In 2006, after attending a conference, Louis met Mikhail for the first time in a cold Berlin afternoon. After a brief chat, the two men got into a car, the same one in which Mikhail was later photographed. Mikhail, was nicely dressed: a black suit and a coat, blue tie and a grey scarf. Louis appeared, as always: timeless. After more than a century, both of them were finally together. Louis was born in 1821 in Jura, France and Mikhail was born in Privolnoye, Russia in 1931.
There is not much information about what happened when Louis and Mikhail got into the car. Only one photograph was taken of Mikhail (his stain in the forehead is almost unnoticeable) sitting in the back seat of the car and staring through the right window, grasping firmly the interior right door handle with his hand. But where is Louis?
What they talked about? After waiting more than a century to be together, it is hard to believe that both of them were together for such brief time, with not so much to talk about it. Did Louis get off the vehicle?
Did Louis say something to upset Mikhail? Who knows? The fact is that at the end of the day, Mikhail Gorbachev rode alone with a Keepall 60 travel bag, designed by the Louis Vuitton Company. Perhaps Louis forgot it, or was it a gift? I imagine Louis saying: “Mikhail, look at this, do you mind if we take a photograph of you?
Needless to say Mikhail accepted to model with the travel bag, and that is why we have this photograph, as part of the Louis Vuitton 2007 campaign that includes among others the French actress Catherine Denuve and the tennis player Andre Agassi. This is not the first time that we have the opportunity to see Mr. Gorbachev participating in an advertising campaign. In 1997, he appeared in a spot for the fast food chain Pizza Hut with his granddaughter Anastasia.
When asked about his participation, Mr. Gorbachev argued about his economic needs: “I am in the process of creating a library and a Perestroika archive, and this project requires certain funds”. That statement certainly informs us about the terrible impacts that the economic reforms and liberalization policies (“shock therapy”) had during the early 1990s in the former USSR: private savings coming to nothing as a consequence of the inflation, sixty percent of the population under the poverty line, late wages, cutbacks in education and health care, a drop of the 50% of the industrial and agricultural production. In the midst of the economical and political turmoil, even the former president had to deal with corporate capitalism in order to survive.
But we should not misinterpret Gorbachev’s actions as selfish and greedy. Probably his goal was not only to promote consumption and market expansion in the former USSR, and get some money for his library. “It is not only consumption, it is also socializing”, Mr. Gorbachev explained why he participated in a pizza advertising campaign and not in another type of advertisement. That 1997 spot, ended with the slogan “Have you been to the edge?”
Well, sixteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Louis and Mikhail went to the edge, or to the remains of the geographical frontiers of the Cold war. They rode along the physical limits between the socialist camp or the real socialism and capitalism: the Berlin Wall. Hard to believe Mr. Gorbachev? Not long gone are the years when Mr. Gorbachev defended the notion that Socialism and the market were not only compatible, but also indivisible in substance.
Was the place of the photography casual? I imagine, Louis saying to the car driver: “turn to the right, I want to show something to Mikhail”. My guess is that traveling to the historical frontier that symbolizes the end of what the English historian Eric Hobsbawm (1994) called the Short Twentieth Century, which began with the First World War in 1914 and ended in 1991, Louis wanted to tell Mikhail and to us about the ephemeral condition of all things, persons, social structures, institutions, nation-states, and about history.
“All that is solid melts into the air”, said Marx and Engels referring to the destructive and revolutionary capacity of capitalism more than a century ago in 1848 when Louis was only 27 years old. When the Berlin Wall was built in August 1961, the travel bag carried by Mr. Gorbachev had been moving around the planet for 31 years. Now the Berlin Wall has gone, but the Louis Vuitton travel bag, a harmless and delicate bag, and expensive too, is still here. Is that why it is advertised as “recognized the world over for its timeless shape”?
If the Short Twentieth Century ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Socialist camp in Easter Europe, the Keepall 60 carried by Gorbachev is the statement of the power of the commodity and the social relations embedded in it as timeless: the only possibility to transcend is through the commodity. Perhaps the Soviet Union is gone but the Keepall bag deigned in 1930 is still sold in 130 stores all over the world -including Russia and China.
While Mikhail and his bag with the worldwide famous monogram “LV” moves along is trying to persuade us that past doesn’t dominate the present. In the photograph, the Berlin wall is seen in the background trough the window of the car. As the car moves, Mikhail and Louis leave the Short Twentieth Century behind. Behind them are two World Wars, Stalinism, the Gulag, Nazism, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Cold War, US military interventions in Latin America, and its collection of dictatorships: the Batistas, the Banzers, the Galtieris, the Pinochetts, the Videlas, the Stroesners.
But for Louis and Mikhail the only reality is the present and the future embedded in that bag. Yes, both of them are making a historical statement, but maybe just one of them is conscious about it, and the other one cannot resist the impulse. Do they really move to the future? Mikhail dares to ask Louis: “Louis, will I see you for the 2008 campaign?” Dear, I suspect that after all you have not understood anything. We are not going to need you next year. I am the only future. But keep the bag, it is yours.