Mikhail Gorbachev

updated 12/28/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/28/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Suddenly, Communism has a human face. For once, the Soviet General Secretary seems more than a wooden Marxist, spouting the usual Kremlin superpower bluster. He was not afraid at the summit to let us see him as a man, and the gusting force of his personality was such that we understood immediately why he is such a symbol of hope for the Soviet people. After seven decades of mutual incomprehension and suspicion, of our seeing the vast, rigid, impassive bulk of Russia reflected in its hostile policies—and hearing it in the icy words of its implacable leaders—Mikhail Gorbachev, 56, spoke a supple language all men could understand. The effect could scarcely have been more dramatic had the U.S. received a greeting from Mars. No wonder America reacted with a curious mixture of blast-furnace euphoria and quiet consternation.

The morning after, the glow remained, but so did questions. Like vodka, detente optimism is a potent brew, best imbibed with caution. After all, just who is this Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev? How could he have come to dominance on the world stage having spent most of his career as a bureaucrat toiling over agricultural problems? How could a man tutored in the secrecy of the Politburo champion glasnost and perestroika? How could someone nurtured in the dark chrysalis of the Kremlin burst forth so colorfully?

Yet we have seen with our own eyes certain truths about him. He is enormously intelligent, direct, vigorous, courageous, tough. He has a sense of humor that Americans can appreciate and, misty-eyed, he can sing a haunting song. In a way, that's more than we've known about any Soviet leader since Nikita Khrushchev made his Washington debut in 1959.

His openness is all the more startling because it seems generational, therefore historic. If his apparent determination to finally bury Stalinism proves real, it will be because he and his generation are the children of Stalin; they have seen the bitter consequences of their parents' crimes. If he succeeds in transforming Soviet society, it will be because he believes resolutely in the Communist system and its perfectibility. In that, he may be the best hope of a profoundly troubled society. The Soviet Union is now the only developed country in the world where the life expectancy of its adult citizens has declined since the '60s and the mortality rate of its newborns has been rising.

He faces formidable problems, but we have seen at the summit what kind of man he is: a formidable opponent, perhaps a formidable friend. Dosvidanya, Mikhail Sergeyevich. Peace.

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