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Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, right, with Soviet leader President Mikhail Gorbachev at RAF base Brize Norton in Dec. 1987.Ken Lennox/The Canadian Press

And so is gone the last great man of the 20th century, a man raised under a totalitarian system who, thankfully for the world, was anything but a Russian of that ilk. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was so different. A critical contrast, one of them at least, was that he had a daringly open mind.

By the time he came to power in 1985, Mr. Gorbachev had gained a Western perspective. He had been to France, Belgium and West Germany. And, perhaps most importantly, he had been to Canada.

Here in 1983, his guide was our roly-poly agriculture minister, Eugene Whelan. Mr. Whelan got to know the Soviet ambassador Alexander Yakovlev, who would go on, partly as a result of establishing a closer rapport with Mr. Gorbachev on the Canadian visit, to be his top architect of glasnost (“opening”) and perestroika (“reform”).

He and Mr. Whelan had hit it off. Mr. Yakovlev had an artificial leg, a result of the Siege of Leningrad, and Mr. Whelan teased him about it. “That’s where you keep your electronic listening device.”

Both men wanted to give Mr. Gorbachev a real schooling on Western ways. “I would get going,” Mr. Whelan recalled, “telling Gorbachev why Canada’s methods were superior and Alex would sneak in behind him and start waving his arms, urging me to give Gorbachev the real goods.”

“We went to a supermarket on an hour’s notice. Gorbachev couldn’t believe the products on the shelves.”

When I went to Moscow in 1985 to open The Globe and Mail’s first Soviet bureau, Mr. Gorbachev had by then ascended to general secretary. The Canadian connection helped open doors. Mr. Gorbachev had come to know prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who told me before I left – and before “Gorby” started his remarkable reforms – that he found him different. “Flexible, pragmatic.”

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I went to Stavropol, Mr. Gorbachev’s hometown, more than 1,200 kilometres south of Moscow. “He was always different from the rest of us,” said Sergio Morozov, a friend. He had a “to-hell-with-Moscow attitude.” And he wanted to do things his own way. Mr. Morozov recalled Mr. Gorbachev laughing at a Soviet propaganda film glorifying Stalin’s collectivization of Soviet farms.

But he had to play the game to a certain extent to rise to the top, and to many in the West, particularly Republicans in Washington, his talk of bringing new thinking and freedoms to the evil empire was bunk.

But what became clear was that Mr. Gorbachev was firmly of the belief that his system was markedly inferior, that the continuing clash of East-West ideologies was irrational, and that his sick totalitarian system was desperate for democratic air. Basically what drove him was common sense – his system had to change, the Cold War had to end. The obstacles were enormous but he possessed a great deal of self-confidence and political savvy.

In the West, there is this notion that he had no choice but to fold up his rotting empire. But like other Soviet leaders he still had the support and command of the KGB, he still had the mammoth military might at his disposal, and he had a population still cowed, not on the verge of rebellion. He could have maintained that system.

Instead, with sweeping democratic reforms at home and with one peace initiative after another abroad, he brought down totalitarianism in his own country, liberated Eastern Europe and was the driving force in ending the Cold War.

Giants don’t come much bigger than that.

How he forced Ronald Reagan, the ardent cold warrior, to change his evil-empire attitude was remarkable. He kept piling on concession after concession until “The Gipper” caved. There was the moratorium on nuclear tests to which the White House shouted propaganda, a promise to rid the world of nuclear weapons to which the reaction was the same. He offered on-site arms inspections, he withdrew his forces from Afghanistan, he released dissidents, he opened immigration, and he allowed freedoms in the media.

By this time the Reaganites were reeling. Polls were showing that of all things crazy, a Soviet leader was the greatest force for world peace. To his credit, Mr. Reagan changed his long-embedded views and they joined hands.

Watching Mr. Gorbachev work his reforms at home, I was struck by the degree of resistance. Democracy was such a foreign concept it didn’t catch. The people were too ingrained in their history. They cared more about their vodka. When Mr. Gorbachev cut back on production because of the alcoholism epidemic, he faced a bear revolt.

Incredibly enough, in his own land, Mr. Gorbachev never became widely popular. He could only go so far in lifting the cloak of repression before the reactionary forces struck.

But how far Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev got can be clearly seen now with the resurgence of despotism under Vladimir Putin. What a sad parting thought for one of the world’s greatest statesmen was that tyrant’s work.

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