At a Rand Corporation think tank in California, where they routinely play East-West war games to sharpen their cynicism, peace broke out unexpectedly one day. While maneuvering their imaginary forces into position, both sides suddenly found themselves acting with uncharacteristic restraint. One commentator later called it the “Gorbachev effect.” He had good reason.
Like much of the world, even professional skeptics seemed spellbound this year by the former tractor driver from Stavropol. As the Berlin Wall broke and the old Eastern European party dictatorships toppled, 58-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev stood at the vortex, confounding strategists, statesmen and often his own allies.
Wherever he appeared, surprises followed. In May his trip to Beijing brought 1 million demonstrators to Tiananmen Square chanting for democratic reform. West Germans filled the streets of Bonn shouting “Gorby! Gorby!” during his visit there in June, and by summer’s end his name was the rallying cry of pro-democracy demonstrators from Prague to East Berlin. In December, Gorbachev visited the Pope and, after announcing that “the world is on the threshold of an entirely new era,” vowed to reestablish religious freedom in his homeland. That same week he moved on to Malta and the storm-tossed summit with President Bush.
Gorbachev, of course, has always moved quickly. Born to peasant parents in a rural southern region of Russia, he became his country’s youngest leader since Joseph Stalin, when he rose to power at age 54 in 1985. Facing an economy near collapse under the burdens of a huge bureaucracy and enormous military expenditures, he pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, pressed for arms reductions with his adversaries and proposed sweeping democratic and economic reforms at home. Though his economy still struggles—leaving George Bush potentially powerful leverage at their next summit in June—Gorbachev has proved himself a gamesman nonpareil on the world stage.
And yet, when he is assessed for 1989, what he didn’t do may well prove the most momentous. As the Communist governments of Europe collapsed this fall, no Soviet tanks rolled into Prague or Berlin, no troops massed at the borders. The Cold War had worn itself out, and by doing nothing, Gorbachev said it all.