The power of one

Today, the professor in one of my classes called on some 150 college students to, as he put it, go out and changehistory. I snorted and thought about dropping the class.But when I was surfing the Web later that day, I stumbled upon a news report that changed my mind, leading me to the conclusion that history is more than a series of earth-shattering events such as the Declaration of Independence, the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima or the discovery of a vaccine for polio.An individual’s split-second decision to reach out and lend a hand to another person in distress can literally change the course of history in unanticipated ways. Bear with me as I tell the story.In 1988, during their war against a Soviet invasion force, Afghan guerrillas shot down a Soviet plane and captured its pilot. Prisoners on both sides were often brutally treated by their captors, so the downed pilot, a young Russian named Alexander Rutskoy, expected the worst.At the time, a American CIA operations officer, Milt Bearden, arranged arms shipments to the Afghans.According to his account, he managed to persuade the guerrillas to turn parts of the destroyed plane over to the CIA. But Bearden didn’t stop there. He understood that if the guerrillas followed their usual practice of torturing pilots, their actions would provoke even more Soviet violence against Afghan captives, ultimately prolongingan already bloody war. So he offered the Afghans a package deal: Throw in the pilot with the plane parts, and theCIA will double the purse.The Afghans agreed, and Bearden arranged to send Rutskoy to the United States, where he was offered permanent residence. Later, however, Rutskoy chose to move back to the Soviet Union, where he was greeted as a national hero.In 1991, while watching televised news, Bearden recognized Rutskoy among the leaders of the pro-democracy forces supporting Mikhail Gorbachev. Later that year, the former pilot and POW became Russia’s vice president, second only to President Boris Yeltsin.Two years later, Rutskoy joined the opposition against Yeltsin, protesting against the president’s nepotism and corruption. In 1996, he became the leader of the most liberal party in Russia.Today, Rutskoy remains an outspoken critic of President Vladmir Putin’s pressure tactics against democratic politicians, independent media and other political opponents.Maybe Bearden’s decision to save the life of a lone pilot was just a quick, calculated move to get some short-term benefit for the United States. But his decision helped set in motion a chain of events that, years later, strengthened voices for democracy in Russia.Moreover, as Bearden points out, it demonstrated that putting an end to the practice of torture is not just a moral thing to do; it’s a smart way to help break a cycle of violence. The entire episode proves that individual decisions count and can shape history in profound ways. Even in a world where the nightly news consists of death tolls and war footage, the actions of an individual still have the power to do great good.