This month marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1988, I saw the surest sign the USSR was facing an earthquake when I became the first western journalist to be invited into KGB's Moscow headquarters, the Lubyanka Prison.
Moscovites were so terrified of the KGB secret police, they avoided uttering its dreaded name, referring to it instead by the name of a nearby toy store, "Detsky Mir."
Two senior KGB generals explained to me how their organization was breaking with its murderous past, modernizing and reforming. What they really meant: KGB, which understood the USSR faced collapse, was preparing to abandon the Communist Party.
The Red Army's 100 divisions and 50,000 tanks so frightened Europe that the Swiss and Dutch had even continued building border forts against Soviet attack until the mid 1980's.
But three years later, in December 1991, the mighty, feared Soviet Union collapsed under its own rotten weight.
The Soviet Union's disintegration could easily have ignited World War III with the US and NATO. That it did not was due to two remarkable men: Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his chief ally, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
They realized the USSR was crumbling and the Communist Party was corrupt and brain dead, a labor union for the lazy. Gorbachev's "glasnost and perestroika' -- openness and new thinking -- sought to reanimate the party, open society and follow a peaceful, constructive foreign policy. He brought liberalization, freedom of speech and religion and partial democracy at home. Without Gorbachev, Germany would not have reunified.
Contrary to western myth, the Soviet Union was not brought down by President Ronald Reagan's arms buildup, though Moscow's ruinous military overspending played an important role.
The principal reason was economic: failure to modernize industry and farming. In 1975, Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov had warned the Kremlin the economy faced collapse in 15 years unless modernized. His prediction was amazingly accurate.
The humane, intelligent Gorbachev ordered an immediate end to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in which 2 million Afghans had died. In December 1989, the last Red Army troops left Afghanistan.
Gorby's courage in ending this bloody war should serve as an example to US President Barack Obama -- but it has not.
Gorbachev quickly opened arms reduction talks with Washington. He ordered the Red Army reduced by a third. The Party's luxurious privileges were curtailed. I watched this real Russian spring arrive, and was awed.
When nationalist rebellion erupted across the Soviet Empire, Gorbachev rejected demands by the Party and military to crush the uprisings. He refused to use force. By doing so, he sealed the fate of the USSR, but avoided armed conflict in East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia that could quickly have drawn in NATO.
Instead, Gorbachev ended the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war. He terminated the Soviet credo of international revolution.
The world owes Gorbachev, his late wife Raisa, and Shevardnadze an enormous vote of thanks. I consider him one of the 20th century's greatest men, perhaps the greatest for his achievements and moral courage.
Russians still unfairly blamed him for the collapse of their dying empire. The US, after agreeing not to expand NATO to Russia's borders, did just that. Shevardnadze, who became leader of independent Georgia, was overthrown by a US-engineered uprising.
The western-backed and financed regime of Boris Yeltsin inaugurated an era of robber barons, criminals, and boundless corruption. Over 100,000 Chechen civilians were massacred -- something Gorbachev would never have done.
Gorby's dream of a reinvigorated Soviet Union under a humane, socially responsive leadership -- something like today's European Union -- was dashed.
Writing about President George Bush's invasion of Iraq, Gorbachev sadly observed, "the idea of a new empire, of sole leadership, was born. Unilateral actions and wars followed," adding, "the US ignored the Security Council, international law, and the will of its own people."
Today's United States, addicted to war and debt, ought to take a lesson from the wise, humane Nobel Prize laureate, Mikhail Gorbachev.
It's time for some glasnost and perestroika in Washington before it heads the way of the old Soviet Union.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011