Lucky Coincidence


Prof. Dietrich Fischer – TRANSCEND Media Service

Kenneth Boulding once said, “History is like a pinball machine. A slight change in initial conditions can bring vastly different outcomes.” Johan Galtung gave an illustration of this that he had heard from André Fontaine, the editor of Le Monde, on a flight from Seoul–where they had attended a conference together–to Paris.

A French businessman, Monsieur Poulenc, traded with the Soviet Union, like Armand Hammer from the United States, during the years of the Cold War. Whenever he visited the Kremlin, he was wined and dined. When a Soviet delegation came to Paris, he wanted to return the favor and invited them to his private castle near Bordeaux, which made a famous wine.

They said, “We want such a castle making this wine in the Soviet Union!” Poulenc argued, “This is impossible. It requires a very special soil, the right amount of sunshine and rain, and there is no other place in the world just like this.

The members of the delegation said, “Oh, but the Soviet Union is very big. We will find a place like this.” They sent scientists to test the soil and climate in many areas throughout the Soviet Union, and found the closest similarities in Stavropol. So they sent the local Communist Party Secretary–the young Mikhail Gorbachev–to France to learn the secrets how to make that wine.

But Gorbachev had other interests. Gorbachev asked M. Poulenc, “Could I have a car with a driver and a French and Italian interpreter for two weeks?” Poulenc said, “No problem.” So Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev toured France and Italy for two weeks, studying the public library system and sewage treatment in every town they visited. He was interested in promoting free access to information in the Soviet Union, and sewage treatment was a perennial problem there. (Samir Amin once joked that there seemed to be a contradiction between socialism and plumbing).

Shortly later, when there was an opening in the 300-member Central Committee, Gorbachev was chosen as a “specialist on Western Europe” because of his trip to France and Italy. Later, there was a vacancy in the 7-member Politburo, and again Gorbachev was selected because of his knowledge of Western Europe, at a still young age for Soviet standards.

In 1985, after Chernenko died, he became Soviet Secretary General, on the recommendation of Georgy Arbatov, defeating the hardliner party boss of Leningrad, Romanov, in a 4 to 3 vote. The rest is history.

If the soil conditions in Stavropol had not resembled those in the Bordeaux region, the end of the Cold War might have been delayed.


Dietrich Fischer (1941-2015) from Münsingen, Switzerland, got a Licentiate in Mathematics from the University of Bern 1968 and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from New York University 1976. 1986-88 he was a MacArthur Fellow in International Peace and Security at Princeton University. He has taught mathematics, computer science, economics and peace studies at various universities and been a consultant to the United Nations. He was co-founder, with Johan Galtung, of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment in 1993.

Excerpted from Dietrich Fischer’s Stories to Inspire You – TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 Oct 2017.

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