When he was 11, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev had an experience that would shape him personally and politically for the rest of his
life. It was early spring 1943, the snow had just thawed, and he was running through the countryside with other children. Suddenly they came upon a remote stretch of forest filled with the corpses of Red Army soldiers who had died in a battle with the Germans the previous summer.
“It was an unspeakable horror," Gorbachev wrote decades later, "decaying corpses, partly devoured by animals, skulls in rusted helmets, bleached bones, rifles protruding from the sleeves of the rotting jackets. There was a light machine-gun, some hand grenades, heaps of empty cartridges. There they lay in the thick mud of the trenches and craters, unburied, staring at us out of black, gaping eye sockets. We came home in a state of shock."
Many factors have shaped the complex and forceful figure who arrived on the world stage in the mid-1980s and unleashed forces that were ultimately too strong for him to control: disillusionment, as for so many other communists, when in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev exposed the full extent of the brutality of Stalin's regime; a Stakhanovite work ethic that distinguished him as a peasant farmworker and then law student, and which, by 1980, made him the youngest member of the Soviet Politburo; impatience in the late Brezhnev years with a corrupt political system that seemed gripped by conceptual permafrost. Yet, as he sits in a Mayfair hotel suite flooded with evening light, he asserts that he is increasingly preoccupied - in his 81st year - with the way his Second World War experiences have defined him.
If the evolution of his political persona could be viewed as a set of Russian dolls, it is easy to see how that small boy, disturbed by his encounter with the corpses in the wood, is contained within the Soviet politician who, when he first met Margaret Thatcher in 1984, handed her a diagram of the world's nuclear arsenals and informed her with passion that they had the capacity to wipe out all life a thousand times over. Who, even today, when I ask him about what many - including himself - view as the Middle East's Berlin Wall moment, declares: "No one can stop through force the movement of the people who want freedom and democracy. This is a dangerous moment. The only way forward is to conduct a dialogue."
The night before our meeting I attended the Mikhail Gorbachev 80th Birthday Charitable Celebration at the Royal Albert Hall in London. He was born in March 1931 in Privolnoye, a village near Stavropol in the north Caucasus, son of a man who drove combine harvesters. The gala's location in London, rather than Moscow, had attracted much comment about his fractured legacy in his home country, something that even he referred to obliquely in his otherwise upbeat speech by citing the title of an old article of his: "There are no happy reformers".
If the length of the gala - four and a half hours - was one of the most notable things about the evening (Gorbachev jokes, "It was great, but I thought that I would not survive it to the end"), understatement was not. The hosts were the actors Kevin Spacey and Sharon Stone; the guest speakers included Shimon Peres and Arnold Schwarzenegger in person and Bill Clinton and Bono by satellite link. Among the eclectic list of performers were the conductor Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra, Shirley Bassey, blasting out "Diamonds Are Forever" (presumably chosen for the music rather than its sentiments, given Gorbachev's lashing out against his countrymen's displays of wealth) and Paul Anka, who serenaded the ex-president with - what else? - "I Did It My Way".
Under the theme "The Man Who Changed the World", three inaugural Mikhail Gorbachev prizes were announced. A slightly tearful Ted Turner, founder of CNN, was recognised for contributing to the culture of an open world (the Glasnost award), the Kenyan engineer Evans Wadongo won for his initiatives in science and technology (Uskorenie) and Tim Berners-Lee was feted for aiding the development of global civilisation (Perestroika).
Gorbachev has long been accustomed to bringing gravitas to glitz (witness his Louis Vuitton adverts) and at midnight he was still partying on the Royal Albert Hall stage, enthusiastically embracing - among others - Stone and Milla Jovovich. Yet when we meet, there is no sense of weariness in his bearing, even though he is preparing to have surgery on his spine. What is striking - much more than the birthmark on his head - is the uncompromising directness of his personality. His gaze is resolute and rarely relaxes before yours does, he answers each question at length, and he swats down interruptions as if they were invisible flies, his broad hand coming down with a thwack on the glass table.
World leaders continue to court him assiduously. The day before our interview, he met David Cameron, whose vision of the "big society" he has praised. How does Cameron compare to Maggie Thatcher? "Well, they are different people," he replies with a glint in his eye. "And, of course, he represents a new generation. When I was president, David Cameron was just a student, but you know, life is the best teacher, and he was shaped by a period when really important things were happening in the world. I cannot pass judgement on him yet - it's not time, and I just met him once, yesterday - but I think he has potential."
Make sparks fly
He is much less ambivalent about Barack Obama. Political commentators have made much of the similarities between Obama and Gorbachev, both positive and negative. In June 2009, a blog on the New York Times's Economix site discussed "Obama's Gorbachev moment". In it, Peter Boone, chair of the UK-based charity Effective Intervention, and Simon Johnson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, wrote:
A superpower faces serious economic decline. People become increasingly nervous about the government's ability to make good on its obligations, and the country's broader global role comes into question. Recent foreign wars have not gone well . . . Into this situation steps a young dynamic leader . . . His name is Mikhail Gorbachev, and the moment is the Soviet Union in 1985.
Gorbachev is far too sophisticated to labour the parallels between them, but there is a sense of both respect and empathy, not least because he is conscious of the complicated legacy that Obama has inherited. As recently as February, he spoke out against the US policy of funding Islamic extremists in Afghanistan during the 1970s and 1980s as part of its fight against communism, talking about the "historical and political boomerang" that produced the conflicts we are witnessing now.
By contrast, he says to me of Obama that "I think in most issues he is right, he has acted democratically, and sometimes this is seen as weakness. He should rule in a way that sparks fly [we met before the assassination of Osama Bin Laden]. But he has the will to defend his stance. So, not by way of advice but as a matter of principle, I think that generally he deserves support, and Americans would lose a lot if they didn't have the benefit of such a president."
What does he think of the way Obama has responded to the conflict in Libya? "Sometimes you need to act when people are being killed," he says cautiously. "Then, rulers should be stopped. But that's an exceptional situation. It may be done only according to the decision of the UN Security Council."
Gorbachev supported Muammar al-Gaddafi when the United States launched air strikes on Libya in retaliation for a Berlin nightclub bombing in 1986. But as he says, "It is totally wrong that the same leader can be in place for 25, 30, 40 years. I don't think they can even remember the year that he came to power.
“When I became president, fairly soon, as part of our democratic process, we adopted decisions concerning elections that established that any official can work in any position no more than two terms. Which meant, basically, from eight to ten years. Because, if it's more, then you get surrounded by corrupt circles and you get into cronyism and all the other things that simply are wrong."
It is impossible not to decode this as a swipe at the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. At a press conference early this year, Gorbachev responded to the news that Putin was considering standing for a third (non-consecutive term) as president by declaring that Russia was experiencing a sham democracy. "One must never think that one almost has God by the coat-tails," he told me. "Putin is a capable person, but right now it's very important for him not to stray from the road of democracy."
More than 300 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1993. His response to this point, however, is surprisingly defensive: "Let us not start playing the blame game. You are right that we have had some setbacks in terms of being a free and democratic country but generally the press is free in Russia."
Keep on moving
If he is less condemnatory than he has been in the past of Russia's record on free speech, he is happy to talk at some length about his private life, which results in his most surprising revelation. "You know, I tried three times before I was 40 to quit politics. [His late wife] Raisa hated politics." Nearly 12 years after her death from leukaemia (some funds from the gala went to the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation for fighting childhood cancer), he still thinks that public hostility to his career killed his wife.
“She did not survive all the trials that we had to go through. Her death was a really heavy blow to me. The hardest thing for her was being aware of the lies that were told about her. At the end, people started to understand Raisa and started to understand us. But it was too late and, ultimately, it undermined her strength. The world is very cruel and we have not yet learned to improve that world and make it happier."
Even if Gorbachev was tempted to quit politics so long ago, it is clear that he is as incapable of removing himself from the political scene now as he is of sprouting wings and taking off over the London skyline from his hotel balcony. What remains remarkable about him is his stamina. "To work is the best sport," he says. "People who have no plans, who just want to look good, they are doomed."
He points to Pavel Palazhchenko, his tireless interpreter, who is translating our interview and who worked with him through the years of his presidency and the cold war. "If you removed his bald spot, he would look 25," Gorbachev jokes. "That's because he's very mobile, always in motion."
I talk to Gorbachev about when, as a 16-year-old, he harvested a record crop of grain on the collective farm where his family lived, working 20-hour days and sleeping just three to four hours a night. The achievement made him one of the youngest people ever to win the Soviet Order of the Red Banner of Labour. As well as physical strength, it must have demanded great mental stubbornness. "That's the kind of person I am," he concurs. "As they sometimes say, I am 'a piece of work'."
Rachel Halliburton is deputy editor of Time Out