A joke from the 1970s, when Leonid Brezhnev and Alexi Kosygin were the Soviet Union’s leaders, still circulates in the USSR and Eastern Europe:

Kosygin says to Brezhnev, “Let’s tear down the Iron Curtain. Let’s open the borders around our country.”

“But,” exclaims Brezhnev, “if we did that, everybody in the country, except you and me, would leave!”

“Speak for yourself,” Kosygin replies.

The Iron Curtain still surrounds the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But there is another, less concrete, divider. It is the wall of hostility between East and West, and it also stands high and casts a dark shadow across the world.

During the last months of 1985 and the first half of 1986, hopes for improved relations between the superpowers rose higher than they have at any time since the days of détente in the seventies.

Some Westerners, for example, believed that the November 1985 summit between USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan dissolved at least a few of the differences that divide East and West. Other people have been optimistic about continuation of the Geneva arms-control talks, and some are encouraged by new cultural and educational exchanges between the U.S. and the USSR, such as the recent “town meeting” in Jurmala, Latvia, between Soviet citizens and 270 Americans.

Nevertheless, during the past four months, many people’s hopes for improved U.S.-USSR relations began to wane. In August, the Soviets arrested U.S. correspondent Nicholas Daniloff and held him hostage for a month in retaliation for the American arrest of accused Soviet spy Gennady Zakharov. Both men were released in September, and a presummit ...

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