International Media Watch of news headlines and current affairs reports about Romania
Sunday, May 3, 2009
From The Sunday Times
May 3, 2009
The Berlin Wall was smashed, the world wide web was launched. Brian Moynahan examines 12 months of mayhem and magic
It was the year of wonders: the year the post-war world was utterly changed. At the start of 1989, the cold war seemed in its prime. Communist regimes ruled a third of mankind. By its end, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and taken the regimes in eastern Europe with it. China had to massacre its young to stay in power.
No year quite matches it. 1848, the “year of revolutions”, also saw the flash fires of spontaneous risings, but not on this scale and to such effect. There were other auguries too. Apartheid started to crack in South Africa. Ayatollah Khomeini was dead in Iran, but his Islamic revolution accelerated. The US, now the only superpower, carried out the only invasion, of Panama, to oust General Noriega.
The communist cataclysm had no visible trigger. Life was dull, monotonous, and sodden with cynicism. But then it always had been.
The system bred it. The elite had their own shops, traffic lanes, cinemas and summer villas. The rest scrimped for necessities. A Romanian poet caught the flavour: Trams from time to time, queues for flour Weevils, empty bottles, speeches... There was a sullen standoff between the workers and Communist-party managers: “We pretend to work, and you pretend to pay us.”
The countryside was a place of rusting machinery, weeds and sagging fence posts. The people were listless and wary. Stalin’s terror-famine had killed about 12m, and destroyed all vigour and enterprise on the land. The rural victims of Mao’s own Great Leap Forward also numbered in the millions. Lunacy was let loose. A plague of locusts devoured the harvest, bringing starvation, after Mao’s Great Sparrow Campaign killed off their natural predators. Such trauma does not heal easily, and in 1989 it was continuing. In Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu was destroying villages and moving peasants into concrete “agro-towns”.
The coercive power of a Red regime controlled their people’s jobs, and all that went with them: promotion, demotion, plum postings, dead ends. It owned their homes, the farms that fed them, the factories that clothed them, what they read, what their children learnt. It supplied the only candidates they could vote for and the newspapers and billboards and broadcasts that dinned its propaganda into them. It ran the informers who betrayed their thoughts. At least one in seven adult East Germans was an inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, an “unofficial colleague” of the Stasi secret police.
It had the cold war on its side. In Britain, it was alarming in rare moments of crisis, but most often it was a sort of permanent background hum: woolly caps with CND badges, spy novels by Len Deighton, V-bombers at the Farnborough airshow, and lots of initials: ICBM, BAOR, MIRV, MiG, SS-20. The vast range of Soviet rocketry aimed at us was out of sight, of course, and our squaddies were in their bases in West Germany. The protests were inward: Ban the Bomb meant ban our bomb.
In the East, the death strips on the borders kept people physically in place. The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were merely the best known. The traveller going east from West Germany was greeted at the fraternal border between Poland and the USSR with the same paraphernalia of watchtowers, wire, dogs and minefields.
There was a glimmer of hope. Open-air rock concerts — Genesis, David Bowie, Eurythmics — had been held in West Berlin in June 1987.
Some of the speakers were aimed at the eastern part of the city. Fans tried to get close. As they were beaten and arrested, they chanted, “Gorby, get us out of here.”
The “living dead” in the Kremlin — the invalid Brezhnev, Andropov, the KGB man with kidney failure, Chernenko, connected to oxygen bottles for his emphysema — were gone. “Gorby” was the new man, Mikhail Gorbachev, 58 and full of energy. For all his boxy suits and polyester ties, he and his fresh and redheaded wife, Raisa, had charm and unforced humanity, and it perplexed the hardliners who mistrusted him.
From the outset Mrs Thatcher had declared: “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.” Her judgment was sound on that, if not on the much-loathed poll tax that began her downfall. Ronald Reagan, to be succeeded by George Bush as US president at the start of 1989, had given him no quarter — “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he said when he visited Berlin — but a clear empathy and trust developed.
For the most part, though, the party bosses were old and irritable. Deng Xiaoping, still a power in China, was 85. Erich Honecker, who had overseen the building of the Berlin Wall, was 77. He had led East Germany for 16 years. Nicolae Ceausescu, also in his seventies, had been running Romania for 24 years. Todor Zhivkov in Bulgaria was 78. He had been in power for 35 years.
These men knew how to repress, and the ghosts of failed risings, 1956, 1968, still haunted. “All of us have become accustomed to the totalitarian system,” said Vaclav Havel, a Czech playwright, “and accepted it as an unalterable fact.”
And then 1989 hit.
“The wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years,” Honecker boasted on January 19. It was still about its bloody business. On February 6, Chris Gueffroy, a 20-year-old East German, was shot dead as he tried to scale it.
The same day, as it happened, the communist regime in Warsaw was starting round-table talks with the banned Solidarity trade union and its leader, Lech Walesa. Walesa had been an irritant to the party, fomenting strikes in the Gdansk shipyard for the best part of 20 years, without causing it grievous damage.
Nobody knew it, but Chris Gueffroy would be the last person to die on the wall, and Havel and Walesa would become presidents. Something extraordinary was afoot.
On February 15 the last Soviet soldiers pulled out of Afghanistan. They had been there for nine years, and 14,427 of them, and 576 KGB troops, had lost their lives. They flashed victory signs to the waiting photographers in the slushy snows on the Soviet border, but they were throwing in the towel. It was the first visible sign that Moscow’s urge to empire was weakening.
It confirmed, too, that Mikhail Gorbachev practised what he preached. He spoke of the need for glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), the twin buzz words of 1989. He had confirmed sweeping cuts in the armed forces in January. They were to be reduced by 500,000 men. He also said that 10,000 tanks would be moved out of Europe. That had them sitting up in the eastern Europe satellites, where Soviet tanks had special resonance. His promise to demobilise 1,400 generals and 10,000 colonels by the end of the year startled Kremlinologists.
Only a real Bear tamer could make as free as that. Gorbachev was not frightened of the military. He had already replaced the defence minister and the commander of Soviet forces in East Germany. The heads of the two most important missile commands had rolled. The chief of staff was outraged at the budget cuts and threatened to resign. Gorbachev let him go.
These were changes of pregnant importance, instantly picked up across the Soviet imperium.
A new phenomenon was on the loose, the first Kremlin leader not to have fought in the war and the first since Khrushchev to have charisma. He knew that the fat of an ever leaner land was being devoured by the colossal sums needed to preserve its superpower status.
The American Star Wars programme for an anti-ballistic missile screen was a fresh challenge. On February 22, Stephen Hawking declared that Star Wars was a “deliberate fraud”. Gorbachev was probably well aware of that himself. The Soviets had 1,400 ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) on land, others in submarines, and 553 shorter-range missiles aimed at western Europe. Star Wars — even if the British physicist was wrong, and its physics added up — could not remotely put paid to the vast Soviet nuclear capability. It was useful to Gorbachev, though. Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear-power disaster, had shown the dilapidation of Soviet industry. Star Wars exposed systemic failure. The Soviets could not compete with the West’s new wave, the electronics, IT, telecoms, biotechnology, the rapid pace of change, the garage start-ups that were spawning industries. Something had to give.
Superpowers come and go. Religion is a primeval force. February 24 gave fresh evidence of its revival. Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa commanding the Muslim faithful to assassinate Salman Rushdie.
A bounty of $1m was put on the head of the novelist. Free speech was anathema to the ayatollah: “The club of the pen and the club of the tongue is the worst of clubs, whose corruption is 100 times greater than other clubs,” he said.
The response of Islamic fundamentalists to the fatwa showed their growing sense of global wrath and reach. On February 24 a mob tried to attack the British High Commission in Bombay, Rushdie’s birthplace, and 12 were killed when police opened fire. The Americans were already in the frame as “the Great Satan”. The British joined them. On March 7, Iran broke off diplomatic relations. Copies of the book were burned by Muslims in Bradford. The book’s Japanese translator was later stabbed to death in Tokyo, the Italian was badly wounded in Milan, the Norwegian publisher was shot in Oslo, and the Turkish translator escaped when a mob set fire to a hotel he was staying at, burning 37 others to death.
The Hungarians marked the anniversary of their 1848 revolution on March 15 with peaceful country-wide demands for democracy and free elections.
Gorbachev had not — quite — gone as far as sanctioning opposition parties. He allowed multiple candidates, and in Boris Yeltsin, his big, brave, hard-drinking ex-protégé, it came to much the same thing. Yeltsin set about corrupt city officials running Moscow with gusto, treated his Politburo colleagues with a radical reformer’s blunt contempt, and tackled Gorbachev about his wife’s meddling in affairs of state. He was sacked. He took advantage of the concession on candidates to stand in the elections as deputy for Moscow. On March 26 he was elected with 84% of the vote.
The Soviet Caucasus, tribal, feuding, were seething. Anti-Armenian violence broke out across the racial and religious divide in Azerbaijan. Separatists in Abkhazia, incorporated in Georgia, were demanding their own Soviet republic. This sparked protests in Georgia, swelling into nationalist marches calling for immediate independence from Moscow. Local party leaders, alarmed, turned to the Soviet army. It attacked a huge and peaceful crowd in Lenin Square in Tbilisi. Twenty were killed and hundreds more were treated in hospital for chemical poisoning after troops used toxic tear gas.
The pace was picking up. A spirit of the year was growing. It was too early for it to be spread by the internet. Tim Berners-Lee outlined the concept of the world wide web in a paper in March 1989. A British computer scientist, he wanted a way for scientists to be keep abreast of developments across the world. He followed this with a formal proposal in November 1990. The internet was first used on Christmas Day, 1990, a red-letter day not just for academics, but for shopping, porn, gambling, e-mails and every other online activity. The underlying idea of 1989, though, was spread by radio, by the press, and by old-fashioned word of mouth. It was “pro-democracy”. That meant free elections. Communists had never won one, anywhere, ever.
Now China was touched. It announced that its population had reached 1,100,000,000 on April 14. The disgraced but much-loved Hu Yaobang died the next day. Hu had been a pro-market and pro-democracy party secretary-general. His supporters wished to mourn him. They began gathering in Tiananmen Square, the vast open space in the heart of Beijing. The Monument to the People’s Heroes in the centre was a natural gathering point. At midnight on April 17 — the day Solidarity won legal status in Poland — 3,000 students marched from Peking University to join them. They started a sit-in the next morning. On the night of April 21, 100,000 gathered in the square before it could be closed off for Hu’s funeral the next day. They remained after it.
This was becoming a crisis. Deng Xiaoping reacted on April 26. The Communist-party newspaper People’s Daily ran a front-page editorial: it spoke of “opportunists” and “plotters.” The students were furious. Fifty thousand marched through the Beijing streets demanding a retraction. Double that number were back on the streets on May 4 to call for press and television freedom. Demonstrations spread to Shanghai, Chongqing and other big cities. Tiananmen Square dominated world news.
Snippets, though, meant much to those who knew how to read them. The Roman Catholic Church was given the right to run Polish schools on May 17. It was unheard of to surrender the monopoly of state schools — the more so since the church was a powerful counter-force to the communists. It had its martyrs: Cardinal Mindszenty, primate of Hungary, tortured, imprisoned, trapped for 15 years in the US embassy in Budapest; Father Jerzy Popieluszko, kidnapped and murdered by Polish secret police in 1984. The Iron Curtain visits of “the Polish Pope”, John Paul II, had drawn the faithful by the millions.
By now the Chinese demonstrations had spread to over 400 cities, as far as Inner Mongolia. The Chinese Politburo split over the use of force. The hardliners won. Martial law was declared on May 20. The soldiers and tanks of the 27th Army were brought from the provinces to take control of the city. Protesters barred their way. On May 27, over 300,000 people went to Happy Valley Racecourse in Hong Kong to sing “democratic songs” for China. Next day, a quarter of the crown colony’s people paraded through Hong Kong Island. They were not due to become Chinese subjects until the British left in 1997. They were supporting the “opportunists” already.
The rot, as the hardliners saw it, was getting close to unstoppable. The 27th Army battered and shot its way into Beijing past roadblocks of burned-out buses. The assault on Tiananmen Square began at 10.30pm on June 3. Armoured personnel carriers and automatic weapons were used on the crowd. Students were heard shouting: “Why are you killing us?” The first tanks went into the square at about 4am on June 4. By 5.40am the square had been cleared. Only the mopping up and secret trials and executions remained. The famous film of the lone man in the white shirt standing in front of a tank column was taken the next day. He was on the Avenue of Eternal Peace and the tanks were withdrawing from the square. The name and fate of “Tank Man” are unknown. The official number of dead is 241. Foreign correspondents at the scene put it at 3,000. Ayatollah Khomeini had died in Tehran on June 3. The next day, as the tanks went about their business in Beijing, a crowd of perhaps 10m massed in a sea of black at his funeral in Tehran. Fire engines sprayed them with water in the 100-degree heat. Many were crushed. The body came by helicopter. It had to be reloaded after it was almost spilt as the crowd broke the wooden coffin.
It was the end of the beginning of the Islamic revolution. Its bloodthirsty nature, its ambitions — “establishing the Islamic state worldwide belong to the great goals of the revolution”, he said — and its ruthless backwardness were all firmly established by his death. His Iran was a rogue state, at war with Iraq, impoverished, many of its brightest engineers and doctors emigrating. But it was still there. That, it seemed, was that. The future was with Khomeini’s mourners. Hu’s freedom-seekers were dead or broken.
At half-time, 1989 looked like another false dawn, a repeat lesson: hardliners who retain the nerve and the will to massacre their young people prevail. The Chinese sent officials to East Berlin to brief the regime on dealing with pro-democracy unrest. Gorbachev was muted. He called for reform, but did not condemn. The flame was guttering. It was kept alive by the Poles and Hungarians. As part of the round-table deal, Solidarity and the others had conceded that the communists would be returned unopposed in two-thirds of the seats in parliamentary elections on June 5. It seemed weakness, until the polls closed. Solidarity-backed candidates won all but one of the 100 freely contested seats. It was a stunning moral victory. The “salami tactics” used against the democratic parties after the war were now reversed. It was the communists who were now being sliced up, bit by bit.
The Hungarians condemned the Chinese, utterly and immediately: “abject, uncivilised mass murder”. On June 7, a Politburo member said that it was inconceivable the party or leadership would give an order to open fire. That resonated. So did a comment Gorbachev made on a visit to the West German capital on June 13. “Policy without morality,” he said, “cannot be considered serious policy.” As he went walkabout with Raisa — encouraging in itself — he was cheered to the echo by the young, girls in red-star earrings chanting: “Gorby! Gorby!” He said he felt as at home on Bonn’s cobbles as Red Square’s. It was young people like this he would have to kill if he resorted to type.
A third funeral was held now, this time in Budapest. The body of the martyr of the 1956 uprising, Imre Nagy, was taken from the unmarked grave in a wilderness of grass and wild poppies where he had lain since his execution. He was given a hero’s funeral on June 16. Events in Beijing gave it intense symbolism.
Four days later, the idea of holding a “Pan-European Picnic” emerged from a dinner conversation between a Hungarian activist and Otto von Habsburg, the veteran former crown prince of Austro-Hungary and an MEP. The Hungarians had demobilised the so-called “Sz-100 system”, the Soviet-made electronic alarm system that had replaced the minefields along the Hungarian borders. Imre Pozsgay, minister of state, said the alarm system “has morally, technologically and politically outlived itself”.
This was to be celebrated at the picnic, a modest affair of beer, sausages and a bonfire in a field outside Sopron, a Hungarian town on the Austrian border. A gate in the border, closed since 1948, was to be opened on August 19 for a small delegation to cross to the Austrian town of St Margarethen nearby. The Hungarian government was happy with this. Not happy, at all, with their neighbour’s permeable borders were the Romanians. On June 21 they started laying new barbed wire and mines along their frontier with Hungary. There were reports of killings of would-be refugees in the Romanian frontier zone. Another hardline regime, though, was showing signs of cracking. Nelson Mandela had served 26 years of a life sentence for trying to overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa. He was the focal point of black resistance to white minority rule. On July 5 he was taken from prison for a meeting with PW Botha, the South African president.
Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty spread word of the picnic. It fell on fertile ground in East Germany. Nothing had been switched off on their border with the West: the Berlin Wall was undergoing its fourth upgrade. Sopron’s open gate was irresistible. They drove their spluttering Trabant two-strokes — they were the most prosperous people in the East — into Czechoslovakia and headed for Hungary. They were allowed to travel in eastern Europe, since, in theory at least, it was hermetically sealed from the West.
A great throng gathered for the picnic, good-natured, grilling pork, drinking beer. Lieutenant-Colonel Bella Arpad, commander of the local frontier guards, was at the border gate, awaiting the arrival of the delegation at 3pm. “A large group appeared a hundred metres away,” he said. “They didn’t look like a delegation. They looked like East Germans. As I approached them, it became clear they wanted to go over into Austria. They didn’t give me the chance to ask any questions. They pushed open the gates and rushed through like an express train.”
The East Germans, 700 of them, walked through to Austria. The mayor of St Margarethen, Andreas Waha, had already got the town’s brass band out ready to welcome the delegates. Now he began to call local guesthouses and restaurants, asking for food and lodgings for the incoming Germans to be charged to his office. East Germany was key. If it cracked, the dam went.
For the Soviets it was a place of pride, fear, fascination, bought with the blood of the millions who had died in the greatest battles in history to take it. It had 380,000 Soviet troops, tucked away in old Nazi barracks, in ex-PoW camps. It was the jumping-off point for the invasion of the West.
It seemed inconceivable they would let East Germans go West. East Germans were in the grip of Torschlusspanik, the fear of being left behind when the gate shut. That had last seized East Germans in 1961. As they fled to West Berlin, the country visibly wasted away. The entire law faculty at Leipzig University went. Hospitals were drained of doctors. So many skilled workers left that “shock brigades” of women workers were trained to replace them. By the summer of 1961, one-sixth of the population had gone. In the early hours of August 13, 1961, West Berlin taxi drivers radioed their dispatchers not to accept trips into the Soviet zone. They had started building the wall.
The panic now repeated itself. Forty thousand left in August and the first weeks of September. They sought asylum in West German embassies in Prague and Budapest.
Quietly, without fuss, on September 21, the Polish parliament approved the appointment of Tadeusz Mazowiecki as its first non-communist prime minister. In late September, the Hungarians let through 14,000 in a week. Special trains collected the asylum seekers to take them to West Germany on October 1. The East German regime insisted they were routed through their cities to show them as pitiful deportees. It backfired. The trains were mobbed as people tried to climb on to join them. In Dresden, 15,000 besieged the main station. Police drove them back with clubs and water cannons. They responded with rocks.
The first open defiance took place the next day in Leipzig. Thousands defied a ban to march through the city. The Stasi were having to run buses and trams whose drivers had fled. On October 3, the regime suspended visa-free travel to Czechoslovakia. Gorbachev arrived in East Berlin three days later. After a gala dinner, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Honecker as a parade of young communists passed down the Unter den Linden. Honecker, reassured by the presence of his guest, seethed: “We will solve our problems ourselves, with socialist means.” Everyone knew what that meant. Gorbachev, though, said that his hosts “must co-operate with all the powers of society”, a very different thing. The young threw Honecker’s defiance back in his face: “Gorby! Gorby!”
On October 7, as Hungary voted to transform itself into a parliamentary democracy, violent clashes with police broke out in Leipzig and Dresden. Ambulances were readied in both cities for the casualties inevitable in a crackdown. Three days later, Honecker ordered the Czech border to be sealed. Since January 1, 110,000 East Germans had fled, and 1.8m had applied to leave. The population, 19m at its birth in 1948, was down to 16m in its death throes. Up to 500 a day were still getting out through Hungary.
Leipzig had huge demonstrations on October 16. “Gorby! Gorby!” they chanted. They had good reason. Gorbachev refused pleas to use the Soviet garrison to intervene. Later that day, Honecker ceased to be president. His own Politburo voted to oust him: rather his neck than theirs. It was all over. The will had gone. They knew it across the satellites. On October 23, Hungary declared the end of communist rule. On November 3, Bulgarians began demonstrating in Sofia. On November 4, a million people gathered at the Alexanderplatz in East Berlin. Before, they had shouted: “Wir wollen raus!” They wanted out. Now it was “Wir wollen bleiben!” They wanted to stay, without the wall. The new government decided to let East Berliners with proper permission cross the border from November 10. The propaganda secretary, Günter Schabowski, announced this on live television on November 9. He had been on holiday and did not know that the border guards had yet to be briefed. He was asked when the regulations would come into effect. “As far as I know,” he said, “immediately, without delay.”
Thousands swarmed to the wall and demanded entry to West Berlin. The border guards were swamped. No official would take responsibility for ordering them to open fire. The guards gave way. The Mauerspechte, the wall woodpeckers, began knocking lumps off it with sledgehammers.
The rout went on. Todor Zhivkov resigned in Bulgaria on November 10. Some of the spirit may have worked its way to South Africa. On November 16, the Separate Amenities Act of 1953, the legal backbone of apartheid, was scrapped. The signs — Slegs Blankes, Whites Only — were part of life in public places, buses, restaurants, beaches, constant graffiti. Then, suddenly, they were gone.
On November 24, a huge roadside bomb killed Sheikh Abdullah Azzam in Peshawar, close to the Pakistan border with Afghanistan. Azzam was a Muslim extremist — “Jihad and the rifle alone” was his slogan — and the mentor of Osama Bin Laden. Azzam had taught at the Saudi university where Bin Laden was a student. He had founded a charity front called Maktab al-Khidamat, MAK, to funnel foreign volunteers and funds to the fighting in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was his number two. After the assassination, Bin Laden took control of MAK, the precursor to Al-Qaeda.
Demonstrations had now begun in Prague. The victory of the “velvet revolution” was swift and bloodless. The communist president, Gustav Husak, resigned on December 10. By then the East Germans had dropped the communist monopoly from their constitution. Gorbachev and George Bush had declared the cold war over. Gorbachev had met John Paul II at the Vatican. Miracles were happening.
In Ceausescu’s Romania, bread, meat, sugar and vegetable oil were rationed. The problem, Ceausescu declared, was that people ate too much. Much of Bucharest’s lovely Uranus district, a maze of old streets, churches and synagogues, had been razed to build a palace for Ceausescu and Elena, his equally despised consort.
It started on December 16 in the provinces, at Timisoara. A pastor critical of the regime was told he was to be evicted from his flat. His parishioners gathered to prevent it. Their numbers swelled. Rioters broke into a party building. The Securitate secret police were stretched. Romania had no riot police — the Ceausescus believed they were too much loved to need them — and the army was called in. Martial law was declared on December 18. The young defied it. They were fired on. People were not cowed. By December 20, 100,000 were defying martial law in Timisoara.
On the morning of December 21, Ceausescu had a vast audience assembled in Bucharest to hear him denounce the uprising. He misjudged its mood. Only the front rows clapped him. The rest whistled and jeered. It was televised. Three- quarters of the nation watched his feeble attempt to regain control — “Talk to them,” his wife hissed, “talk to them” — until the live feed was cut off. The audience took to the streets. Soldiers and Securitate men fired into them from rooftops.
In the early hours of December 22, the Ceausescus made a second mistake. By now, “Moarte criminalului!” was one of the chants. “Death to the murderer!” They failed to flee the city by night. Ceausescu was howled down when he tried to speak from a balcony the next morning. Helicopters dropped leaflets, telling people to go home and enjoy “their Christmas feast”. Some did not even have cooking oil. “Marie Antoinette!” they cried. Shooting was widespread now.
At 11.44am the Ceausescus were rescued by their helicopter from a terrace as a mob rushed towards them. “They were practically carried by their bodyguards, white with terror,” the pilot said. He said he was worried about hostile anti-aircraft fire as he flew them south. He landed. The bodyguards flagged down a car.
They were told they would be safe at a technical institute in the town of Titu. Its director locked them in a room and summoned the police.
They were held at a military garrison.
On Christmas Day, a military tribunal sentenced them to death. The execution was carried out immediately by three paratroopers.
As it closed, a famous essay titled The End of History? was written about 1989. In it, Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, said that what was happening went far beyond the passing of the cold war or of a particular period. It was “the end of history as such: that is, the end of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. That, alas, was bunk. Old and often nasty habits — tribal loyalties, ethnic violence, religious hatreds, communal jealousies, gangster capitalism — revived in places where they had lain dormant under communist dictatorship. Patchwork countries — Yugoslavia, the USSR — fell apart amid killings and ethnic cleansing in Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Croatia. Communism had not destroyed the cross-hatreds of race and religion. It had kept them in cold storage.
More happily, on February 11, Mandela was freed from prison in South Africa after 27 years, with a lack of bitterness that shamed his captors.
By May 1990 the Baltic states were declaring independence. In June the Russian Federation declared itself a sovereign state whose laws took precedence over Soviet law. Ironically, Mohammad Najibullah’s communist regime in Afghanistan remained for two more years before the mujaheddin and ultimately the Taliban took over.
For all the postponed bloodshed, though, 1989 is still wondrous. It had technical causes. The eastern bloc was saddled with Stalin-era industries that had become rustbucket in the West. To compete, they had to import equipment and know-how, and pay in hard currency. They spent foolishly, ran up debts with western banks and beggared their consumers to service them.
The human cast had playwrights, Vaclav Havel, trade-union leaders, Walesa, the conductor Kurt Masur, who calmed nerves at a vital moment in Leipzig. Gorbachev was the lead. No question. But he was not the leader. He was swept up in events. The fate of the Soviet troops in East Germany — the men whose non-intervention was so vital — makes that clear. Within months, the country in which they were stationed ceased to exist. They could not be brought home because there were no barracks for them. Gorbachev had not anticipated it or planned it. They were left for months, unwanted, seen rooting in rubbish dumps, and returning supermarket trolleys for a deutschmark a time. It was a humiliation not lost on a KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, in his office in Angelikastrasse in Dresden.
It was moral collapse that drove the daily happenings, and produced the “startled realism” of Gorbachev’s response. In China, the party elite had enough self-belief left to crush dissidents. Elsewhere, political morality was devastated. “We are all morally sick, because we all got used to saying one thing and thinking another,” Havel said. They lived lies, mouthed slogans they did not believe in, revered old men — Ceausescu, “Geniul din Carpati”, “Genius of the Carpathians” — who were senile and self-besotted, bowed to venal and foul-eyed officials. They despised themselves for it: “I am Cain and Abel” read a sign above an East Berlin altar. When finally the fire came, it jumped here, and there, and they gained warmth from one another’s defiance, across the bloc. The flames took hold because the political class was rotten, self-serving, corrupt beyond repair, and it knew it. Its will had gone.