Roses on Gorbachev statue
Roses are placed on a sculpture of Mikhail Gorbachev at the “Fathers of Unity” memorial in Berlin on Aug. 31. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

The news of Mikhail Gorbachev’s death Aug. 30 at the age of 91 took me back 17 years when I covered his attendance at a National School Boards Association annual conference in San Diego in 2005.

Why, you might ask, was a former leader of the Soviet Union invited to be the keynote speaker at a national gathering of America’s education leaders?

At a news conference before he took center stage, he said he asked himself the same question: “Why did they invite me?”

As former head of the now-defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Gorbachev indeed seemed an odd choice to deliver his perspective on the state of education.

The NSBA, a national federation of school boards that represents more than 95,000 school board members, described the connection between Gorbachev and the concerns of school board members as follows: “Does your school district require strong yet flexible leadership? Must you restructure priorities in changing times? Do you have to keep the peace among groups with different agendas? Mikhail Gorbachev overcame similar challenges as he led the Soviet Union into a new era.”

A tenuous connection, to be sure. What relevance could Gorbachev possibly have for a school board member?

But it became clear that, as a world leader with a uniquely global perspective, he had quite a bit to say about the need for quality, free universal education.

No one today questions his enormous impact on the shape of the world during his short six-year tenure from 1985 to 1991 as head of the U.S.S.R.

His list of accomplishments is impressive. He controlled one of the world’s two superpowers in the 1980s, signed two disarmament agreements with the United States that effectively stopped the nuclear arms race, ended the Cold War, lifted the Iron Curtain and embraced democracy for Eastern Europe, precipitated the break-up of the Soviet Union, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, and earned a reputation as one of the most prominent and influential figures of the 20th century.

But he is not regarded as someone involved in education policy. Yet the crowd of 11,000 NSBA attendees who packed the cavernous San Diego Convention Center hall gave the statesman a long, welcoming standing ovation.

During his 50-minute speech, the skilled orator, through an interpreter, described his upbringing, his rise to the head of U.S.S.R.’s Communist Party in 1985, and his eventual disillusionment with the very political system he was elected to represent.

The difficulties in the world, including the educational needs of society, can be traced to a problem with political leadership, Gorbachev said.

“We need leaders with vision who can go beyond the old framework,” he said.

Gorbachev, who benefited from a political system that gave him access to good schooling that prepared him for a rise to power, said a key to his success was being open-minded enough to recognize the failure of a totalitarian system of government to provide for the basic needs of the Soviet people — good education being essential.

Without his education, “I would have had a very different destiny,” he said.

Gorbachev repeatedly called upon world leaders to ensure free and universal access to education, a remark that was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

“Every family should be able to educate their children so the children can step confidently into the world,” he said.

Education, Gorbachev said, should be given more priority and is the key to overcoming poverty in the world. He cited United Nations’ statistics at the time that two-thirds of a country’s success depends upon its education system and intellectual resources.

“People say there isn’t enough money [for education], but there is a paradox,” Gorbachev said at the press conference before his speech. “Whenever there is a need to finance a military action, operation, or a war, money is found immediately.”

“What you are doing will be key in shaping the present and future of America,” he told his audience.

The creator of what was known as Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring to develop economic, political and social reform) ended up having quite a bit to say about education.

Gorbachev’s life, mired in political upheaval, could be viewed as a lesson in survival for any elected official who has ever had to combat negative campaigning or form alliances with quarrelsome factions who switch allegiances at a moment’s notice.

This was relevant in 2005, and certainly is today, for school board members who cope regularly with changing political climates and demanding outside forces.

Gorbachev, a loyal Communist most of his life, said his ideological transformation was gradual.

“When was the moment I concluded of the need for profound change? I came to this conclusion as a result of a long life in politics,” he said.

Gorbachev noted that it was the 20th anniversary of the beginning of Perestroika, which he optimistically said had effectively ended 70 years of totalitarian rule to allow his country to move toward a system of freedom, openness and democracy.

“I continue to believe that without strengthening democracy and strengthening the rights and freedoms of the individual, it would be difficult if not impossible to modernize Russia and to address the multiple problems of our people,” he said.

But alas, in subsequent years the great statesman was forced to witness the undoing of all his attempts at progress, under Vladimir Putin.

Gorbachev spoke during a time when many thought the break-up of the Soviet Union would bring about renewed efforts at democracy, a focus on eradicating poverty, and equal educational opportunities for children around the world.

Had Gorbachev’s words 17 years ago been given the bearing they deserved, the world — and Russia itself — might look very differently today.

Let Gorbachev be remembered as a man of extraordinary vision whose legacy shines as a symbol of freedom and promise for the future. It was a privilege to see him and hear him speak.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.