None of the 18,000 children who are to hear Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev speak at We Day Manitoba today was alive when he made the world a safer place more than 20 years ago. But all of them would be well-advised to take his messages to heart and to learn more about him. It should prove a valuable learning experience.
As the illustration on this page suggests, Mr. Gorbachev was something of a superhero in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but one who could not simply soar into action. As leader of the Soviet Union (the "Evil Empire," as U.S. President Ronald Regan rightly declared it) Mr. Gorbachev was faced with a seemingly impossible task -- to try to end two Cold Wars, one inside and the other outside of the Soviet Union.
Cold War outside had led to an arms race that was crippling what was left of the Communist command economies. It had to end before it became apocalyptic, spurred by economic impotence. The Cold War inside the country, between the desires of people for better and the desires of the Communists to maintain a superpower status and empire, had to be reconciled to prevent greater domestic repression, even civil war.
How Mr. Gorbachev accomplished both at once is the stuff for historians to explain in lengthy tomes. But essentially he did it by encouraging rising expectations and then getting out of the way when they became a tsunami that swept away the Soviet Union and Mr. Gorbachev as its leader.
The lid had been kept tightly on rising expectations in Russia and its satellites until the advent of satellite TV once and for all dispelled the illusion the Soviet Union was a workers' paradise. Mr. Gorbachev, who had travelled extensively in the West, even to Western Canada, knew it already and was a reformer before the wave hit. But through his policies of Perestroika (domestic restructuring) and Glasnost (openness to the world), he encouraged rising expectations to well up democracy, free enterprise and human rights and to sweep away 75 years of totalitarianism and the Iron Curtain that had imprisoned hundreds of millions.
At age 81, Mr. Gorbachev knows his time largely is passed, that new generations must pick up where older ones left off. But he continues to provoke rising expectations in young people, encouraging their demands for more peace and less war, a healthier environment and fresh approaches that only they are likely to see. It would be enough if all the 18,000 at We Day take from their brief encounter with Mr. Gorbachev that they should hope for more -- and then go out and get it.