An interview by Fred Matser carried in the September/October 1997 issue of Resurgence Magazine (Issue 184). Our thanks to Fred Matser for permission to use this interview.
Neither Mr. Matser nor Mr. Gorbachev are in any way connected to the Dismantlement website.
What values are important to you?
I am glad that you ask about values. The twentieth century has been one of the most tragic centuries, a century with alot of bloodshed, domination and destruction. It is the most paradoxical century. On the one hand, we have made big breakthroughs in knowledge which has resulted in new technologies. On the other hand, because of these technological breakthroughs, for example, nuclear weapons, our very survival is in jeopardy. We are witnessing a breakdown of the proper relationship between human kind and the rest of nature.
I believe that this situation has arisen because we have retreated from the perennial values. I don't think that we need any new values. The most important thing is to try to revive the universally known values from which we have retreated.
As a young man, I really took to heart the Communist ideals. A young soul certainly cannot reject things like justice and equality. These were the goals proclaimed by the Communists. But in reality that terrible Communist experiment brought about repression of human dignity. Violence was used in order to impose that model on society. In the name of Communism we abandoned basic human values. So when I came to power in Russia I started to restore those values; values of 'openness' and freedom.
When did you understand that this model had to be rejected?
There was no "one day" when I understood. It took a whole life to draw conclusions. But when I realised what was happening and when I had the chance, I started to make changes. My philosophy is a philosophy based on common sense. Common sense refers to a sense of measure, a sense of moderation. If, for example, freedom is not linked to morality, it is not freedom. It is permissiveness. It is just self-seeking, rather than freedom.
Life has value in itself. Even if some methods are claimed to be progressive, if they result in destruction of life, then they are unacceptable. I believe that the twenty-first century must be the century of human beings living in harmony with nature, rather than being enslaved to technology.
We must encourage those who favour economic liberalism in Russia, but they must abandon the idea that they can use this ideological vacuum in order to impose Westernization as a way to solve our problems. I think that economic liberalism is no less vulnerable than Socialism or Communism. Economic prosperity must go hand in hand with social cohesion and ecological sustainability. What good is a lot of money when the social fabric is destroyed and the environment polluted?
Values such as solidarity, a socially-orientated economy, and the need to harmonize relations between humankind and the rest of nature are equally important. The future will depend on whether we will be able to find a synthesis, to find a fusion of ecological, liberal and social values. These I call "the perennial values".
I want to put great emphsis on the intrinsic value of nature, because without nature people cannot exist. We must preserve both people and nature. If we do not respect nature, we could eventually disappear; and once again on Earth we could have nature without humankind. Humans gaining better knowledge of themselves and their role in the cosmos is of paramount importance. If we do that, then we can insure ourselves against many dangers. Humankind should become more modest in terms of its needs and more respectful of the environment of which we are just a part.
If we do not learn to live in harmony with nature, we shall make our own lives hopeless and we shall eventually jeopardize our own existence. In that sense I believe that we should go back to a new kind of renaissance. This new renaissance should be based on the idea that people should live more naturally.
How could people rebuild their self-respect whilst also respecting nature?
We need to go back to the universal values in order to gain such respect. However difficult, we should try to preserve strategies that do not abandon those most important values. We should seek to incorporate those values in practical ways. First of all, we have to abandon all kinds of violence. Secondly, to understand that we should not resort to extremism. Politicians in Russia, as elsewhere, need to understand that a free-market economy is no guarantee for safeguarding universal values. Once you have a free market you will not find overnight that you are living in a free country. A lot of experience has to be gained in how to use that freedom. So one has to be willing to go along the path step by step and incorporate other principles. If we fail to restore human dignity and ecological sustainability, the free market is of no use.
If the social cost and environmental cost of the free market are not taken into account, trust will evaporate. People today are disenchanted with politics. They do not trust politicians and feel that politicians just regard them as the means to power.
When people want change, it is very important that they get inspiration from the "leaders".
There is no doubt about it. Without inspiration, all attempts at reform would fail. Human beings are not just dust in the air; they want to be involved in changing life for the better. Today, people with power in Russia are incapable of being in touch with the people who initially trusted them. The result is that the people have lost their inspiration; they live in a survival mode. This again cultivates the old mindset, dependent on having a good tsar or general secretary. But in a country where many nations and ethnic groups live, you can only achieve your goals when the entire society is involved.
Can you speak about your personal life? For example, what did you learn from your parents?
Firstly, I learned common sense from my parents, which is so typical of rural people. They have a feeling for nature, for the cosmos, for the world, for real life. They are born on the land and they live on the land. They have a feeling for that land and they know that land. Often they raise their heads to look at the sky, not just to see the clouds that bring the rain, but they look at the stars. People who are associated with the land interact with the stars. This association with nature gives people a very good hold on common sense.
I also learned modesty and humility. In rural communities there is a lot of very hard work which brings tolerance and solidarity and this is something I saw in my family and in my village. This has remained with me throughout my life. I have never forgotten where I come from. Sometimes people whose roots are from peasant stock, whose family is barely literate, are embarrassed by it. But I am never embarrassed by it; in fact, I am proud of my rural roots.
The wife of the president of Finland once asked me how I endured difficult times. I said, "I have to thank my parents who were peasants and who really put a solid foundation in me, who gave me fortitude, who gave me stamina and a kind of wisdom."
I also said that I was grateful to my wife. She is not just a wife, but she is a true friend. She has shared my life in good times and in bad. She is a great source of strength to me.
What are your spiritual beliefs?
Well, I believe in the cosmos. All of us are linked to the cosmos. Look at the sun. If there is no sun, then we cannot exist. So nature is my god. To me, nature is sacred. Trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals.
If you knew you were to die soon, what would be your message to the world?
I am not afraid of death. Which does not mean I am indifferent to life; I like living. I am very curious and life is interesting. I am not a nihilist. We come to the world, we will leave the world, but I do not think it will be without a trace. Death is not the end.
Were I to know I was going to die, I would not make a big fuss about it. I would be living naturally as before. I would not want to use the remaining time to send any particular message. I would use all the remaining days to communicate and to be in contact with nature. Being at one with nature. I remember when we went to our village. Wheat was growing. We saw a field of wheat and in the evening we heard quails singing. It was like a symphony, a concert. Then, during the night, I saw all those stars in the sky and my feeling was was that I was dissolving into nature. So the remaining days I would just leave for this kind of communication with nature. I would not want to trouble the living with any message.
What does the word "love" mean to you?
Love is a mystery of nature. I think it is good that it will remain a mystery. Of course, there has been a lot of comment on love. First of all, love for me is what unites man and woman. Love also unites humans and nature. I believe that we are dealing here with a mystery that is too big for us. Once you try to define it, it is the end of love. It dies once you think you know its secret.
Fred Matser has initiated many environmental projects in The Netherlands.