Gorbachev: The Unlikely Patron of Change

The Unlikely Patron of Change

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The 1980s came to an end in what seemed like a magic act, performed on a world-historical stage. Trapdoors flew open, and whole regimes vanished. The shell of an old world cracked, its black iron fragments dropping away, and something new, alive, exploded into the air in a flurry of white wings.

Revolution took on a sort of electronic lightness of being. A crowd of half a million Czechoslovaks in Wenceslas Square would powder into electrons, stream into space at the speed of light, bounce off a satellite and shoot down to recombine in millions of television images around the planet.

The transformation had a giddy, hallucinatory quality, its surprises tumbling out night after night. The wall that divided Berlin and sealed an international order crumbled into souvenirs. The cold war, which seemed for so long part of the permanent order of things, was peacefully deconstructing before the world's eyes. After years of numb changelessness, the communist world has come alive with an energy and turmoil that have taken on a bracing, potentially anarchic life of their own. Not even Stalinist Rumania was immune.

The magician who set loose these forces is a career party functionary, faithful communist, charismatic politician, international celebrity and impresario of calculated disorder named Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. He calls what he is doing -- and permitting -- a revolution. His has (so far) been a bloodless revolution, without the murderous, conspiratorial associations that the word has carried in the past. In novel alliance with the glasnost of world communications, Gorbachev became the patron of change: Big Brother's better twin. His portraits, like icons at a saint's-day festival, waved amid a swarm of Czechs. The East German young chanted "Gorby! Gorby!" to taunt the police.

The world has acquired simultaneously more freedom and more danger. At the beginning of the age of exploration, a navigator's map would mark unknown portions of the great ocean with the warning HERE BE MONSTERS. Gorbachev knows about the monsters, about the chaos he may have to struggle across, a chaos that he even helped to create.

The potential for violence, and even for the disintegration of the Soviet order, is enormous. The U.S.S.R. is a vast amalgam of nationalities that have always been restive under the imperial Soviet system. To mix the politics of openness and the economics of scarcity is a messy and dangerous experiment.

Gorbachev and his reformist allies in Eastern Europe have managed to suppress at least one monster -- the state's capacity for terrible violence against its citizens. The Chinese and, until last week, the Rumanians were not so lucky. The Chinese students carried portraits of the Soviet leader, and they were shouting, "In Russia they have Gorbachev; in China we have whom?" The yin and yang of 1989: tanks vs. glasnost, the dead hand of the past vs. Gorbachev's vigorous, risky plunge into the future. Gorbachev is a hero for what he would not do -- in fact, could not do, without tearing out the moral wiring of his ambitions for the future. In that sense, as in so many others, the fallen Rumanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu played the archvillain.

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