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Gorbachev: the accidental hero of Berlin

MOSCOW, Sept 20 – He never anticipated events to unspool with such speed or to end as they did.

But by the end of 1989, the Soviet Union’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev had presided over one of the most momentous events of the 20th century, the collapse of Communism throughout Eastern Europe.

Although a cautious proponent of the idea that the Soviet bloc states should be free to decide their own future, Gorbachev could never have imagined in January 1989 that Communist states would soon fall like dominoes.

But crucially, he consciously did nothing to halt the cascade of events by using Soviet military might or propping up flailing regimes, a decision that has earned him the credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9.

"Gorbachev had no masterplan to go down in history," said Dmitry Oreshkin, head of Mercator, an independent think tank in Moscow. "He himself was surprised by the events at the end of the 1980s."

After coming to power in 1985, Gorbachev promoted his famous concepts of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) but still insisted that an adapted form of socialism could take the Soviet Union forwards.

Anatoly Chernayev, who at the time was Gorbachev’s advisor for relations with the West, said the Soviet leader only realised that German reunification was imminent a few months before the fall of the Wall.

"He never wanted this to happen so quickly," Chernayev, now 88, told AFP in an interview.

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"Some months before the fall of the Wall, he told (West German Chancellor Helmut) Kohl that it would be a project of the 21st century."

According to Chernayev, Gorbachev told Kohl during a visit to Moscow in February 1989 that "reunification is the Germans’ business."

Huge crowds that greeted Gorbachev during his visit to the West German capital Bonn in June 1989 only confirmed that idea.

On June 13, in a momentous step, Gorbachev and Kohl signed a joint declaration recognising the right of every state to freely choose its political system.

Essentially this meant that if Eastern European states split from the Soviet Union then Moscow would not send in tanks as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

"There were those in the Politburo who wanted to send tanks into Berlin. But nobody said anything," said Alexander Galkin, who at the time was vice-rector of the influential Soviet Institute of Social Sciences.

"Times had changed. And it was Gorbachev who changed them," he told AFP.

Hardline East German leader Erich Honecker was ousted in October 1989, but the leadership change could not halt the tide of events.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, prompting rejoicing throughout Europe. By now at least, Gorbachev was not surprised.

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Gorbachev himself has always maintained that he did not intend to trigger the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"I’m a clear opponent of the collapse of the Soviet Union," he told the London Times in an interview this month.

"As far as I’m concerned personally, as a politician I lost. But the ideas that I pushed forward and the project that I realised played a huge role in the world and the country."

Few dispute the contribution to history of this one individual.

Liberal sociologist Yevgeny Gontmakher says the alternative to Gorbachev’s policies could have been that "the map of the world would contain a second North Korea but spanning one sixth of the earth’s surface."

British historian Robert Service wrote in his history of 20th-century Russia that "Gorbachev had not intended to preside over the end to Communism in Eastern Europe."

"But he did not act to prevent the last scenes of the drama from being enacted…. Great was the work of his hands."

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