When Daria Simon '98 greeted former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev with dark bread and salt, a magical visit was underway.
Accompanied by his wife Raisa, several aides and John Runnette '54, who flew the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner to campus, Gorbachev managed in a mere three hours to meet the press, wow a packed Cotterell Court crowd, accept an armful of gifts with appreciation, and charm everyone who was granted an audience.
The visit, which required attention to countless details, a motorcade and the transformation of Starr Rink, was made possible by Martha and Tony Olcott, Colgate professors whose research in political science and Russian studies, respectively, developed a contact in Gorbachev's office. Hundreds of faxes and phone calls later, arrangements were made for the former president to include Colgate on his spring visit to the United States.
"I told Gorbachev's people President Ford had been here," says Tony Olcott. "It translated in their minds as, `Colgate is a place where presidents come.'"
With support from Dean of the Faculty Jane Pinchin and the efforts of offices across campus, Gorbachev arrived on a bright, brisk day and was received with all of Colgate's good graces. Originally billed as a lecture on the environment, Gorbachev's speech instead covered his fall from power, compared Boris Yeltsin to a cowboy and recommended that, for Russia to succeed, it needs to stick "to the democratic path."
Following his address to a crowd estimated at 3,000, Gorbachev and his wife crossed the lobby of Reid Athletic Center to the hockey rink for a reception. Linda and Gerry Nordberg '58, whose support has been instrumental in keeping the Russian study group alive, were on hand as students shared their Moscow experiences with the Gorbachevs. The exchanges seemed warm and were surprisingly lingering. Mrs. Gorbachev was especially interested in hearing about students meeting Russian people. The former president took delight in greeting Student Association president Joe Di Tomaso '97 and president-elect Xavier Estrada '98.
"I think they felt at home with us," says Tony Olcott, who was "intrigued by their engagement of the students." Before leaving, the Gorbachevs were presented numerous gifts including a Colgate clock, a crystal bowl and a song from Joanne Shenandoah on behalf of the Oneida Indian Nation, which "brought democracy to this area."
"The Gorbachevs were extraordinarily gracious and giving," says Dean Pinchin. "I think they responded to the warmth extended them." The dean was also struck by "the real pulling together from all parts of the community. It was a lot of fun to work with people from all parts of the institution on a common enterprise."
The goodbyes at Hamilton International Airport were warm. President Gorbachev embraced President Grabois before boarding the jet that circled campus, then headed to Washington, D.C.
"The Gorbachevs' visit energized the community," says Grabois. "It energized me and it was a marvelous opportunity to bring Colgate and the larger community together. We were treated to a frank and wide-ranging perspective on matters Russian by one of the most significant figures of the 20th century." JH