On May 31st, 1990, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, stops his motorcade on a street in Washington, DC. To the shock, awe, and amazement of random Washingtonians on their way home from work, Mr. Gorbachev starts shaking hands and greeting people.
His own security detail and assigned Secret Service agents are rushing around in close-to-panic mode to make sure nothing happens to the president. Meanwhile, the random Americans who got to meet Mr. Gorbachev, shake his hand, applaud him, and start cheering “Gorby! Gorby!”
After a few minutes, the motorcade leaves again, but that moment forever became part of the imprint that Mr. Gorbachev—Gorby—made in world history. Few men have changed the world like he did: without him, it is unlikely that the Cold War would have ended as peacefully as it did.
Or ended at all, period.
I was a young college student when Gorbachev took over the Soviet Union. Living in my native Sweden, I shared the fate of hundreds of millions of other Europeans: we were squeezed in between two superpowers whose nuclear arsenals and conventional military forces were always on the edge. We learned to fear, but also to live with, the constant threat of annihilation.
The Cold War was no fun place to be in human history. It was better than the World Wars, of course, but the low level of stress, the travel restrictions, and the constant suspicions against anyone from “the other side” formed our worldviews in ways that the young of the 21st century have a hard time understanding.
One man made all the difference: Mikhail Gorbachev. It was thanks to him that Eastern Europe, from Estonia to Bulgaria, could peacefully transition into independence, democracy, and prosperity. Other parts of the Soviet empire were given a chance to spread their wings as independent nations.
Freedom also reached Russia herself. The end of the Communist era allowed the country to lift itself economically, socially, and culturally. What losses the increasingly authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin will inflict on the freedom, prosperity, and cultural achievements of the Russian people, hopefully will not make them yearn for a return to the Stalinist days.
The communist system that Mr. Gorbachev helped bring to an end was one of the most evil forms of government that man has ever invented. To consign it to the dustbin of human history was a heroic deed worthy of a prominent display in the annals of mankind.
At the time, when the Soviet empire crumbled and freedom swept across its domains, it was a surreal experience for all of us who had grown up taking for granted that the world was irreversibly divided.
It wasn’t, and for that we should all be thankful. The end of the Cold War shaped much of my own view of the world, and inspired many of us younglings at the time to rethink the concept of “purpose” in our own lives.
A whole generation contributed to the liberation of the Soviet sphere, but no man did more to make it happen than Mr. Gorbachev. But he did more than liberate hundreds of millions of people from Sachsen to Sakhalin. He also liberated billions of people all over the world from the threat of annihilation through a global, nuclear war.
Today, despite the conflict in Ukraine and the aggressive Chinese flexing overTaiwan, the world is nowhere near as close to all-out nuclear war as it was during the Cold War. The tensions that ran through Europe at the time were comparable to those that we can still see along the de-facto border between North and South Korea. But the face of tyranny was even more apparent, with Berlin, one of the world’s greatest cities, being brutally divided by a wall. With it came a deadly zone filled with barbed wire, mines and armed guards in watchtowers.
In the middle of a major European city, the scars of war had never healed.
Mikhail Gorbachev became known to the world in 1985 when he took over as Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party. (He became the president of the Soviet Union in 1990.) His two immediate predecessors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, were weak and ailment-ridden leaders whose combined three-year reign had opened a dangerous power vacuum at the top of the Soviet government.
Andropov had succeeded Leonid Brezhnev, whose 18 years in power were spent solidifying the Communist status quo. His greatest achievement—cynically speaking—was the brutal assault on Czechoslovakia in 1968 (a tragedy I cover in great detail in my book Democracy or Socialism).
Gorbachev had no time for Brezhnev’s old ways. He knew Communism was unsustainable.
His reform began within the Soviet Union, where he put to work changes aimed at transitioning the Soviet Union from Leninist central planning to a market-based economy. To be fair to Brezhnev, he had actually proposed some economic reforms in the late 1970s, but the resistance within the Communist party was strong enough to stop such liberalizing ambitions in their tracks. After all, it was to maintain the Soviet economic model that the Red Army had led the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Gorbachev did not allow himself to be held back by history or Communist hardliners. During the latter half of the 1980s, the world got to know the term perestroika, which refers to liberalizing economic and political reforms. Gorbachev added glasnost, i.e., openness and transparency, thus setting in motion reforms that soon proved to be unstoppable.
Gorbachev then turned his attention to tougher foreign policy problems. His most immediate concern was Brezhnev’s (still-ongoing) invasion of Afghanistan. Four years after he became Secretary General, Gorbachev brought the Soviet military home.
The Cold War, which he also inherited, was a tougher nut to crack. Military and political hawks on both sides of the Iron Curtain had built careers and status by managing, even reinforcing, the conflicts between East and West.
At the same time, these hawks turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the reformist Soviet leader, especially in the West. His first counterpart in the White House, President Ronald Reagan, was a very outspoken critic of the Soviet system. He famously confronted Gorbachev during their negotiations about limiting and reducing the world’s pile of nuclear weapons; he did not trust the Soviets and he did not like what they did to their people.
But Reagan also turned out to be Gorbachev’s ally in affecting change. Reagan saw in Gorbachev a leader of the same bluntness that he himself exemplified. This helped build trust between the two leaders.
Perhaps the most important contribution by Reagan to Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost was his speech at the Berlin Wall, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, in 1987. After declaring that es gibt nur ein Berlin—there is only one Berlin—Reagan made this historic appeal to his counterpart in Moscow:
General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace; if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and for Eastern Europe; if you seek liberalization; come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev: open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev: tear down this wall!
At the time, academic scholars all over the West ran for cover in panic, thinking that these words would anger the Soviet regime to such a point that nuclear-armed missiles would soon be raining down on them. As is so often the case, those scholars were wrong. They had only projected their own fear of childhood bullies onto the Soviet Union.
In reality, Reagan’s words played well into Gorby’s agenda: he could tell the Stalinist stalwarts in both Moscow and Soviet-controlled eastern Europe that the West would welcome his reforms with open arms. Reformists, in turn, were emboldened and lined up behind Gorbachev.
That is not to say everyone was waiting for Gorbachev to lead. Some reforms had already begun in eastern Europe. I saw them myself when I visited East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary in the summer of 1988. In Budapest I met up with friends from back home. We spent weeks exploring the city by day and night, and were struck by how far the reforms had already gone.
Unlike Prague and East Berlin, the Hungarian capital was beautiful and filled with cultural warmth. It was also far more open in practical terms. There were private restaurants, taxi entrepreneurs, and the shopping malls in the suburbs were filled with the same consumer products that adorned the high-streets of cities in the West. While the product quality was often lower, it was striking to see how successfully the Hungarians had managed to move their lives closer to Western standards, compared to others behind the Iron Curtain.
As one of the many anecdotal examples, one night we rode a taxi from Castle Hill via the Margit Bridge to District VII, where we were staying. The taxi driver had converted the inside of his car into a tribute to Bob Marley, and he had installed a first-class stereo—technically illegal at the time—that streamed the reggae artist’s music with impressive clarity. He explained that he was investing his own money into his vehicle, that he was trying to carve out a niche in the market where his customers could special order his taxi because they liked his style and his music.
Much like every other businessman, right? Yet at the time, his entrepreneurship would have gotten you arrested in East Berlin.
There were many people in the countries under Soviet control who placed great hope in Gorbachev. I remember a conversation with a man on a train between Sassnitz and East Berlin, who was very careful not to utter a word about politics while there were other East Germans in the train compartment. However, as soon as we were alone, he told me he was a retired teacher, that he hated communism (even though he used milder words than that) and that he put great hopes in Gorbachev as a force of change in his own country.
As it turned out, Erich Honecker, Secretary General of the East German “Socialist Unity Party,” was the last of the Communist leaders to give in to the reform pressure. The pivotal moment came when Gorby’s winds of change had inspired massive protests in East Berlin in the early fall of 1989.
Honecker asked the Soviet leader to send in troops. You know, like they did in Czechoslovakia in 1968 under Brezhnev. After all, that is what friends are for, right?
Wrong. Gorbachev refused. That was the moment when the reformist wave had won. Seven decades of Russian and European Communism were coming to an end.
By October 24th, 1989, Honecker had resigned as head of the Communist party and as head of state. Some three weeks later, the ongoing liberalization in other Soviet-bloc states, primarily Czechoslovakia and Hungary, left the hapless regime in East Berlin with nowhere to go except in the reformist direction. Yet true to Communist bureaucratic tradition, they ended up opening the Berlin Wall not by means of bold leadership, but by administrative fiat. The announcement of the abolition of travel restrictions was misdated, leaving a low-level Communist functionary declaring the border open on November 9th, 1989.
In four short years, the spirit of reform ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev had torn down one of the most totalitarian constructs in modern human history. His perestroika had allowed for the healing of scars that had marred an entire continent for decades. And most of all, he paved the way for the hundreds of millions of people who were suffering under the tyrannical boots of Stalinism to begin rebuilding their countries, their communities, their families, and their lives.
Mr. Gorbachev, you opened the gate. You tore down the wall. You showed how big of a difference one man can make.
Gorby, you were a true statesman. You will be missed and warmly remembered.
Thank you for making the world a better place. Rest in peace.
Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.