I gave Gorbachev a Book of Mormon — and witnessed firsthand Queen Elizabeth II’s jokes
I’ve met Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth II on several occasions. Both led with humor, respect and sincerity
Over recent days, as I have watched and read of the life and passing of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev, a rush of memories — not memories of statecraft but cherished personal reflections — have been recalled.
It was my privilege on several occasions to meet each of these remarkable, historic individuals so influential in world history and in where the world stands today. In the story of the world, they defined an era and together represent much of modern history.
Though with greatly different political ideologies, both presided over the end of empires — Elizabeth the end of Britain’s imperial age, and Gorbachev the dissolution of the Soviet Union empire.
Meeting Queen Elizabeth II: Humor and horses
I first met the queen when aboard her royal yacht, the HMS Britannia, she hosted a reception for the president of the United States. I was present as his staff member. As a thoughtful host, and to my amazement, she approached me and graciously asked if I needed a beverage.
Over the intervening years I met her on several occasions, at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the White House. A grand and beautiful lady, always regal and serene, she was also warm and surprisingly approachable and had a wonderful sense of humor.
Once when our White House advance team had been at Buckingham Palace for several days preparing for the approaching visit of the U.S. president, our lead American official became so accommodating of the British that our U.S. team began to privately refer to him with a very British moniker, Sir John. Just days before the arrival of the president, I was at the palace ensuring all preparations were in order when the queen unexpectedly and without announcement entered the room. After appropriate courtesies were exchanged, I sought her view on one unanswered issue. Her eyes sparkled and, to our laughter, with a smile she simply said, “Well, what does Sir John think?”
On another occasion at Windsor Castle, just prior to the upcoming visit of the president of the United States, she and I discussed a horse ride. Both she and President Ronald Reagan loved horses. So, we walked to her stables and stood together planning how this ride would go — she wanted it to be just the two of them, relaxed and cordial, without security agents and the media.
It was on those horses and in private moments that they strengthened what she referred to as the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom. Reagan in turn referred to the Brits as “our allies but more importantly our cousins.”
With Gorbachev, two particularly treasured memories come to mind.
On one occasion I had come prepared with a baseball — what’s more American than baseball? When we were alone for a moment, I pulled out my baseball and asked Gorbachev if he would autograph my baseball which I then handed to him along with a pen. He declined the pen, emphatically saying “Nyet.” And then, before signing my baseball, he, through the interpreter, asked with a smile, “Now I’m not going to see this for sale on your American Home Shopping Network am I?” That simple question told us he knew far more about American culture than we had recognized, and gave a fun insight into his personable sense of humor.
On another occasion I found myself with him in a small afternoon reception. At the time, I was serving in a leadership capacity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had just been challenged by missionaries to prayerfully ponder to whom I should present a Book of Mormon. Well, the impression came and after the reception I rushed to obtain a Russian language edition. The next morning when alone with him, I presented a Book of Mormon and expressed my witness of Jesus Christ and the book’s truthfulness. He thanked me warmly and said he’d read it. Whether he ever did I do not know.
Though Gorbachev was raised Russian Orthodox and his grandparents were practicing Christians, as leader of the Communist Party he clarified that he was an atheist. Yet upon his death, last week his funeral included last rites administered by a Russian Orthodox priest.
For me, a most telling moment of the Gorbachev presidency, and the Reagan presidency, came as Reagan’s casket lie in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where Gorbachev traveled from Moscow to pay his final respects to this friend.
As thousands of Americans stood in line at the Capitol, the lines were interrupted so that Gorbachev could walk alone up to the casket of the American president who had once been his gravest and most bitter adversary, and became his friend. Gorbachev stopped at the casket, stood at attention, bowed his head in apparent prayer, and then silently placed his hand on the American flag-draped coffin. An almost incomprehensible act for a Soviet leader to touch an American flag, yet here it was — a supreme final gesture of friendship and respect.
Two eminent world leaders of our lifetime, now gone but never to be forgotten.
By the remarkable legacy of peace both Queen Elizabeth II and Mikhail Gorbachev left, and though neither is American, these two uncommon heads of state each deeply impacted our American lives. I am humbled that this kid from a small Utah town was honored to interact with them, and grateful that God blessed us with their steady presence at a time of ominous world instability.
Stephen M. Studdert, a Utah resident, served as a senior White House adviser to several U.S. presidents and has undertaken presidential diplomatic assignments to over 100 nations.