MOSCOW — Chopped liver was served, pickles and shredded cabbage were passed around, a few toasts with vodka were drunk and the reminiscing about Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev's college days began.
Photos and anecdotes from the old days were once again exchanged over dinner in a small Moscow apartment last month, as they have been each year since this small group of about 15 of Gorbachev's classmates graduated from the Moscow University law school in 1955.
For five years, these people had taken the same courses, shared the same dormitories and waited in the same lines for tickets to the ballet and theater. They have kept in touch over the years, and Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, had joined them at previous reunions, though this time other duties intervened.
These friends knew the Soviet leader during the formative years of a new Russia as well as a new Gorbachev. It was the period during which Josef Stalin died and Nikita S. Khrushchev began his rise to power; a period during which a rube harvester driver from the grain regions of southern Russia came to Moscow with his one good suit, learned as much as he could about the larger world, and returned home five years later--still in that same suit--to launch a political career that now brings him face to face next week with the President of the United States.
Just how did the stagnant, conformist Soviet society produce a leader apparently committed to reform? Is Gorbachev's preoccupation with change a public relations device designed to woo Western audiences and lull the Soviet public, or is it real?
Definitive answers are elusive. Soviet leaders traditionally are secretive about their private lives. But talks with Gorbachev's classmates provide a rare glimpse of the party chief's personality during an important period of his life. Their firsthand knowledge of his subsequent career is, of course, limited to occasional personal contacts.
The Guy They Knew Then
On one point, however, his college mates--not all of whom agree with every aspect of his current program for restructuring Soviet society--are unanimous: The guy in power today is the guy they knew back then. Their only surprise is that someone with Gorbachev's qualities could make it to the top. And some fear he may not be able to stay there.
The people who lived with Gorbachev in his youth are not surprised by his bold behavior now. They recalled his toughness in openly criticizing the professor in their class on Stalin's writings, his tendency to scoff at official propaganda's overblown claims and his loyalty to friends under political suspicion during Stalin's last years.
One of those friends was his closest, Vladimir Lieberman, a Jew eight years his senior, who came under attack during the anti-Semitic hysteria generated when Stalin fabricated charges that a group of Jewish doctors had conspired to poison him.
Lieberman, a former Red Army colonel and decorated war veteran, was a member of the same party unit as Gorbachev. He recalled the incident this way: "Some comrades, sniffing the wind, tried to criticize me. I was the only Jew at the law school's Communist Party meeting. Gorbachev had entered the party right before this event, but it was he who tried to prevent the attack on me and did so very sharply, using some unparliamentary words. He called one of our old and respected ex-soldiers 'a spineless animal.' That just stopped them."
Is a Western reporter permitted to hear all this because of Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness) or is he being fed a line by people who remain fearful of the next turn of the wheel of state power?
An Exile in Vienna
"It's glasnost, " concluded Zdenek Mlynar, who has no need to fear. Mlynar, a Czech national, had lived across the hall from Gorbachev during college and regarded him as his closest friend. He is now in exile in Vienna, one of those who tried to reform Czechoslovakia 20 years ago as, in his view, Gorbachev is attempting to do now in the Soviet Union.
"I can remember the day when it was reported in the papers that the Jewish doctors had been arrested," Mlynar said during a recent interview in Vienna. "I was walking with Gorbachev and some others, and they were talking about it. Somebody from the group said, 'Today, I don't want to be in Lieberman's shoes.' Gorbachev said to be silent. Gorbachev and I had a very high opinion of Lieberman. He wasn't a Jew for him, but somebody to look up to as a typical Communist."
According to Mlynar, he also personally benefited from Gorbachev's personal loyalty.
Rumors of Arrests
"It was important that you could depend on him as an individual. For example, I can remember in the year '51-'52 there were the political trials in Prague and I was criticized in the Czech Moscow party group as a potential party enemy. When the general secretary of the party in Prague was arrested, there was a rumor that I would be arrested, too.