Alfred Nobel spent his life developing explosives. He patented dynamite and substances even more powerful. At his death in 1896 -- after a full life in his native Sweden and in Russia -- he left the bulk of his fortune to fund five prizes, including one "to the person who shall have most or best promoted the fraternity of nations and the abolition or diminution of standing armies and the formation and increase of peace congresses."
Few Nobel peace prize winners have fulfilled that criteria as welas this year's laureate, Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
During his five years at the top of the Soviet hierarchy, President Gorbachev has changed his country and the world. Standing armies have been reduced as never before. Distrust has given way to a new thinking that has helped transform post-World War II Europe.
"This peace process, to which Gorbachev has contributed so significantly, opens up for the world community to solve its pressing problems across, ideological, religious, historical and cultural dividing lines," the Nobel committee said in justifying the award.
Mr. Gorbachev's made this transformation possible because ohis belief that "universal human values" were more important than the class war Marx and Engels had preached and all previous Soviet leaders had practiced. This extraordinary ideological adjustment (which was seen by some as a betrayal of communism) led to true cooperation abroad and a fragile but promising blooming of democracy at home. Of course, as ideas began flowing freely, the bankruptcy of the Soviet system became fully exposed.
The Nobel committee often has tried to act as an agent fointernal and international change. Its past awards amply prove that: Andrei Sakharov (1975), Anwar Sadat (1978), Lech Walesa (1983), Desmond Tutu (1984). Some awards have gone to organizations: International Physicians for the Presention of Nuclear War (1985), the United Nations Peace Keeping Forces (1988). Each of those awards was as deserved as it was controversial.
Through this year's prize the Nobel committee is again playinpolitics. It is honoring President Gorbachev on the eve of major economic decisions.
This is a crucial moment in Soviet history, a time of danger when the old system is collapsing without anything ready to replace it. Unless workable alternatives are developed, the country possessing one of the most awesome nuclear arsenals in the world may edge toward the brink of chaos.
The Nobel committee is sending a political message through the Soviet Union's 11 time zones. It is expressing full confidence in the ability of Mr. Gorbachev to achieve continuing peaceful changes at home as well as abroad.