a lot of unhappiness.
The day was magnificent. Senator Sam Nunn 1961C 1962L introduced President Carter, who in turn introduced Gorbachev. The audience listened to the speech twice—first in Russian and then in English, as Gorbachev and his translator alternated paragraph by paragraph. It did go on, and the audience was no doubt happy to stand and applaud the final words. Having received his honorary degree, Gorbachev departed the stage and went on to his next stop.
For more on this episode, see chapter 8 of my book Emory as Place: Meaning in a University Landscape (University of Georgia Press, 2019).
Gary S. Hauk