In his 1997 Hofstra University speech, former Soviet President Mikhail...

In his 1997 Hofstra University speech, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev noted with pride his work with U.S. leaders on areas of mutual interest. Credit: Hofstra University Archives

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet Union leader who died Tuesday, made at least two visits to Long Island in the years following his resignation as president. In one, a Hofstra University conference in 1997, he recalled leading Russia's predecessor at a time when the superpowers worked together "for our two countries and for the world."

Gorbachev, whose economic and social reforms as Soviet president from 1985 to 1991 before the country's collapse made words like "glasnost" and perestroika" familiar around the world, took part in the April 1997 Hofstra conference on the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The event brought out top officials from the Bush Administration, including the former president himself.

Gorbachev spoke at Adelphi University in 1998 but officials familiar with his speech were unavailable for comment.

The former Soviet leader's participation at Hofstra, "was a pretty extraordinary thing," said Richard Himelfarb, a political-science professor at the university, who attended the conference.

Himelfarb, who said he was in charge of student participation at the conference, said some university officials thought it was "ridiculous" that a dignitary at Gorbachev's level would choose to come, plus there were concerns about his compensation.

Himelfarb said, though, that he heard that Gorbachev reduced his fee.

And so on April 19, 1997, Gorbachev — by then a Nobel Peace Prize recipient — appeared at the conference, receiving a long ovation as he took to the lectern. His speech, captured by CPAN cameras, is in the university archives.

Gorbachev began by thanking the audience and conference organizers for the "warmth and the hospitality I've felt here," saying it made him feel "very emotional."

He went onto say, as an interpreter translated his Russian into English, "This conference, as the previous such conferences, above all proves this nation's responsibility and this nation's respect for its history. This is particularly so given the person honored by this conference," he said of Bush.

"We worked together and did some important things for our two countries and for the world."

Gorbachev talked about meeting with Bush's Secretary of State James Baker and the secretary's attitude toward his efforts to open up and restructure the Soviet Union. Gorbachev said there were suspicions among some in the U.S. government about whether the Soviet leader's reforms were genuine.

But Baker was not among the naysayers, Gorbachev said, noting Baker "expressed a positive attitude towards our reforms. He called those reforms a real revolution … Jim Baker told us that we had a chance to leave behind us the postwar period, with its ups and downs, with its Cold War, and to change for the better the relationship between the two superpowers to make that relationship irreversible in the mutual interests of both the United States and the Soviet Union." 

Gorbachev's speech took place before Paul Fritz began teaching at Hofstra, but he looks back at the late leader's visit as an important moment for the university. 

 "What a great honor that was," he said.

Fritz, an associate professor of political science whose area of expertise is international relations, said he has researched and studied "Russia closely, especially the Cold War." Gorbachev's legacy, he said, "is both monumental and mixed."

"I say monumental because it's hard to imagine a person who single-handedly had a [more] huge impact on international politics. But also the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the devastation of the Russian economy, and we're seeing some of the repercussions of that today with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s desire to restore some of the former Russian empire, which is bound up with the end of the Cold War that Gorbachev oversaw," Fritz said.

Some of the things Gorbachev did well, in Fritz's estimation: "He realized the Soviet system was broken and in need of reform. Glasnost and perestroika were important reforms that led down the path to an easing of relations with the U.S." Glasnost refers to openness, and perestroika was about restructuring the Soviet system.

"What Gorbachev did domestically and in Eastern Europe set the stage for the Cold War to end without shots being fired," Fritz said. But, he added, Gorbachev "underestimated the weakness and decay in the Soviet system" that precipitated its collapse, ushering in "economic and political chaos in the former Soviet spaces."

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