Gorbachev Visit Touches Minds — and Hearts

Posted: April 17, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

When Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union and Nobel laureate, spoke at Mason’s Fairfax Campus last month, a whirlwind of activities were organized around the event.

Students, along with faculty members and the general public, had the opportunity to hear the former president speak on two occasions. A select group also had the chance to dine with the former world leader. For graduate student Erinda Birko, it was an event she will never forget.

Birko sees many parallels between Gorbachev’s life and her own. Born in Albania, Birko did not move to the United States until she was a teen. She got to see Gorbachev’s work firsthand. She calls him the “Albanian Mother Teresa.”

Erinda Birko and Gorbachev
Mason student Erinda Birko and Mikhail Gorbachev at a dinner held in Gorbachev’s honor.
Photo courtesy of Erinda Birko

“This well-known leader touched the minds of many with how he worked tirelessly, putting his country’s people first — ahead of ideological differences,” she says. “President Gorbachev sacrificed everything in order to improve the lives of his countrymen.”

Gorbachev’s visit was part of “1989: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” a conference that offered a critical perspective on how the lessons of the end of the Cold War should be applied to promoting peace and international cooperation in the coming decades.

“Gorbachev said that we should be independent and not let the world tell us how to live, but we should be able to implant laws and regulations within our systems and agencies,” says Birko, who earned a BA in Government and International Politics from Mason in 2008 and is working on a Master of Public Administration.

She also looks up to the former president as an expert in public administration.

“President Gorbachev is willing to discuss what was good and what was bad [about those years]. He emphasized that in order to move forward it is important for individuals to play a role. Everyone will have to help,” she says.

After completing an MPA, Birko is considering studying for a law degree or a PhD, but ultimately she hopes to join the CIA or to return to Albania one day and follow Gorbachev’s example.

Birko has lived through several governmental changes: communism, socialism, democracy and capitalism.

“I always dreamed that one day Albanians would be able to freely speak and live in freedom. Even though for the first decade of my life I had only seen a communist system, I was able to understand an injustice was occurring,” she says.

“I lived through the massive changes that Mr. Gorbachev brought to the former Soviet Union. Three generations did not have an opportunity for true freedom under communism. Now things have now changed.”

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