Gorbachev's Weird, Glitzy, Celeb-Filled 80th Birthday Bash

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Scenes from the final Soviet leader's party, a bizarre celebration of capitalism and a Russia that no longer exists

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LONDON, England -- For four hours on Wednesday night, Mikhail Gorbachev was referred to, alternately, as: God, Moses, The Man Who Set Rock and Roll Free, and Arnold Schwarzenegger's hero.

Standing under the gilded dome of London's grand Royal Albert Hall, the last leader of the Soviet Union gripped the podium with the steady hand of a man who had addressed endless Party Congresses. "I had to live through very much," he told the crowd of 4,000 who had gathered to celebrate his 80th birthday. "But I have to say: I am a happy man."

Happy he is, at least when abroad, basking in the admiration of an eclectic mix of stars, singers, and ex-politicians. It's an adoration that would never be afforded him at home, where he is still largely remembered as the man who plunged Russia into chaos, stripped her of a hard-won empire, and promptly took off to make commercials for Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton.

But the West has a lot to thank him for -- handing it victory in the Cold War, avoiding nuclear holocaust, relinquishing power in very un-Gaddafi-esque fashion -- and the least it can do is allow the man a massive celebration for his octogintennial. It probably did not expect a party like this.

Parsing the Brits (smart velvety dresses) from the Russians (overly plumed à la Black Swan) was easy as guests exited fleets of black Chryslers emblazoned with "Gorbachev Eighty" and sauntered down the red carpet. Once inside, they gazed upon a stage adorned with two fake marble arches, masked by shimmering purple curtains. that gave the affair the feeling of a game show gone posh.

"Where would Russia be if it weren't reaping the benefits of a free democracy?" asked Sharon Stone.

The lights dimmed and somber images flashed on the screen above one of the world's most famous stages: Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, Lady Diana, The Beatles, and finally, Gorbachev -- figures that have entered the pantheon of history through some sort of collective acceptance of their importance. It was impossible not to notice that only one of them -- the birthday boy -- is still alive. Modesty has never been an especially prized character trait in Russia.

The images continued. Gorbachev with Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev with Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev with Hugh Grant, Gorbachev with the Dalai Lama. Which of these things is not like the other?

Gorbachev, heavy on his feet but looking the picture of rotund health, was introduced by the event's emcees, Kevin Spacey and Sharon Stone. Spacey spent the evening doing awkward Bill Clinton impressions. Stone, all elegance and smiles, proved, once again, why she is Russia's favorite starlet-for-hire.

The actress was last seen in Russia in December, lending her image to what later turned out to be a sham charity that had duped a dozen Hollywood stars into attending what they thought was a children's cancer society benefit party. Not even Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was immune, gracing the audience with his now-famous rendition of "Blueberry Hill." The Federation charity fund, set up by a friend of Putin's, has since admitted it raised no money for child cancer victims and never intended to. This may explain why Gorbachev's party, according to some of his Russian supporters, was held in London rather than Moscow, where few trust charity funds would have reached their target.

Gorbachev's event is expected to have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the former Soviet premier's cancer charities. Tickets went from $300 to $160,000 and the event was sponsored by brands that would have Lenin spinning in his grave: Vertu, Beluga Vodka, Faberge, Christie's.

There was no mention of charity, however, on Wednesday night, and few mentions of the momentous changes the world is currently going through, which some have compared to the seismic shifts that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. "The world is going through some momentous changes right now," Spacey said, "but it's also a very special birthday."

Presenters and performers appeared frozen in time. "Where would Russia be if it weren't reaping the benefits of a free democracy?" asked Sharon Stone. An appropriate question, perhaps, for the early 1990s; less so today, when Russia has, in Gorbachev's own words, become an "imitation" of democracy.

As if to prove that 20 difficult years hadn't passed since the euphoria of post-Soviet possibilities was born, the first performers to take the stage were none other than the Scorpions. "I follow the Moskva / Down to Gorky Park / Listening to the wind of chaaaaange," they sang, the anthem of an era. The 20-something woman seated in the box next to me began to cry. "Gorbachev is truly the man who set rock and roll free in Russia," Stone said.

If it's rock and roll he set free in Russia, it's pop rock dinosaurs he invited to celebrate his birthday. Shirley Bassey gave the obligatory nod to James Bond ("Diamonds are Forever"); Paul Anka sang a rousing rendition of "My Way," the song he wrote for Frank Sinatra but dedicated to Gorbachev that night; Bryan Ferry, a propos of nothing at all, sang his 80s hit "Slave to Love." Gorbachev took to the stage for the final performance of the evening, the debut of a duet by Anka and Soviet-era rocker Andrei Makarevich, with the appropriate chorus: "One day we'll recall, he was changing the world for us all." They should translate it into Russian.

It was a night of over-the-top tributes -- video messages from Clinton, Sting, and Bono competed with sugary blessings from Schwarzenneger and former Polish president and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa. CNN founder Ted Turner, accepting one of three awards handed out for Gorbachev's new The Man Who Changed the World program, teared up as he thanked Gorbachev for ending the Cold War peacefully. "We could have very easily had a series of wars that would've made what's happening in the Middle East look like child's play," he said. "President Gorbachev, you're the man of the century."

The first -- but not the last -- man to call Gorbachev divine was Israeli President Shimon Peres. "According to the Bible, Michael was an angel," he told the crowd, referring to the Western version of Gorbachev's first name. The former Soviet premier's story, he said, was "biblical." As if to drive the point home, Russia's Turetsky Choir later performed "Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)." To keep it Russian, they added disco flair and dance moves to the slavery-era spiritual. Mel C, better known as Sporty Spice, tried to do her bit by singing Nina Simone's "Ain't Got No," an ode to individuality and freedom. Her cause was somewhat diminished by a pre-performance tweet referring to a lyric in the song, "I will indeed be singing 'boobies!' In front of rather a lot of dignitaries!"

Time was when a Russian dignitary would have been saluted in London by the country's finest. Perhaps a dance by Nureyev, a cello concerto performed by Rostropovich, a poetry reading by Akhmatova. One of the night's most poignant moments came when Andrei Gavrilov sat down at his grand piano for a performance of Rachmaninov's second piano concerto. Images by great Russian painters -- Chagall, Malevich, Kandinsky -- floated across the screen above the stage as the notes rang out into the silent hall. This was Russia's past: troubled but full of passion, tragic but documented by some of the greatest cultural heritage the world has ever known. That past is gone -- destroyed, in part, by the political turmoil and economic disaster ushered in under Gorbachev. He may have overseen the fall of the Soviet Union, but it is not something he wanted.

"Let us meet again," Gorbachev said on Wednesday. "Not in this grand hall, but in a simple square in some village. My biggest happiness is speaking with people." At the end of the night, he got into a limousine with a hot pink interior and drove away.


Photo by Toby Melville / Reuters
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Miriam Elder is a journalist based in Moscow.

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