Europe

Gorbachev's eclectic London birthday bash

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Media captionStars gathered to sing to the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

Three global entrepreneurs have been awarded the inaugural Gorbachev awards for "people who have changed the world" at a star-studded event in London.

The inventor of the worldwide web, Sir Tim Berners Lee; the media mogul and founder of CNN television, Ted Turner; and a 25-year-old Kenyan engineer called Evans Wadongo were all honoured at a gala to celebrate the former Soviet leader's 80th birthday at the Royal Albert Hall.

The London Symphony Orchestra struck up a rousing classical medley under the baton of the famous Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev, filling the hall with music.

Framed by mock neoclassical columns and an arch overhead inscribed with the phrase "The Man who Changed the World", a giant screen showed highlights from Mikhail Gorbachev's career, interspersed with images of other global heroes and celebrities ranging from Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa to Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher. It was all a bit cheesy and over the top.

But then finally the screen filled with the live image of Mr Gorbachev as he is today, sitting in the front row with his daughter, more portly than in his heyday, with the telltale wine-red birthmark on his forehead but still with the same charming smile and lively manner than so struck Western politicians when he first emerged as Soviet leader.

Scorpions and Schwarzenegger

Slowly the former president clambered up on stage to make an opening speech. He pondered that he had lived through much in his eight decades, seen many things, experienced loss as well as joy and addressed many crowds, but he had rarely been at an event like this one.

Image caption Kevin Spacey and Sharon Stone were hosts for the event

Around the cavernous hall in all the red velvet-upholstered boxes, VIP couples, many in black tie and slinky ball gowns, set down their champagne glasses to rise to their feet and applaud him.

A sincere moment of real respect, whatever the gaudy trimmings.

So who had come to pay homage? The glitterati crowd included both glamorous Russians as well as Londoners, plus many other stars and political heavyweights.

The ex-Terminator and former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was there. So was the former British Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen. The one-time Solidarity leader and Polish President Lech Walesa was among the guests, as was Israeli President Shimon Peres.

And alongside the politicians, Mel C of the Spice Girls had been invited. Goldie Hawn arrived - tripping down the red carpet in characteristically ditzy fashion - and the punk-haired German rock band The Scorpions had come too to sing the song Wind of Change, which once summed up the mood as the communist bloc fell apart. The four of them posed for the cameras in a well-rehearsed group action shot, as though poised to leap on stage and grapple a microphone to the ground.

London, not Moscow

You cannot deny it: this was an incongruous mix of people and a weird, though memorable, event. The co-hosts on stage were both Hollywood megastars, Sharon Stone and Kevin Spacey. They had learnt their political show lines diligently. She was the straight guy. His job was to crack the jokes.

Image caption The event was billed as the Gorby 80 Gala

Sharon: "Where would Russia be if not reaping the benefits of its new democracy?"

Kevin: " Well, we wouldn't be in this room tonight and Chelsea football team wouldn't be able to afford its new players."

A polite titter rippled through the hall. Oscar night razor-sharp wit it was not.

But to give him his due, Kevin Spacey also had a serious point to make, which he delivered eloquently when he stopped to talk to us on the way in.

"If you look at our world now," he told us, "all of the things that are happening in Egypt, Belarus, Iran and Libya, people are fighting for the very kind of freedoms and access and ability to cross borders that Mikhail Gorbachev did so many years ago... I suspect that you could draw a direct line to Mikhail Gorbachev and say that's where a lot of this began."

A sentiment that probably quite a lot of different people in Britain would agree with.

In Moscow you might find it harder to come across Gorbachev fans who would make the same connection. Many Russians still blame him for the Soviet collapse. For them he is not a hero. No wonder his main birthday bash was being held in London.

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