Спасибо, что рискнули (Thank you for taking a chance)

It is with a heavy heart that I read the news crawl across my screen this evening; Mikhail Gorbachev has died at 91.  The Soviet Union’s last leader who responded to decades of fantastically ancient politburo leaders, fossilizing economic output, and the Reagan Doctrine’s increasingly gleeful proxy confrontations across the globe with something new: optimism.  Gorbachev was the central figure who sparked the dismantling of the eastern bloc’s infrastructure with his fresh air policies of openness (glasnost) and socio-economic transformation (perestroika), choosing an open hand rather than the all too easy clenched fist.  Those fateful decisions and the renewed Russo-American summits and agreements would ultimately end the first global Cold War.  My students can only wonder at the optimism and relief that permeated much of the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly the jubilation of 1989 wherein both Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall–the emotional and physical embodiment of the iron curtain itself–came down.  It is an understatement to say this would not have happened as bloodlessly and rapidly as it did without Gorbachev at the helm.

The Peacemakers. Oil on Canvas. George Sumner. 1990.

My journey to meeting Mr. Gorbachev started with my dad.  In typical New Year’s fashion, he set about translating one of his dreams into a tangible manifestation of hope in the form of oil on canvas.  Always someone with ambitious goals and the conviction of doing what is right no matter how many doubters stood in his way, my dad set about to craft an oil painting that would be an evocative symbol of the possibility of American-Soviet peace in the late 1980s.  The exact date of the painting is somewhat debatable, but it was inspired by Gorbachev’s 1987 visit to the U.S.  He painted it in (I think) January of 1988, a culmination of his “whales in space” series (originally inspired by the inclusion of whalesong on Voyager 1 & 2’s Golden Records) and his life-long study of marine mammals and their behavioral ecology.

The Peacemakers showcases two bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) kissing above the earth.  Their bellies are flushed light pink, a signal of affection and love my dad witnessed several times while snorkeling with dolphin pods in the wild.  This somewhat audacious representation of international amorousness proved a brilliant choice.  Turns out dolphins resonated powerfully with the then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

George Sumner and Mikhail Gorbachev discussing the imagery of The Peacemakers in front of the Hoover Institution. Stanford University June 4, 1990.

My dad would spend the next two years working his contacts, glad handing every politician and person of influence he could jawbone for a chance to donate his eight foot canvas as a symbol of peace from the people of the United States to the people of the Soviet Union.  How he came to be running across the Stanford campus to prop up his huge painting up at the edge of a large crowd of bystanders as Gorbachev left his motorcade to walk into the Hoover Institution on a hot June day in 1990 is an epic story for another day.  Suffice it to say, The Peacemakers dramatic imagery and out of this world composition caught Gorbachev’s eye and drew him through the crush of the crowd to my dad despite the protests of his security detail and the Secret Service.  The impromptu 10-minute conversation between my father and the leader of the Soviet Union played out in front of television cameras and was headline news for days to come.  It also laid the foundation for my father’s composition being donated to the Russian people and enshrined in a Moscow museum.  It also launched years of collaboration between my Dad and the Gorbachev Foundation.

George Sumner (standing) and Mikhail Gorbachev signing limited edition lithographs of We Who Hold The Future in the Fairmont Hotel in 1992.

My dad would go on to meet Gorbachev two more times, each meeting more extended and collaborative than the last.  All of them were here in California.  All of them were built around art, the spirit of international collaboration and of new possibilities, the promise of a lasting peace, and the inspiration of the natural world.  I was a tag along on that second meeting in 1992 in San Francisco (also a day of crazy stories that can wait for another day) when my dad presented Gorbachev with a stack of limited edition lithographs and unveiled a new painting (We Who Hold the Future) to raise money for the Gorbachev Foundation’s Green Cross campaign.  I only spent a few minutes with Mr. Gorbachev, but was lucky enough to have an extended conversation with his translator and friend, Pavel Palazhchenko.  I expressed to both of them how appreciative I was for the courage and vision Gorbachev showed in taking those initial steps towards true peace in those dark and uncertain days.  I told them that as a boy I was absolutely convinced that nuclear war was inevitable, convinced that the future was set and the only possible outcome bleak.  It was amazingly similar to what my students articulate when they describe their climate-changed and depauperate future.  Gorbachev was a central lynchpin in breaking that apparent inevitability.  And I had the luxury of thanking him for choosing the path less travelled.

Spasibo, Gorbachev.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Citizenship in a Republic, Theodore Roosevelt 1910

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