The recent deaths of two revolutionaries, one in Iran and one in Russia, are reminders of the impact individuals can have on history, even if they are rejected during their lifetimes. They also bring back memories of my brush with both men during trips to Moscow and Tehran.
First, Iran. Americans think of the word ayatollah as referring to a religious hard-liner. But Iran's Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who passed away last weekend at the age of 87, not only stood up for human rights, but became the spiritual leader of Iran's "green" opposition movement. His death could spark a new wave of protests against the current regime.
A leader of Iran's revolutionary clerics, Montazeri had been tapped to succeed the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as the country's supreme leader. But he fell out with the rest of Iran's religious leadership in 1989, when he opposed the mass execution of the regime's political opponents. He was banned from political activities and put under house arrest.
In 2003, Montazeri's house arrest was lifted while I was visiting Tehran. He granted me an interview, but I was forced to take along a government-supplied interpreter who was clearly an informant.
When we reached Iran's holy city of Qom, we found Montazeri's home surrounded by police. The ayatollah had suffered heart trouble and was in the hospital, but his son, Saeed Montazeri, received me. He spoke of his father's wish that Iranians be able to choose their political system, and he said his father opposed the idea of one cleric's ruling for life.
My spy-interpreter insisted, over my protests, on attaching a microphone to the collar of the younger Montazeri's robe. (The tape would be for the spy's bosses, of course, not for me.) Montazeri kept on speaking with dignity, but I was mortified at the insult. On the ride home, my spy-interpreter kept insisting that the elder Montazeri had become insignificant.
More recently, Ayatollah Montazeri had become a source of religious inspiration for those who opposed the fixed election that gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term. He issued religious edicts against the fraud, saying this Islamic republic had become neither Islamic nor a republic. He condemned the Basij militiamen who beat demonstrators as agents of Satan. As punishment, the mullahs arrested three of Montazeri's grandsons, but he didn't moderate his voice.
Now the regime is trying to humiliate Montazeri in death. Basij goons tore down the mourning banners at his home, and they reportedly beat some of the mourners. Yet hundreds of thousands of mourners marched in Qom, shouting "Montazeri is not dead; the government is dead!"
More big demonstrations are likely next week, especially since this death comes in the holiest month of Shiite Islam, when Iranians commemorate the death of the sect's greatest martyr for justice, Imam Hussein. Montazeri now provides another iconic martyr to mourn. I would bet that, 10 years from now, his place in Iran's history will have eclipsed that of the current clerical-military dictators.
And I've learned that my onetime spy-interpreter left Iran to live in Canada, having decided, presumably, that he would rather live in a country where elections are free.
The other poignant death last week was that of Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the "shock therapy" administered to the Russian economy under President Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s. Gaidar, who died of a blood clot at the age of 53, is reviled by many Russians because his lifting of state price controls led initially to hyperinflation and wiped out their savings.
I spent much time in Moscow during that period of frightening yet exhilarating transition. I never interviewed Gaidar, but I heard him speak and talked with his top assistants on several occasions. They all spoke passionately of the urgent need to rescue Russia's failing command economy. Indeed, I watched as Russia's once-barren stores filled with goods. Gaidar's reforms ultimately set the stage for future economic growth.
The Kremlin downplayed Gaidar's funeral, but 10,000 mourners attended, showing that many still hope for free-market democracy in Russia. "He gave his life to the country, and people are not grateful to him," one Russian friend who attended the service wrote to me. However, she added, "I did not expect so many to come there. It means that many people still care about democracy." I believe history will also be kinder to Gaidar than is apparent now.