‘We cannot go on living like this’.
Mikhail Gorbachev (to his wife, March 1985)
‘The most dangerous time for a bad government is when it starts to
Alexis De Tocqueville
‘We have no intention of harming or destabilizing the GDR’.
Heinrich Windelen, West-German Minister for inter-German relations
‘Historical experience shows that Communists were sometimes forced by
circumstances to behave rationally and agree to compromises’.
‘People, your government has returned to you’.
Václav Havel, Presidential Address, January 1st 1990
The conventional narrative of Communism’s final collapse begins with Poland. On October 16th 1978, Karol Wojtyła, Cardinal of Craków, was elected to the Papacy as John Paul II, the first Pole to hold the office. The expectations aroused by his election were unprecedented in modern times. Some in the Catholic Church regarded him as a likely radical—he was young (just fifty-eight when elected pope in 1978, having been appointed Archbishop of Craków while still in his thirties) but already a veteran of the Second Vatican Council. Energetic and charismatic, this was the man who would complete the work of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and who would lead the Church into a new era, a pastor rather than a Curial bureaucrat.
Conservative Catholics, meanwhile, took comfort in Wojtyła’s reputation for unbending theological firmness and the moral and political absolutism born of his experience as a priest and prelate under communism. This was a man who, for all his reputation as a ‘pope of ideas’, open to intellectual exchange and scholarly debate, would not compromise with the Church’s enemies. Like Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the powerful head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (and his successor as Pope), Wojtyła had been startled out of his early reforming enthusiasm by the radical aftershock of John XXIII’s reforms. By the time of his election he was already an administrative as well as a doctrinal conservative.
Karol Wojtyła’s Polish origins and his tragic early life help to explain the unusual strength of his convictions and the distinctive quality of his papacy. He lost his mother when he was eight (he would lose his only sibling, his older brother Edmund, three years later; his last surviving close relative, his father, died during the war when Wojtyła was nineteen). Following his mother’s death he was taken by his father to the Marian sanctuary at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska and made frequent pilgrimages there in following years—Zebrzydowska, like Częstochowa, is an important center of the cult of the Virgin Mary in modern Poland. By the age of fifteen Wojtyła was already the president of the Marian sodality in Wadowice, his home town, an early hint of his inclination to Mariolatry (which in turn contributed to his obsession with marriage and abortion).
The new Pope’s Christian vision was rooted in the peculiarly messianic style of Polish Catholicism. In modern Poland he saw not only the embattled eastern frontier of the True Faith, but also a land and a people chosen to serve as the example and sword of the Church in the struggle against Eastern atheism and Western materialism alike.271 Together with his long service in Craków, isolated from Western theological and political currents, this probably explained his tendency to embrace a parochial and sometimes troubling Polish-Christian vision.272
But it also explains the unprecedented enthusiasm for him in the country of his birth. From the outset, the pope broke with his predecessors’ cosmopolitan Roman acquiescence in modernity, secularism, and compromise. His campaign of international appearances—complete with carefully staged performances in huge open arenas, accompanied by oversized crucifixes and a paraphernalia of light, sound, and theatrical timing—was not undertaken without design. This was a Big Pope, taking himself and his Faith to the world: to Brazil, Mexico, the US, and the Philippines; to Italy, France, and Spain; but above all to Poland itself.
Abandoning the cautious ‘Ostpolitik’ of his predecessors, John Paul II arrived in Warsaw on June 2nd 1979 for the first of three dramatic ‘pilgrimages’ to Communist Poland. He was met with huge, adoring crowds. His presence affirmed and reinforced the influence of the Catholic Church in Poland; but the Pope was not interested in merely endorsing Christianity’s passive survival under Communism. To the occasional discomfort of his own bishops he began explicitly discouraging Catholics in Poland and everywhere else in Eastern Europe from any compromise with Marxism, and offered his Church not merely as a silent sanctuary but as an alternative pole of moral and social authority.
As Poland’s Communists well understood, such a change in the position of the Catholic Church—from compromise to resistance—could have a destabilizing local impact, posing an open challenge to the Party’s monopoly of authority. In part this was because Poles remained overwhelmingly and enthusiastically Catholic; in large measure it was because of the man himself. But there was very little they could do—to forbid the Pope to visit Poland or to speak there would only have strengthened his appeal and further alienated millions of his admirers. Even after the imposition of martial law, when the Pope returned to Poland in June 1983 and spoke to his ‘compatriots’ in St John’s Cathedral in Warsaw of their ‘disappointment and humiliation, their suffering and loss of freedom’, the Communist leaders could only stand and listen. ‘Poland’, he told an uncomfortable General Jaruzelski in a televised speech, ‘must take her proper place among the nations of Europe, between East and West.’
The Pope, as Stalin once observed, has no divisions. But God is not always on the side of the big battalions: what John Paul II lacked in soldiers he made up in visibility—and timing. Poland in 1978 was already on the edge of social upheaval. Ever since the workers’ revolts of 1970, and again in 1976, both prompted by sharp increases in the price of food, First Secretary Edvard Gierek had tried hard to avert domestic discontent—mostly, as we have seen, by borrowing heavily abroad and using the loans to supply Poles with subsidized food and other consumer goods. But the strategy was failing.
Thanks to the emergence of Jacek Kuroń’s KOR, the intellectual opposition and workers’ leaders now cooperated far more than in the past. In response to the cautious appearance of ‘free’ (i.e. illegal) trade unions in a number of industrial and coastal towns, beginning in Katowice and Gdansk, the leaders of KOR drew up a ‘Charter of Workers’ Rights’ in December 1979: its demands included the right to autonomous, non-Party unions and the right to strike. The predictable response of the authorities was to arrest intellectual activists and sack the offending workers—among them the then-unknown electrician Lech Wałesa and fourteen other employees at Elektromontaz in Gdansk.
Whether the semi-clandestine movement for workers’ rights would have continued to grow is not clear. Its spokesmen were certainly emboldened by the Pope’s recent visit and their sense that the regime would be reluctant to strike back violently for fear of international disapproval. But theirs was still a tiny and haphazard network of activists. What triggered mass backing was the Communist Party’s attempt—for the third time in a decade—to resolve its economic difficulties by announcing, on July 1st 1980, an immediate increase in the price of meat.
The day after the announcement, KOR declared itself a ‘strike information agency’. In the next three weeks protest strikes spread from the Ursus tractor plant (scene of the 1976 protests) to every major industrial city in the country, reaching Gdansk and its Lenin Shipyard on August 2nd. There the shipbuilders occupied the yard and formed themselves into an unofficial trade union, Solidarnošč (‘Solidarity’) —led by Wałesa, who on August 14th 1980 climbed over the shipyard wall and into the leadership of a national strike movement.
The authorities’ instinctive response—to arrest ‘ringleaders’ and isolate the strikers—having failed, they opted instead to buy time and divide their opponents. In an unprecedented move, representatives of the Politburo were sent to Gdansk to negotiate with ‘reasonable’ workers’ leaders, even as Kuroń, Adam Michnik and other KOR leaders were temporarily detained for questioning. But other intellectuals—the historian Bronisław Geremek, the Catholic lawyer Tadeusz Mazowiecki—arrived in Gdansk to help the strikers negotiate, and the strikers themselves insisted that they be represented by their own choice of spokesmen: notably the increasingly prominent Wałesa.
The regime was forced to relent. On September 1st the police released all remaining detainees, and two weeks later the Polish Council of State officially conceded the strikers’ chief demand, the right to form and register free labor unions. Within eight weeks the informal network of strikes andad hoc unions that now criss-crossed Poland had coalesced into a single organization whose existence the authorities could no longer pretend to deny: on November 10th 1980, Solidarity became the first officially registered independent trade union in a Communist country, with an estimated ten million members. At its founding national Congress the following September Wałesa was elected president.
From November 1980 until December 1981 Poland lived in an excited, uneasy limbo. Wałesa’s advisers—mindful of past mistakes and wary of provoking a backlash from the humiliated Communist leadership—urged caution. This was to be a ‘self-limiting revolution’. Jacek Kuroń, with the memory of 1956 and 1968 firmly in mind, insisted upon his continuing commitment to a ‘socialist system’ and reiterated Solidarity’s acceptance of the ‘Party’s leading role’—no-one wanted to give the authorities in Warsaw or Moscow an excuse to send in the tanks.
The self-imposed restraints paid off, up to a point. Overtly political issues—disarmament, or foreign policy—were kept off Solidarity’s public agenda, which focused instead upon KOR’s established strategy of ‘practicing society’: building links with the Catholic Church (of particular interest to Adam Michnik, who was determined to overcome the traditional anti-clericalism of the Polish Left and forge an alliance with the newly-energized Catholic leadership); forming local unions and factory councils; pressing for workplace self-management and social rights (the latter borrowed verbatim from the Conventions of the Geneva-based International Labour Organization).
But under Communism, even such cautiously ‘non-political’ tactics were bound to run up against the Party’s reluctance to concede any real authority or autonomy. Moreover, the economy continued to implode: industrial productivity collapsed in the course of 1981, as Poland’s newly unionized workers held meetings, protests and strikes to press their demands. Seen from Warsaw, and especially from Moscow, the country was adrift and the regime was losing control. It was also setting a bad example to its neighbors. Despite the best efforts of its cautious leaders, Solidarity was doomed to arouse the ghosts of Budapest and Prague.
General Wojciech Jaruzelski had risen from defense minister to prime minister in February 1981, replacing the now-disgraced Gierek. In October he succeeded Stanisław Kania as Party Secretary. Ensured of the support of the army, and with the Soviet leadership encouraging firm action to halt Poland’s drift out of control, he moved swiftly to put an end to a situation that both sides knew could not last indefinitely. On December 13th 1981—just as US-Soviet nuclear disarmament talks were getting under way in Geneva—Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland, ostensibly to forestall a Soviet intervention. Solidarity’s leaders and advisers were swept up into prison (though the union itself was not formally banned until the following year, at which point it went ‘underground ’273) .
In post-’89 retrospect the rise of Solidarity appears as the opening fusillade in the final struggle against Communism. But the Polish ‘revolution’ of 1980-81 is better understood as the last in a rising crescendo of workers’ protests that began in 1970 and were directed against the Party’s repressive and incompetent management of the economy. Cynical incompetence, careerism and wasted lives; price increases, protest strikes and repression; the spontaneous emergence of local unions and the active engagement of dissident intellectuals; the sympathy and support of the Catholic Church: these were familiar staging posts in the re-birth of a civil society, movingly portrayed by Andrzej Wajda in Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981), his didactic cinematic account of the betrayed illusions and reborn hopes of Communist Poland.
But that is all they were. They were not in themselves a harbinger of the downfall of Communist power. As Michnik, Kuroń and others continued to insist, before the imposition of martial law and after, Communism might be progressively eroded from within and from below, but it could not be overthrown. Open confrontation would be catastrophic, as history had convincingly demonstrated. Yes, martial law (which remained in force until July 1983) and the ensuing ‘state of war’ were an admission of a certain kind of failure on the part of the authorities—no other Communist state had ever been driven to such measures and Michnik himself called it ‘a disaster for the totalitarian state’ (while at the same time conceding that it was a serious ‘setback for the independent society’). But Communism was about power, and power lay not in Warsaw but in Moscow. The developments in Poland were a stirring prologue to the narrative of Communism’s collapse, but they remained a sideshow. The real story was elsewhere.
The clamp-down in Poland further contributed to the steady cooling of East-West relations that began in the late 1970s. The ‘second Cold War’, as it became known, should not be exaggerated: although at one point both Leonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan accused the other of contemplating and even planning for a nuclear war, neither the Soviet Union nor the US had any such intentions.274 With the conclusion of the Helsinki Accords it seemed to Washington and Moscow that the Cold War was ending to their own advantage. Indeed, the situation in Europe suited both great powers, with the US now comporting itself rather like czarist Russia in the decades following Napoleon’s defeat in 1815: i.e. as a sort of continental policeman whose presence guaranteed that there would be no further disruption of the status quo by an unruly revolutionary power.
Nevertheless, East-West relations were deteriorating. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, undertaken largely at the instigation of Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in order to restore a stable and compliant regime on the Soviet Union’s sensitive southern borders, prompted a US boycott of the upcoming 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow (a compliment duly repaid when the Soviet bloc spurned the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984) and caused President Jimmy Carter publicly to revise ‘my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are’ (The New York Times, January 1st 1980). The invasion also confirmed Western leaders in the wisdom of their decision, taken at a NATO summit just two weeks earlier, to install 108 new Pershing II and 464 Cruise missiles in Western Europe—itself a response to Moscow’s deployment in Ukraine of a new generation of SS20 medium-range missiles. A new arms race appeared to be gathering speed.
No-one, least of all the leaders of Western Europe whose countries would have been the first to suffer in a nuclear exchange, had any illusions about the value of nuclear missiles. As instruments of war such weapons were uniquely unhelpful—in contrast to spears, they really were only good for sitting on. Nonetheless, as a deterrent device a nuclear arsenal had its uses—if your opponent could be convinced that it might, ultimately, be used. There was, in any case, no other way to defend Western Europe against a Warsaw Pact that by the early 1980s boasted more than fifty infantry and armored divisions, 16,000 tanks, 26,000 fighting vehicles and 4,000 combat aircraft.
That is why British Prime Ministers (both Margaret Thatcher and before her James Callaghan), West German Chancellors and the leaders of Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands all welcomed the new battlefield missiles and authorized them to be stationed on their soil. In his new-found enthusiasm for the Western alliance, French President François Mitterrand was especially keen: in a dramatic speech to a somewhat bemused Bundestag in January 1983 he impressed upon West Germans the urgent need to hold firm and adopt the latest American missiles.275
The ‘new’ Cold War re-opened a prospect of terror out of all apparent proportion to the issues at stake—or the intentions of most of the participants. In Western Europe the anti-nuclear peace movement underwent a revival, strengthened by a new generation of ‘green’ activists. In Britain an enthusiastic and decidedly English assortment of feminists, environmentalists and anarchists, together with their assembled friends and relations, mounted a prolonged siege of the cruise missile site at Greenham Common—to the bewilderment of its long-suffering American garrison.
The opposition was greatest in West Germany, where the Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was forced to step down after the left wing of his own party voted against the new missiles—which were then approved and installed by his Christian Democratic successor Helmut Kohl.6The mirage of a de-nuclearized, neutral zone in central Europe was still dear to many Germans, and prominent West German Greens and Social Democrats added their voices to official East German appeals against nuclear weapons—at a demonstration in Bonn in October 1983 former Chancellor Willy Brandt urged a sympathetic crowd of 300,000 people to demand that their government unilaterally renounce any new missiles. The so-called ‘Krefeld Appeal’ against the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles in the Federal Republic gathered 2.7 million signatures.
Neither the invasion of Afghanistan nor the ‘state of war’ in Poland aroused comparable concern in Western Europe even in official circles (indeed, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s first response to Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law was to send a high-level personal representative to Warsaw in February 1982 to help overcome Polish ‘isolation’7). As for the ‘peaceniks’, they were far less troubled by repression in Warsaw than by the bellicose rhetoric emanating from Washington. Although NATO’s decision to deploy new missiles had been accompanied by the offer of negotiations to reduce such weapons (the so-called ‘twin track’ approach), it seemed increasingly obvious that the US under its new president had adopted a new and aggressive strategy.
Much of the belligerence in Washington was just rhetoric—when Ronald Reagandemanded that ‘Poland be Poland’, or dubbed Moscow an ‘evil empire’ (in March 1983) he was playing to a domestic audience. The same president, after all, was initiating talks on nuclear arms reduction and offering to withdraw his own intermediate-range missiles if the Soviets dismantled theirs. But the United States was indeed embarking upon a major program of rearmament. In August 1981 Reagan announced that the US would stockpile neutron bombs. The MX missile system, in breach of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, was announced in November 1982, followed five months later by the Strategic Defense Initiative (‘Star Wars’), prompting a Soviet protest on the credible grounds that it breached the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Official military aid and clandestine support to Afghanistan and Central America was steadily augmented. In 1985 US defense spending rose by 6 percent, an unprecedented peacetime increase.276
Back in September 1981 Reagan had warned that without a verifiable nuclear arms agreement there would be an arms race and that if there were an arms race the US would win it. And so it proved. In retrospect, the American defense build-up would come to be seen as the cunningly crafted lever that bankrupted and ultimately broke the Soviet system. This, however, is not quite accurate. The Soviet Union could ill afford the armaments race upon which it had begun to embark as early as 1974. But bankruptcy alone would not have brought Communism to its knees.
The Second Cold War, and America’s public belligerence, undoubtedly increased the strains on a creaking and dysfunctional system. The Soviet Union had built a military machine that defeated Hitler, occupied half of Europe and matched the West weapon for weapon for forty years—but at a terrible price. At their peak, somewhere between 30-40 percent of Soviet resources were diverted to military spending, four to five times the American share. It was already obvious to many Soviet experts that their country could not indefinitely maintain such a burden. In the long run the economic bill for this generations-long military build-up must come due.
But in the short run at least, foreign tensions probably helped shore up the regime. The Soviet Union might be a continent-size Potemkin village—‘Upper Volta with missiles’ in Helmut Schmidt’s pithy description—but it did, after all, have those missiles and they conferred a certain status and respect upon their owners. Moreover the ageing Soviet leaders, KGB director Yuri Andropov in particular, took the American threat very seriously. Like their counterparts in Washington they really believed the other side was contemplating pre-emptive nuclear war. Reagan’s hard line, and in particular his Strategic Defense Initiative, made the old Soviet leadership even less disposed to compromise.
The real military dilemma facing the Soviet leaders was neither in Europe nor in Washington, but rather in Kabul. Pace Jimmy Carter’s late-found sensitivity to Soviet strategic ambitions, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan did not open a new front in Communism’s strategic struggle with the free world. It was born, rather, of domestic anxiety. The 1979 Soviet census revealed an unprecedented increase in the (largely Muslim) population of Soviet Central Asia. In Soviet Kazakhstan and the republics abutting the Afghan frontier—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—the numbers were up by over 25 percent since 1970. Over the course of the following decade, whereas the Ukrainian population would grow by just 4 percent, that of Tajikistan increased by nearly half. European Russia, as it seemed to its leaders, was under demographic threat from its internal minorities: as the ailing Leonid Brezhnev acknowledged to his Party’s 26th Congress in February 1981, there were still ‘nationality questions’ that needed addressing.
Had the occupation of Afghanistan succeeded in installing a secure, friendly regime in Kabul, the Soviet leaders could have chalked up a double success. They would have re-affirmed Moscow’s faltering presence in the Middle East while sending a ‘clear message’ to a new generation of Soviet Muslims tempted by dreams of independence. But the Soviets, of course, failed in Afghanistan. Brezhnev, Gromyko and their generals ignored not just the lessons of Vietnam, repeating many of the Americans’ errors; they also forgot czarist Russia’s own failures in the same region eighty years earlier. Instead, the USSR’s disastrous attempt to sustain a puppet regime in unfamiliar, hostile territory aroused an intransigent opposition of guerrillas and zealots (mujahidin), armed and financed from abroad. And rather than ‘addressing’ the empire’s own nationality questions, it served only to inflame them: the Soviet-backed ‘Marxist’ authorities in Kabul did little for Moscow’s standing in the Islamic world, at home or abroad.
Afghanistan, in short, was a catastrophe for the Soviet Union. Its traumatic impact upon a generation of conscripted soldiers would emerge only later. By the early-1990s it was estimated that one in five veterans of the Afghan wars were confirmed alcoholics; in post-Soviet Russia many of the others, unable to find regular work, drifted into far-right nationalist organizations. But long before then even the Soviet leaders themselves could see the scale of their mis-step. In addition to the cost in men and matériel, the decade-long war of attrition in the Afghan mountains constituted an extended international humiliation. It excluded for the foreseeable future any further deployment of the Red Army beyond its frontiers: as Politburo member Yegor Ligachev would later acknowledge to the American journalist David Remnick, after Afghanistan there could no longer be any question of applying force in Eastern Europe.
It says something about the underlying fragility of the Soviet Union that it was so vulnerable to the impact of one—albeit spectacularly unsuccessful—neo-colonial adventure. But the disaster in Afghanistan, like the cost of the accelerating arms race of the early ‘80s, would not in itself have induced the collapse of the system. Sustained by, fear, inertia and the self-interest of the old men who ran it, Brezhnev’s ‘era of stagnation’ might have lasted indefinitely. Certainly there was no countervailing authority, no dissident movement—whether in the Soviet Union or its client states—that could have brought it low. Only a Communist could do that. And it was a Communist who did.
The guiding premise of the Communist project was its faith in the laws of history and the interests of the collectivity, which would always trump the motives and actions of individuals. It was thus ironically appropriate that its destiny should in the end have been determined by the fate of men. On November 10th 1982, at the age of 76, Leonid Brezhnev finally gave up the ghost, having long since come to resemble it. His successor, Andropov, was already 68 and not in good health. In just over a year, before he could implement any of the reforms that he planned, Andropov died and was replaced as General Secretary by Konstantin Chernenko, himself aged 72 and in such poor health that he could hardly complete his speech at Andropov’s funeral in February 1984. Thirteen months later he, too, was dead.
The death in quick succession of three old Communists, all of them born before World War One, was somehow symptomatic: the generation of Party leaders with first-hand memories of the Soviet Union’s Bolshevik origins, and whose lives and careers had been blighted by Stalin, was now disappearing. They had inherited and overseen an authoritarian, gerontocratic bureaucracy, whose overwhelming priority was its own survival: in the world that Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko had grown up in, merely dying in your bed was no insignificant accomplishment. Henceforth, however, that world would be run by younger men: no less instinctively authoritarian, but who would have little option but to address the problems of corruption, stagnation and inefficiency that plagued the Soviet system from top to bottom.
Chernenko’s successor, duly promoted to Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11th 1985, was Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Born in a village of the southern Stavropol region in 1931, he had been elected to the Central Committee at the age of 41. Now, just thirteen years later, he was at the head of the Party. Gorbachev was not only twenty years younger than his Soviet precursors: he was also younger than every American president until Bill Clinton. His rapid rise had been encouraged and facilitated by Andropov and he was widely seen as a likely reformer.
A reformer: but hardly a radical. Mikhail Gorbachev was very much an apparatchik . He had risen through the Party, from First Secretary of the Stavropol district Young Communists in 1956 through secretary of the regional state farms committee to member of the Supreme Soviet (elected in 1970). The new leader incarnated many of the sentiments of his Communist generation: never openly critical of the Party or its policies, he was nonetheless deeply affected and excited by the revelations of 1956, only to be let down by the mistakes of the Khrushchev era and disappointed at the repression and inertia of the Brezhnev decades that followed.
Mikhail Gorbachev was in this sense a classic reform Communist—it is no coincidence that he was close friends at the Moscow University Law Faculty in the early Fifties with Zdeněk Mlynář, who would go on to play a central role in the Prague Spring of 1968. But like all the reform Communists of his generation, Gorbachev was first a Communist and only then a reformer. As he explained to the French Communist newspaper L’Humanité in a February 1986 interview, the Communism of Lenin remained for him a fine and unsullied ideal. Stalinism? ‘A concept made up by opponents of Communism and used on a large scale to smear the Soviet Union and socialism as a whole’.277
No doubt that is what a Secretary General of the Soviet Party would say, even in 1986. But Gorbachev certainly believed it, and the reforms he initiated were quite consciously Leninist—or ‘Socialist’—in intent. Indeed Gorbachev may well have been more ideologically serious than some of his Soviet predecessors: it is not by chance that whereas Nikita Khrushchev had once famously declared that, were he British, he would vote Tory, Mikhail Gorbachev’s favorite foreign statesman was Felipe González of Spain, whose brand of social democracy the Soviet leader came in time to think of as closest to his own.
To the extent that hopes were vested in Gorbachev, this reflected more than anything the absence of any domestic opposition in the Soviet Union. Only the Party could clean up the mess it had made, and by good fortune the Party had elected as its leader a man with both the energy and the administrative experience to make the effort. For in addition to being unusually well educated and widely read for a senior Soviet bureaucrat, Gorbachev displayed a distinctively Leninist quality: he was willing to compromise his ideals in order to secure his goals.
There was nothing mysterious about the difficulties that Gorbachev had inherited as General Secretary of the CPSU. Impressed by what he saw during travels in Western Europe during the seventies, the new leader intended from the outset to devote his main efforts to an overhaul of the Soviet Union’s moribund economy and the intertwined inefficiencies and corruption of its top-heavy institutional apparatus. Foreign debt was rising steadily, as the international price of oil, the Soviet Union’s major export, fell from its late ‘70s peak: $30.7 billion by 1986, the debt would reach $54 billion by 1989. The economy, which had hardly grown through the course of the 1970s, was now actually shrinking: always qualitatively lagging, Soviet output was now quantatively inadequate as well. Arbitrarily-set central planningtargets, endemic shortages, supply bottlenecks and the absence of price or market indicators effectively paralyzed all initiative.
The starting point for ‘reform’ in such a system, as Hungarian and other Communist economists had long appreciated, was decentralization of pricing and decision-making. But this encountered near-insuperable obstacles. Outside of the Baltics almost no-one in the Soviet Union had any first-hand experience of independent farming or a market economy: of how to make something, to price it or find a buyer. Even after a 1986 Law on Individual Labour Activity authorized limited (small-scale) private enterprise, there were surprisingly few takers. Three years later there were still just 300,000 businesspeople in the whole Soviet Union, in a population of 290 million.
Moreover, any would-be economic reformer faced a chicken-egg dilemma. If economic reform began with decentralization of decision-making, or the granting of autonomy to local businesses and the abandoning of directives from afar, how were producers, managers or businessmen to function without a market? In the short-run there would be more shortages and bottlenecks, not fewer, as everyone retreated to regional self-sufficiency and even to a local barter economy. On the other hand a ‘market’ could not just be announced. The very word posed serious political risks in a society where ‘capitalism’ had been officially excoriated and abhorred for decades (Gorbachev himself avoided all mention of a market economy until late in 1987, and even then only ever spoke of a ‘socialist market’).
The reforming instinct was to compromise: to experiment with the creation—from above—of a few favored enterprises freed from bureaucratic encumbrances and assured a reliable supply of raw materials and skilled labor. These, it was reasoned, would serve as successful and even profitable models for other, similar, enterprises: the goal was controlled modernization and progressive adaptation to pricing and production in response to demand. But such an approach was foredoomed by its operating premise—that the authorities could create efficient businesses by administrative fiat.
By pumping scarce resources into a few model farms, mills, factories or services the Party was indeed able to forge temporarily viable and even notionally profitable units—but only with heavy subsidies and by starving less-favored operations elsewhere. The result was even more distortion and frustration. Meanwhile farm managers and local directors, uncertain of the way the wind was blowing, hedged their bets against the return of planned norms and stockpiled anything they could lay their hands on lest centralized controls tighten up again.
To Gorbachev’s conservative critics this was an old story. Every Soviet reform program since 1921 began the same way and ran out of steam for the same reasons, starting with Lenin’s New Economic Policy. Serious economic reforms implied the relaxation or abandonment of controls. Not only did this initially exacerbate the problems it was designed to solve, it meant just what it said: a loss of control. But Communism depended upon control—indeed Communism was control: control of the economy, control of knowledge, control of movement and opinion and people. Everything else was dialectics, and dialectics—as a veteran Communist explained to the young Jorge Semprún in Buchenwald—‘is the art and technique of always landing on your feet’.278
It soon became obvious to Gorbachev that to land on his feet as he wrestled with the Soviet economy he must accept that the Soviet economic conundrum could not be addressed in isolation. It was but a symptom of a larger problem. The Soviet Union was run by men who had a vested interest in the political and institutional levers of a command economy; its endemic minor absurdities and quotidian corruption were the very source of their authority and power. In order for the Party to reform the economy it would first have to reform itself.
This, too, was hardly a new idea—the periodic purges under Lenin and his successors had typically proclaimed similar objectives. But times had changed. The Soviet Union, however repressive and backward, was no longer a murderous totalitarian tyranny. Thanks to Khrushchev’s monumental housing projects most Soviet families now lived in their own apartments. Ugly and inefficient, these low-rent flats nonetheless afforded ordinary people a degree of privacy and security unknown to earlier generations: they were no longer so exposed to informers or likely to be betrayed to the authorities by their neighbors or their in-laws. The age of terror was over for most people and, for Gorbachev’s generation at least, a return to the time of mass arrests and party purges was unthinkable.
In order to break the stranglehold of the Party apparat and drive forward his plans for economic restructuring, then, the General Secretary resorted instead to ‘glasnost’—‘openness’: official encouragement for public discussion of a carefully restricted range of topics. By making people more aware of impending changes and heightening public expectation, Gorbachev would forge a lever with which he and his supporters might pry loose official opposition to his plans. This too was a vintage ploy, familiar to reforming czars among others. But for Gorbachev the urgency of the need for official openness was brought home to him by the catastrophic events of April 26th 1986.
On that day, at 1.23 am, one of the four huge graphite reactors at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl (Ukraine) exploded, releasing into the atmosphere 120 million curies of radioactive matériel—more than one hundred times the radiation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The plume of atomic fallout was carried north-west into Western Europe and Scandinavia, reaching as far as Wales and Sweden and exposing an estimated five million people to its effects. In addition to the 30 emergency workers killed on the spot, some 30,000 people have since died from complications caused by exposure to radiation from Chernobyl, including more than 2,000 cases of thyroid cancer among residents in the immediate vicinity.
Chernobyl was not the Soviet Union’s first environmental disaster. At Cheliabinsk-40, a secret research site near Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, a nuclear waste tank exploded in 1957, severely polluting an area 8 km wide and 100 km long. 76 million cubic metres of radioactive waste poured into the Urals river system, contaminating it for decades. 10,000 people were eventually evacuated and 23 villages bulldozed. The reactor at Cheliabinsk was from the first generation of Soviet atomic constructions and had been built by slave labour in 1948-51.279
Other man-made environmental calamities on a comparable scale included the pollution of Lake Baikal; the destruction of the Aral Sea; the dumping in the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea of hundreds of thousands of tons of defunct atomic naval vessels and their radioactive contents; and the contamination by sulphur dioxide from nickel production of an area the size of Italy around Norilsk in Siberia. These and other ecological disasters were all the direct result of indifference, bad management and the Soviet ‘slash and burn’ approach to natural resources. They were born of a culture of secrecy. The Cheliabinsk-40 explosion was not officially acknowledged for many decades, even though it occurred within a few kilometers of a large city—the same city where, in 1979, several hundred people died of anthrax leaked from a biological weapons plant in the town centre.
The problems with the USSR’s nuclear reactors were well known to insiders: two separate KGB reports dated 1982 and 1984 warned of ‘shoddy’ equipment (supplied from Yugoslavia) and serious deficiencies in Chernobyl’s reactors 3 and 4 (it was the latter that exploded in 1986). But just as this information had been kept secret (and no action taken) so the Party leadership’s first, instinctive response to the explosion on April 26th was to keep quiet about it—there were, after all, fourteen Chernobyl-type plants in operation by then all across the country. Moscow’s first acknowledgement that anything untoward had happened came fully four days after the event, and then in a two-sentence official communiqué.
But Chernobyl could not be kept secret: international anxiety and the Soviets’ own inability to contain the damage forced Gorbachev first to make a public statement two weeks later, acknowledging some but not all of what had taken place, and then to call upon foreign aid and expertise. And just as his fellow citizens were thus made publicly aware for the first time of the scale of official incompetence and indifference to life and health, so Gorbachev was forced to acknowledge the extent of his country’s problems. The bungling, the mendacity and the cynicism of the men responsible both for the disaster and the attempt to cover it up could not be dismissed as a regrettable perversion of Soviet values: they were Soviet values, as the Soviet leader began to appreciate.
Beginning in the autumn of 1986 Gorbachev shifted gears. In December of that year Andrei Sakharov, the world’s best-known dissident, was liberated from house arrest in Gorky (Nizhniy Novgorod), a harbinger of the large-scale release of Soviet political prisoners that began the following year. Censorship was relaxed—1987 saw the long-delayed publication of Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate (twenty six years after M.A. Suslov, the Party’s ideological commissar, had predicted that it could not be released for ‘two or three centuries’). The police were instructed to cease jamming foreign radio broadcasts. And the Secretary General of the CPSU chose the occasion of his televised speech to the Party Central Committee in January 1987 to make the case for a more inclusive democracy, over the heads of the Party conservatives and directly to the nation at large.
By 1987 more than nine out of ten Soviet households possessed a television, and Gorbachev’s tactic was initially a striking success: by creating a de facto public sphere for semi-open debate about the country’s woes, and breaking the governing caste’s monopoly of information, he was forcing the Party to follow suit—and making it safe for hitherto silent reformers within the system to speak out and give him their backing. In the course of 1987-88 the General Secretary was, almost despite himself, forging a national constituency for change.
Informal organizations sprang up: notably ‘Club Perestroika’, formed in Moscow’s Mathematical Institute in 1987, which in turn gave birth to ‘Memorial’, whose members devoted themselves to ‘keeping alive the memory of the victims’ of the Stalinist past. Initially taken aback at their own very existence—the Soviet Union, after all, was still a one-party dictatorship—they soon flourished and multiplied. By 1988 Gorbachev’s support came increasingly from outside the Party, from the country’s newly emerging public opinion.
What had happened was that the logic of Gorbachev’s reformist goals, and his decision, in practice, to appeal to the nation against his conservative critics within the apparatus, had transformed the dynamic of perestroika. Having begun as a reformer within the ruling Party, its General Secretary was now increasingly working against it, or at least trying to circumvent the Party’s opposition to change. In October 1987 Gorbachev spoke publicly of Stalinist crimes for the first time and warned that if the Party did not champion reform it would lose its leading role in society.
In the Party conference of June 1988 he reiterated his commitment to reform and to the relaxation of censorship, and called for the preparation of open (i.e. contested) elections to a Congress of People’s Deputies for the following year. In October 1988 he demoted some of his leading opponents—notably Yegor Ligachev, a longstanding critic—and had himself elected President of the Supreme Soviet (i.e. head of state), displacing Andrei Gromyko, last of the dinosaurs. Within the Party he still faced strong rearguard opposition; but in the country at large his popularity was at its peak, which was why he was able to press forward—and indeed had little option but to do so.280
The elections of May/June 1989 were the first more or less free vote in the Soviet Union since 1918. They were not multi-party elections—that would not happen until 1993, by which time the Soviet Union itself was long gone—and the outcome was largely pre-determined by restricting many seats to Party candidates and forbidding internal Party competition for them; but the Congress they elected included many independent and critical voices. Its proceedings were broadcast to an audience of some 100 million spectators, and demands by Sakharov and others for further change—notably the dethroning of the increasingly discredited Party from its privileged position—could not be swept aside, even by an initially reluctant Gorbachev. The Communists’ monopoly of power was slipping away, and with Gorbachev’s encouragement the Congress would duly vote the following February to remove from the Soviet constitution the key clause—Article Six—assigning the Communist Party a ‘leading role’.281
The course of Soviet domestic upheaval from 1985 to 1989 was facilitated by a major shift in Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev and his new Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze. From the outset Gorbachev made clear his determination to unburden the USSR at the very least of its more onerous military encumbrances. Within a month of coming to power he had halted Soviet missile deployments and gone on to offer unconditional negotiations on nuclear forces, starting with a proposal that both superpowers halve their strategic arsenals. By May 1986, after a surprisingly successful ‘summit’ meeting with Reagan in Geneva (the first of an unprecedented five such encounters), Gorbachev agreed to allow US ‘forward-based systems’ to be excluded from strategic arms talks, if that would help get these under way.
There followed a second, Reykjavik, summit in October 1986 where Reagan and Gorbachev, while failing to reach agreement on nuclear disarmament, nonetheless laid the basis for future success. By late 1987 Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State George Schultz had drafted an Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed and ratified the following year. This Treaty, by endorsing Ronald Reagan’s earlier ‘zero option’ proposal, constituted Soviet acceptance that a nuclear war in Europe was un-winnable—and served as the prologue to an even more important treaty, signed in 1990, strictly limiting the presence and operation of conventional forces on the European continent.
Seen from Washington, Gorbachev’s concessions on arms naturally appeared as a victory for Reagan—and thus, in the zero-sum calculus of Cold War strategists, a defeat for Moscow. But for Gorbachev, whose priorities were domestic, securing a more stable international environment was a victory in itself. It bought him time and support for his reforms at home. The true significance of this sequence of meetings and accords lay in the Soviet recognition that military confrontation abroad was not only expensive but also dysfunctional: as Gorbachev expressed it in October 1986 in the course of a visit to France, ‘ideology’ was not an appropriate basis for foreign policy.
These views reflected the advice he was beginning to get from a new generation of Soviet foreign affairs experts, notably his colleague Aleksandr Yakovlev, to whom it had become clear that the USSR could exercise more control over its foreign relations by well-calculated concessions than by fruitless confrontation. In contrast to the intractable problems he faced at home, foreign policy was an arena in which Gorbachev exercised direct control and could thus hope to effect immediate improvements. Moreover the strictly Great-Power dimension of Soviet foreign relations should not be exaggerated: Gorbachev placed at least as much importance on his relations with western Europe as on his dealings with the US—he made frequent visits there and established good relations with González, Kohl and Thatcher (who famously regarded him as a man with whom she ‘could do business’).282
Indeed, in important respects Gorbachev thought of himself above all as a European statesman, with European priorities. His focus upon ending the arms race and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons was closely tied to a new approach to the Soviet Union’s role as a distinctively Europeanpower. ‘Armaments’, he declared in 1987, ‘should be reduced to a level necessary for strictly defensive purposes. It is time for the two military alliances to amend their strategic concepts to gear them more to the aims of defense. Every apartment in the ‘European home’ has the right to protect itself against burglars, but it must do so without destroying its neighbors’ property.’
In a similar spirit and for the same reasons, the Soviet leader understood from the outset the urgent need to extract the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, the ‘bleeding wound’ as he described it to a Party Congress in February 1986. Five months later he announced the withdrawal of some 6,000 Soviet troops, a redeployment completed in November of the same year. In May 1988, following an accord reached at Geneva with Afghanistan and Pakistan and guaranteed by both great powers, Soviet troops began to leave Afghanistan: the last remaining soldiers of the Red Army departed on February 15th 1989.283
Far from addressing the Soviet nationalities question, the Afghan adventure had, as was by now all too clear, exacerbated it. If the USSR faced an intractable set of national minorities, this was in part a problem of its own making: it was Lenin and his successors, after all, who invented the various subject ‘nations’ to whom they duly assigned regions and republics. In an echo of imperial practices elsewhere, Moscow had encouraged the emergence—in places where nationality and nationhood were unheard of fifty years earlier—of institutions and intelligentsias grouped around a national urban center or ‘capital’. Communist Party First Secretaries in the Caucasus, or the central Asian republics, were typically chosen from the dominant local ethnic group. To secure their fiefdom these men were understandably drawn to identify with their ‘own’ people, particularly once fissures began to appear in the central apparatus. The Party was starting to fracture under the centrifugal pull of anxious local administrators protecting their own interests.
Gorbachev seems not fully to have understood this process. ‘Comrades’, he informed the Party in 1987, ‘we can truly say that for our country the nationalities issue has been resolved’. Perhaps he did not altogether believe his own claims; but he certainly thought that some loosening of central control and addressing of long-standing grievances would suffice (in 1989 the Crimean Tartars, for example, were finally allowed to return home after many decades of Asian exile). In a continental empire of over one hundred ethnic groups from the Baltic to the Sea of Okhotsk, most of whom had longstanding grievances that glasnost now encouraged them to air, this was to prove a serious miscalculation.
The inadequacy of Gorbachev’s response to demands for autonomy at the Soviet empire’s far-flung margins should not come as a surprise. Gorbachev was from the outset, as we have seen, a ‘reform Communist’, albeit a very unusual one: sympathetic to the need for change and renewal but reluctant to assault the core tenets of the system under which he had grown up. Like many in his generation in the Soviet Union and elsewhere he genuinely believed that the only path to improvement lay through a return to Leninist ‘principles’. The idea that it was the Leninist project itself that might be at fault remained alien to the Soviet leader until very late—only in 1990 did he finally permit the domestic publication of overtly anti-Leninist writers such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
The spirit of Gorbachev’s early goals is exemplified in the inimitable tone of the new-found official tolerance for pop music, as expressed by Pravda in October 1986: ‘Rock and roll has a right to exist but only if it is melodious, meaningful and well-performed.’ That is precisely what Mikhail Gorbachev wanted: a melodious, meaningful and well-performed Communism. Necessary reforms would be undertaken and appropriate freedoms granted, but there was to be no unregulated licence—as late as February 1988 the government was still clamping down firmly on independent publishing houses and printers.
It is one of the curiosities of Communist reformers that they always set out with the quixotic goal of reforming some aspects of their system while keeping others unaffected—introducing market-oriented incentives while maintaining central planning controls, or allowing greater freedom of expression while retaining the Party’s monopoly of truth. But partial reform or reform of one sector in isolation from others was inherently contradictory. ‘Managed pluralism’ or a ‘socialist market’ was doomed from the start. As for the idea that the ‘leading role’ of the Communist Party could be sustained while the Party itself shed merely the pathological excrescences of seven decades of absolute power, this suggests a certain political naiveté on Gorbachev’s part. In an authoritarian system power is indivisible—relinquish it in part and you must eventually lose it all. Nearly four centuries earlier, the Stuart monarch James I understood these things much better—as he put it in a succinct rebuff to Scottish Presbyterians protesting at the power vested in his bishops: ‘No Bishop, no King’.
Gorbachev and his controlled revolution were in the end swept aside by the scale of the contradictions they aroused. Looking back, he observed with some regret that ‘naturally, I feel troubled by the fact that I did not succeed in keeping the entire process ofperestroika within the framework of my intentions’. But the intentions and the framework were incompatible. Once the sustaining supports of censorship, control and repression were removed, everything of consequence in the Soviet system—the planned economy, the public rhetoric, the monopoly of the Party—just collapsed.
Gorbachev did not achieve his objective, a reformed and efficient Communism, shorn of its dysfunctions. Indeed, he failed utterly. But his achievement was impressive none the less. In the USSR there were no independent or even semi-autonomous institutions for critics and reformers to mobilize on their behalf: the Soviet system could only ever have been dismantled from inside and by initiative coming from above. By introducing first one element of change and then another and then another, Gorbachev progressively eroded the very system through which he had risen. Employing the vast powers of a Party General Secretary, he eviscerated the Party dictatorship from within.
This was a remarkable and unprecedented feat. No-one could have predicted it in 1984, when Chernenko died, and no-one did. Gorbachev, in the view of one of his close advisers, was ‘a genetic error of the system’.284 In retrospect it has become tempting to conclude that his ascent was uncannily timely—as the Soviet system was tottering, so there emerged a leader who understood what was happening and successfully sought an exit strategy from empire. Cometh the hour, cometh the man? Perhaps. And Mikhail Gorbachev certainly was not just another apparatchik.
But he surely had no idea what he was doing and would have been horrified had he known. His critics were more perspicacious. On the one hand, Party hardliners understandably hated Gorbachev—many of them warmly endorsed the notorious letter published in the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya on March 13th 1988 in which Nina Andreyeva, a Leningrad schoolteacher, angrily warned (reasonably enough, as it transpired) that the new reforms would inevitably lead the country back to capitalism. On the other hand, Gorbachev never had the unconditional support of radical reformers, who grew increasingly frustrated with his apparent indecisive-ness. It was one of Gorbachev’s weaknesses that in order to keep control of events he felt constrained to occupy the center ground whenever possible, encouraging new ideas but then slipping back into the arms of Party conservatives just as radical reformers like Yakovlev or Boris Yeltsin were pressing him to go much further. These vacillations, Gorbachev’s seeming reluctance to press the logic of his initiatives, and his insistence on not going too far or too fast left many of his early admirers feeling let down.
The trouble was that by relinquishing the Party’s monopoly of power and initiative, Gorbachev commensurately reduced his own influence as well. He was thus obliged to forge tactical alliances and trim between the extreme positions of others. This is a familiar if uncomfortable necessity for democratic politicians; but in the eyes of a nation accustomed to seventy years of dictatorship such maneuverings simply made Gorbachev appear weak. From the early months of 1989 onwards the Soviet President fell steadily in opinion polls. By the autumn of 1990 Gorbachev would have the support of just 21 percent of the public.
Long before his fall from power, then, Gorbachev had decidedly fallen from grace. But only at home: elsewhere, ‘Gorbymania’ flourished. On his increasingly frequent visits abroad Gorbachev was fêted by west European politicians and cheered by enthusiastic crowds. Late in 1988, Margaret Thatcher—one of Gorbachev’s most ardent fans—pronounced the Cold War ‘over’, Seen from Eastern Europe this might have been thought a little premature; but there too Mikhail Gorbachev was wildly popular.
In the ‘peoples’ democracies’ the Soviet leader’s domestic travails, though duly noted, counted for less than his foreign pronouncements, notably a widely reported speech to the United Nations on December 7th 1988. After announcing unilateral cuts in Soviet conventional forces in Europe, Gorbachev went on to advise his audience that ‘Freedom of choice is a universal principle. There should be no exceptions.’ This was more than just a renunciation of the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’, an acknowledgement that Moscow would not use force to impose its version of ‘Socialism’ upon fraternal states. What Gorbachev was conceding—and was immediately understood to have conceded—was that the citizens of the satellite states were now at liberty to go their own way, Socialist or not. Eastern Europe was about to re-enter history.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, the Soviet Union since 1985 had progressively removed itself from direct oversight of its client states. But the implications of this growing detachment remained unclear. The peoples’ democracies were still run by authoritarian party cliques whose power rested upon a massive repressive apparatus. Their police and intelligence services remained closely bound and beholden to the Soviet Union’s own security apparatus and continued to operate semi-independently of local authorities. And while the rulers in Prague or Warsaw or East Berlin were starting to appreciate that they could no longer count on Moscow’s unconditional support, neither they nor their subjects had a clear sense of what this meant.
The situation in Poland encapsulated these uncertainties. On the one hand, the declaration of martial law had re-asserted the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party. On the other hand, the suppression of Solidarity and the silencing of its leaders did nothing to ease the country’s underlying problems. Quite the contrary: Poland was still in debt, but now—thanks to international condemnation of the repression—its rulers could no longer extricate themselves from difficulty by further borrowing abroad. In effect, Poland’s rulers were facing the same dilemma they had tried to address in the 1970s, but with even fewer options.
Meanwhile, the opposition might have been criminalized but it had not evaporated. Clandestine publishing continued, as did lectures, discussions, theatrical performances and much else. Solidarity itself, though banned, maintained a virtual existence, especially after its best-known spokesman, Lech Wałesa, was released from internment in November 1982 (and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in absentia, the following year). The regime could not take the risk of forbidding a return visit from the Pope, in June 1983, after which the Church became ever more engaged in underground and semi-official activities
The political police favored repression: in one notorious instance in 1984 they orchestrated the kidnap and murder of a popular radical priest, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko—pour décourager les autres. But Jaruzelski and most of his colleagues already understood that such provocations and confrontations would no longer work. Popiełuszko’s funeral drew a crowd of 350,000; and far from frightening off opposition the incident merely publicized the scale of popular support for the Church and for Solidarity, legal or no. By the mid-‘80s Poland was fast approaching a stand-off between a recalcitrant society and an increasingly desperate state.
The natural instinct of the Party leadership (in Warsaw as in Moscow) was to propose ‘reforms’. In 1986 Jaruzelski, now state President, released Adam Michnik and other Solidarity leaders from prison and through a newly installed ‘Ministry of Economic Reform’ offered a modest raft of economic changes designed, among other objectives, to attract renewed foreign funding of Poland’s national debt, now fast approaching $40 billion.285 In a bizarre nod to democracy, the government actually began asking Poles in 1987 what sort of economic ‘reform’ they would like: ‘Would you prefer’, they were asked, ‘a fifty percent rise in the price of bread and one hundred percent on petrol, or sixty percent for petrol and a hundred percent for bread?’ Unsurprisingly, the public’s response was, in essence, ‘none of the above’.
The question—and the decision to pose it—nicely illustrated the political as well as the economic bankruptcy of Poland’s Communist rulers. Indeed, it says something about the authorities’ crumbling credibility that Poland’s membership of the IMF was made possible in part by the consent of Solidarity itself. Despite being banned, the union had managed to maintain its organization abroad and it was Solidarity’s Brussels office that advised the IMF Managing Director in September 1985 to admit Poland—while insisting that Jaruzelski’s partial improvements were foredoomed and that only a package of thoroughgoing reforms could address the country’s troubles.286
By 1987 the most arresting aspect of the Polish situation was the sheer helplessness of the Party and its organs. Without actually facing any visible threat to its monopoly of power, the Polish United Workers Party was slipping into irrelevance. The ‘counter-society’ theorized by Michnik and others a decade earlier was emerging as a de facto source of authority and initiative. After 1986, debate within the Polish opposition turned not so much on teaching society to be free as on how much the opposition should agree to engage with the regime, and to what end.
A group of young economists at Warsaw’s School of Planning and Statistics, led by Leszek Balcerowicz, was already drawing up plans for an autonomous private business sector freed from central planning—i.e. a market; these and other proposals were intensely debated among ‘unofficial’ Poles and widely discussed abroad. But the guiding tenets of political ‘realism’ and the ‘self-limiting’ objectives of 1980-81 remained in force—confrontation and violence, which could only play into the hands of Party hardliners, were studiously and successfully avoided. Conversations were one thing, ‘adventures’ something else.
The trigger for the Party’s final eclipse, predictably enough, was yet another attempt to ‘reform’ the economy—or, more modestly, to reduce the country’s un-sustainable debt. In 1987 consumer prices were raised by some 25 percent; in 1988 by a further 60 percent. As in 1970, 1976 and again in 1980, so now: the sharp price rises sparked a round of strikes, culminating in a massive movement of stoppages and occupations in the spring and summer of 1988. In the past, lacking any leverage over the workforce, the Communist authorities had either abandoned efforts to raise prices or else resorted to force—or both. On this occasion they had a third option—appealing to the workers’ own leaders for help. In August 1988 General Czesław Kiszczak, the Interior Minister, urged Lech Wałesa—nominally a private citizen, the unacknowledged leader of an unrecognized organization—to meet him and negotiate an end to the country’s labor protests. Initially reluctant, Wałesa at last agreed.
Wałesa had little difficulty appealing to the strikers—the moral authority of Solidarity had only grown in the years since 1981—but the underlying issues remained: the country’s inflation rate was now approaching 1000 percent p.a. There ensued four months of sporadic unofficial contacts between Solidarity and the government, stimulating more public calls for ‘reform’. Drifting helplessly, the authorities oscillated between gestures and threats: replacing ministers, denying any plans for negotiations, promising economic change, threatening to close the Gdansk shipyard. The public’s confidence in the state, such as it was, collapsed.
On December 18th 1988—symptomatically if coincidentally just one week after Gorbachev’s seminal UN speech—a Solidarity ‘Citizens Committee’ was formed in Warsaw to plan for full-scale negotiations with the government. Jaruzelski, his options seemingly exhausted, at last conceded the obvious and forced a somewhat reluctant Central Committee to agree to talks. On February 6th 1989 the Communists officially recognized Solidarity as a negotiating partner and opened ‘round table’ negotiations with its representatives. The talks lasted until April 5th. On that day (once again a week after major Soviet developments, this time the open elections to the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies), all sides agreed to the legalization of independent trade unions, far-reaching economic legislation and, above all, a new elected Assembly.
In hindsight the outcome of the round-table talks was a negotiated termination of Communism in Poland, and at least to some of the participants this much was already clear. But no-one anticipated the speed of the dénouement. The elections to be held on June 4th, while allowing an unprecedented element of real choice, were rigged to ensure a Communist majority: voting for the national Senate was to be genuinely open, but in the elections to the Sejm (Parliamentary Assembly) half the seats were reserved for official (i.e. Communist) candidates. And by scheduling the elections so soon, the government hoped to capitalize on the disorganization and inexperience of its opponents.
The results came as a shock to everyone. Backed by Adam Michnik’s impromptu new daily ‘Election Gazette’ (Gazeta Wyborcza), Solidarity won 99/100 seats for the Senate and all the seats it was allowed to contest for the Sejm. Meanwhile only two of the Communist candidates standing for ‘reserved’ seats secured the 50 percent of the vote required to take up their places. Faced with a complete rout and unprecedented public humiliation, the Communist rulers of Poland had the option of ignoring the vote; declaring martial law once again; or else accepting defeat and relinquishing power.
Put thus, the choice was clear—as Gorbachev made quite explicit to Jaruzelski in a private phone conversation, the election must stand. Jaruzelski’s first thought was to secure a face-saving compromise by inviting Solidarity to join him in a coalition government, but this was rebuffed. Instead, after some weeks of further negotiation and unsuccessful Communist efforts to nominate their own prime minister, the Party leadership bowed to the inevitable and on September 12th 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki was approved as post-war Poland’s first non-Communist Prime Minister (although the Communists retained control of certain key ministries).
Meanwhile, in a shrewd political move, the Solidarity parliamentary group simultaneously voted to make Jaruzelski Head of State, effectively co-opting the Communist ‘moderates’ into the ensuing transition and easing their embarrassment. The following month Mazowiecki’s government announced plans to institute a ‘market economy’, presented in a stabilization program—the so-called ‘Balcerowicz Plan’—that was approved by the Sejm on December 28th. One day later, the ‘leading role’ of Poland’s Communist Party was formally excised from the country’s constitution. Within four weeks, on January 27th 1990, the Party itself had been dissolved.
The helter-skelter quality of the last months of Communist Poland should not blind us to the long and quite slow build up that went before. Most of the actors in the drama of 1989—Jaruzelski, Kiszczak, Wałesa, Michnik, Mazowiecki—had already been on the stage for many years. The country had passed from a brief flourish of relative liberty in 1981 into martial law, followed by a lengthy, uncertain purgatory of repressive semi-tolerance that finally unraveled in a re-run of the previous decade’s economic crises. For all the strength of the Catholic Church, the countrywide popularity of Solidarity, and the Polish nation’s abiding loathing of its Communist rulers, the latter clung to power for so long that their final fall came as something of a surprise. It had been a long goodbye.
In Poland, martial law and its aftermath revealed the limits and inadequacies of the Party; but while repression solidified the opposition it also made it cautious. In Hungary, a comparable caution was born of very different experience. Two decades of ambiguous tolerance had obscured the precise limits of officially condoned dissent. Hungary, after all, was the Communist state where Hilton opened its first hotel behind the Iron Curtain, in December 1976; where Billy Graham undertook not one but three public tours in the course of the Eighties; and which was visited (and implicitly favored) by two US secretaries of State and Vice-President George Bush in that same decade. By 1988 Communist Hungary had a decidedly ‘good’ image.
Partly for this reason, opposition to Party rule took a long time to emerge into the open. Dissimulation and maneuver seemed the better part of valor, especially to anyone who remembered 1956; and life in János Kádár’s Hungary was tolerable, if drab. In reality, the official economy, as we saw in the previous chapter, was in no better condition than that of Poland, despite various reforms and ‘New Economic Mechanisms.’ To be sure, the ‘black’ or parallel economy enabled many people to get by on a standard of living somewhat higher than that of Hungary’s neighbors. But as research by Hungarian social statisticians was already revealing, the country was suffering significant inequalities of income, health and housing; social mobility and welfare were actually behind the West; and the long work hours (many people worked two or even three jobs), high levels of alcoholism and mental disorder, together with the highest suicide rate in eastern Europe, were taking their toll on the population.
There was, then, ample ground for discontent. But there was no organized political opposition. Although some independent organizations surfaced in the course of the 1980s, they were mostly confined to environmental issues or to protests against Romania’s mistreatment of its Hungarian minority—an issue on which they could count on the Communists’ tacit sympathy (which explains official tolerance of the decidedly nationalist Hungarian Democratic Forum, formed in September 1987). Hungary remained a ‘socialist republic’ (as it was officially described in the Constitutional revision of 1972). Dissent and criticism were largely confined within the ruling Party, although in the elections of June 1985 multiple candidacies were permitted for the first time and a handful of officially-approved independents got elected. But it was not until 1988 that serious changes began.
The catalyst for change in Hungary was the frustration of younger, ‘reform’ Communists—openly enthusiastic about the transformations Gorbachev was working in the CPSU—at the inflexibility of their own ageing Party leadership. In May 1988, at a special Communist Conference called for the purpose, they at last succeeded in removing the 76-year-old Kádár from the leadership and replacing him with Károly Grósz, the Prime Minister. The strictly practical consequences of this internal Party coup were limited to an economic austerity program aimed at strengthening ‘market forces’; but it had great symbolic force.
János Kádár had ruled Hungary ever since the revolution of 1956, in whose suppression he played the major part. Despite his rather favorable image abroad, he incarnated for Hungarians the official lie at the heart of ‘goulash Communism’: that the Hungarian reform movement had been nothing but a ‘counter-revolution’. Kádár was also the living embodiment of the conspiracy of silence surrounding Imre Nagy ever since his kidnapping, secret trial and even more secret execution and burial three decades before.287 The removal of Kádár thus seemed to suggest that something fundamental had shifted in Hungarian public life—an impression confirmed when his successors not only allowed a group of dissident young Communists and others to form Fidesz (Young Democrats), but in November 1988 officially condoned the appearance of independent political parties.
In the early months of 1989 the Communist legislature passed a series of measures recognizing the right of free assembly; officially sanctioning ‘transition’ to a multi-party system; and, in April, formally jettisoning ‘democratic centralism’ in the Party itself. Of even greater moment, Hungary’s Communist rulers—tacitly acknowledging that their Party could not hope to maintain its control of the countryunless it came clean about its past—announced their intention to exhume and rebury the troublesome remains of Imre Nagy. At the same time Imre Pozsgay and other reformers in the Hungarian Politburo convinced their colleagues to open a commission of inquiry into the events of 1956 and officially redefine them: no longer a ‘counter-revolution’, they were now officially a ‘popular uprising against an oligarchic rule that had debased the nation.’
On June 16th 1989—the thirty-first anniversary of his death—the remains of Imre Nagy and four of his colleagues were ceremoniously reburied as national heroes. An estimated 300,000 Hungarians lined the streets, with millions more watching the proceedings live on television. Among the speakers at the graveside was Viktor Orbán, the young leader of the Young Democrats, who could not help noting that some of the Communists present at Nagy’s reburial were the same who, just a few years before, had so strenuously falsified the very revolution whose praises they were now singing.
This was true. It was a curiosity of the Hungarian exit from Communism that it was conducted by Communists themselves—only in June were round-table talks convened with opposition parties, in conscious imitation of the Polish precedent. This induced a certain skepticism among anti-Communist Hungarians, for whom Nagy’s resurrection, like his earlier execution, was an intra-Party affair of little concern to Communism’s many victims. But it would be wrong to underestimate the symbolic force of the reburial of Nagy. It was an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that the Party and its leadership had lived and taught and imposed a lie.
When János Kádár died just three weeks later—on the very day that the Hungarian Supreme Court pronounced Nagy’s full rehabilitation—Hungarian Communism died with him. All that remained was to agree on the formalities of its passing. The ‘leading role’ of the Party was abolished; multi-party elections were scheduled for the following March; and on October 7th the Communists—the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party—re-baptized themselves the Hungarian Socialist Party. On October 23rd Parliament, still overwhelmingly composed of Communist deputies elected under the old Party regime, in turn voted to rename the country itself as, simply, the Hungarian Republic.
The Hungarian ‘revolution’ of 1989 had two distinguishing features. The first, as we have seen, is that it was the only passage from a Communist regime to a genuine multi-party system effected entirely from within. The second point of note is that whereas in Poland, as later in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, the events of 1989 were largely self-referential, the Hungarian transition played a vital role in the unraveling of another Communist regime, that of East Germany.
To outside observers, the German Democratic Republic appeared among the least vulnerable of Communist regimes, and not only because it was universally assumed that no Soviet leader would ever allow it to fall. The physical environment of the GDR, notably its cities, might appear tawdry and dilapidated; its security police, the Stasi, were notoriously omnipresent; and the Wall in Berlin remained a moral and aesthetic outrage. But the East German economy was widely believed to be in better shape than that of its socialist neighbors. When First Secretary Erich Honecker boasted at the country’s fortieth anniversary celebrations in October 1989 that the GDR was one of the world’s top ten economic performers, his guest Mikhail Gorbachev was heard to emit an audible snort; but if nothing else, the regime was efficient in the manufacture and export of bogus data: many Western observers took Honecker at his word.
The GDR’s most enthusiastic admirers were to be found in the Federal Republic. The apparent success of Ostpolitik in defusing tensions and facilitating human and economic communications between the two halves of Germany had led virtually the entire political class to invest their hopes in its indefinite prolongation. West German public figures not only encouraged illusions among the nomenklatura of the GDR, they deluded themselves. Simply by repeating that Ostpolitik was having the effect of easing tensions to the east, they came to believe it.
Preoccupied with ‘peace,’ ‘stability,’ and ‘order,’ many West Germans thus ended up sharing the point of view of the Eastern politicians with whom they were doing business. Egon Bahr, a prominent Social Democrat, explained in January 1982 (immediately following the declaration of martial law in Poland) that Germans had renounced their claim to national unity for the sake of peace and the Poles would just have to renounce their claim to freedom in the name of the same ‘highest priority.’ Five years later the influential writer Peter Bender, speaking at a Social Democratic Party symposium on ‘Mitteleuropa’, proudly insisted that ‘in the desire for détente we have more in common with Belgrade and Stockholm, also with Warsaw and East Berlin [emphasis added], than we do with Paris and London.’
In later years it would emerge that on more than one occasion national leaders of the SPD made confidential and decidedly compromising statements to high-ranking East Germans visiting the West. In 1987 Björn Engholm praised the domestic policies of the GDR as ‘historic’, while the following year his colleague Oskar Lafontaine promised to do everything in his power to make sure that West German support for East German dissidents remained muted. ‘The Social Democrats,’ he assured his interlocutors, ‘must avoid everything that would mean a strengthening of those forces.’ As a Soviet report to the GDR Politburo noted in October 1984, ‘Many arguments that had previously been presented by us to the representatives of the SPD have now been taken over by them’.288
The illusions of West German Social Democrats are perhaps understandable. But they were shared with almost equal fervour by many Christian Democrats too. Helmut Kohl, the West German Chancellor since 1982, was just as keen as his opponentsto cultivate good relations with the GDR. At the Moscow funeral of Yuri Andropov in February 1984 he met and spoke with Erich Honecker—and did so again at the burial of Chernenko the following year. Agreements were reached between the two sides over cultural exchange and the removal of mines on the inter-German border. In September 1987 Honecker became the first East German leader to visit the Federal Republic. Meanwhile West German subsidies for the GDR continued apace (but no support was ever forthcoming for East Germany’s internal opposition).
Flush with West German sponsorship, confident of Moscow’s backing and at liberty to export to the West its more troublesome dissidents, the East German regime might have survived indefinitely. It certainly appeared immune to change: in June 1987 demonstrators in East Berlin opposed to the Wall and chanting praise for the distant Gorbachev were summarily dispersed. In January 1988 the government did not hesitate to imprison and expel well over a hundred demonstrators who were commemorating the 1919 murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht with signs quoting Luxemburg herself: ‘Freedom is also the freedom of those who think differently’. In September 1988 Honecker, on a visit to Moscow, publicly praised Gorbachev’s perestroika—only to make a point of studiously avoiding its implementation upon his return home.289
Notwithstanding the unprecedented developments then unfolding in Moscow, Warsaw and Budapest, the East German Communists were still rigging votes in a manner familiar from the 1950s. In May 1989 the official outcome of the GDR municipal elections—98.85 percent for government candidates—was so egregiously fabricated that it aroused nationwide protests from priests, environmental groups and even critics within the ruling party. The Politburo studiously ignored them. But now, for the first time, East Germans had a choice. They no longer had to accept the status quo, risk arrest or else essay a hazardous escape to the West. On May 2nd 1989, in the course of relaxing the control of movement and expression within Hungary itself, the authorities in Budapest had removed the electrified fence along the country’s western frontier, although the border itself remained formally closed.
East Germans began to swarm into Hungary. By July 1st 1989 some 25,000 of them had made their way to ‘vacation’ there. Thousands more followed, many of them seeking temporary refuge in West German embassies in Prague and Budapest. A few made their way across the still-closed Austro-Hungarian frontier without being stopped by border guards, but most just stayed in Hungary. By early September there were 60,000 GDR citizens in Hungary, waiting. Asked on a Hungarian television news program on September 10th what his government’s response would be if some of these people started walking west, the Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn replied: ‘We will allow them through without any further ado and I assume that the Austrians will let them in.’ The door to the West was officially open: within seventy-two hours some 22,000 East Germans had rushed through it.
The East German authorities protested furiously—the Hungarian move implied a breach of the longstanding agreement between Communist governments not to allow their countries to be used as escape routes from fraternal neighbors. But the authorities in Budapest merely insisted that they were bound by their signature to the Helsinki Final Act. The people took them at their word. In the course of the next three weeks the GDR authorities confronted a public-relations disaster as tens of thousands of their fellow citizens tried to get out through the new exit route.
In an attempt to take control of events the GDR rulers offered East German refugees in the embassies in Prague and Warsaw safe passage back through their own country and on to West Germany in a sealed train. This, however, merely exacerbated the regime’s mounting humiliation: as the train passed through the GDR it was greeted by tens of thousands of cheering, envious locals. An estimated five thousand people tried to clamber aboard when the refugee train stopped briefly in Dresden; when the police beat them back a riot ensued—all under the eyes of the world’s media.
The regime’s travails emboldened its critics. The day after Hungary opened its borders a group of East German dissenters in East Berlin founded Neues Forum (‘New Forum’), followed a few days later by another citizens’ movement, ‘Democracy Now’, both groups pressing for a democratic ‘restructuring’ of the GDR. On Monday October 2nd, in Leipzig, a crowd of 10,000 demonstrated in frustration at the Honecker regime’s refusal to reform itself—the largest public gathering in East Germany since the ill-fated Berlin uprising of 1953. The 77-year old Honecker remained impervious. East Germans seeking to emigrate, he declared in September, had been ‘blackmailed through enticements, promises and threats to renounce the basic principles and fundamental values of socialism.’ To the increasing anxiety of younger colleagues—who could no longer ignore the scale of the challenge facing them—the leadership appeared helpless: frozen in place. On October 7th, to honor the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the GDR, Mikhail Gorbachev came and spoke, memorably advising his stone-faced host that ‘life punishes those who delay.’ To no avail: Honecker pronounced himself satisfied with things the way they were.
Encouraged by the Soviet leader’s visit—not to speak of developments abroad—demonstrators in Leipzig and other cities began holding regular demonstrations and ‘vigils’ for change. The Monday gatherings in Leipzig, now a regular fixture, had grown to 90,000 by the week following Gorbachev’s speech, the assembled crowds all proclaiming ‘We are the people!’ and calling upon ‘Gorby’ to help them. The following week the numbers had grown again; an increasingly agitated Honecker was now proposing to use force to put down any further show of opposition.
The prospect of outright confrontation appears finally to have concentrated the mind of Honecker’s Party critics. On October 18th some of his colleagues, led by Egon Krenze, staged a coup and removed the old man from power, after 18 years.290 Krenze’s first act was to fly to Moscow, endorse (and seek the endorsement of) Mikhail Gorbachev and return to Berlin to prepare a cautious East German perestroika. But it was too late. At the most recent Leipzig demonstration, an estimated 300,000 people had come together to press for change; on November 4th half a million East Germans gathered in Berlin to demand immediate reforms. Meanwhile, on that same day, Czechoslovakia opened its border; in the next forty-eight hours 30,000 people left through it.
By now the authorities were truly panicked. On November 5th, the GDR government hesitantly proposed a mildly liberalized travel law, only to have it dismissed by critics as pitifully inadequate. The East German cabinet then dramatically resigned, followed by the Politburo. The following evening—November 9th, anniversary of both the Kaiser’s abdication and Kristallnacht—Krenze and his colleagues proposed yet another travel law to head off the stampede. At a news conference carried live on German television and radio, Günter Schabowski explained that the new provisions, in immediate effect, authorized foreign travel without advance notice and permitted transit through the border crossings into West Germany. The Wall, in other words, was now open.
Before the broadcast was even finished people were in the streets of East Berlin and heading for the border. Within hours, fifty thousand people had poured into West Berlin: some forever, others just going to look. By the following morning the world had changed. As anyone could see, the Wall had been breached for good and there could be no return. Four weeks later the Brandenburg Gate, straddling the East-West border, was reopened; over the Christmas holidays of 1989, 2.4 million East Germans (1 in 6 of the total population) visited the West. This had most decidedly notbeen the intention of the GDR rulers. As Schabowski himself later explained, the authorities had ‘no clue’ that opening the Wall might bring about the downfall of the GDR—quite the contrary: they saw it as the beginning of ‘stabilization’.
In taking the hesitant decision to open the border the GDR leaders had hoped merely to release a safety valve, perhaps secure a little popularity, and above all buy enough time to propose a program of ‘reforms’. The Wall, after all, was opened for much the same reason that it had been erected and closed a generation earlier: to staunch a demographic hemorrhage. In 1961 this desperate ploy had succeeded; in 1989, too, it worked after a fashion—surprisingly few East Germans remained permanently in West Berlin or emigrated to West Germany once they were reassured that if they returned they would not find themselves imprisoned again. But the price of that reassurance was the fall of more than just the regime.
In the aftermath of the fall of the Wall, the SED went through the—by now familiar—last rites of a dying Communist Party. On December 1st the Volkskamme r (GDR Parliament) voted 420-0 (with five abstentions) to delete from the GDR constitution the clause declaring that the state is ‘led by the working class and its Marxist-Leninist party’. Four days later the Politburo resigned once again; a new leader—Gregor Gysi—was chosen; and the party’s name duly changed, to the Party of Democratic Socialism. The old Communist leadership (including both Honecker and Krenze) was expelled from the party; round table (again) discussions were begun with representatives of Neues Forum (by general consent the most visible of the opposition groups), and free elections were scheduled.
But even before the latest (and last) GDR government under Dresden Party boss Hans Modrow had started drafting a ‘Party action program’, its actions and intentions were all but irrelevant. East Germans, after all, had an option that was not available to other subject-peoples—there was no ‘West Czechoslovakia’, or ‘West Poland’—and they were not about to forego it. The goalposts were shifting: in October 1989 the Leipzig demonstrators had chanted ‘Wir sind das Volk’—‘We are the people’. By January 1990 the same crowds were proclaiming a subtly different demand: ‘Wir sind ein Volk’—‘We are one people’.
Because the death of German Communism would thus entail, as we shall see in the next chapter, the death of a German state—by January 1990 the point had become not just to get out of Socialism (much less ‘reform’ it) but to get into West Germany—it is not clear in retrospect how to interpret the hopes of the crowds who brought down the GDR in the autumn of 1989. What is clear, however, is that neither the Party (as in Hungary), nor the opposition (as in Poland) can claim much credit for the course of events. We have seen how slow the Party was to grasp its predicament; but its intellectual critics were not much quicker.
On November 28th Stefan Heym, Christa Wolf and other East German intellectuals issued an appeal ‘For Our Land’, to save socialism and the GDR and stand firm against what Heym described as the ‘glittering rubbish’ of the West. Bärbel Bohley, the leading figure in Neues Forum, even described the opening of the Berlin Wall as ‘unfortunate’, because it forestalled ‘reform’ and precipitated elections before the parties or the voters were ‘ready’. Like many of East Germany’s ‘dissenting’ intellectuals (not to speak of their West German admirers) Bohley and her colleagues still envisaged a reformed Socialism, shorn of secret policemen and a ruling party but keeping a safe distance from its predatory capitalist doppelganger to the west. As events were to show, this was at least as unrealistic as Erich Honecker’s fantasy of a return to neo-Stalinist obedience. Neues Forum thus condemned itself to political irrelevance, its leaders reduced to carping resentfully at the improvidence of the masses.291
The German uprising of 1989, then, was perhaps the only truly popular—i.e. mass—revolution of that year (and indeed the only successful popular revolt in German history).292 The fall of Communism in neighboring Czechoslovakia, although coming at the same time as the transformation in East Germany, followed a significantly different path. In both countries the Party leadership was rigid and repressive, and the rise of Gorbachev was at least as unwelcome to the regime in Prague as it was in Pankow. But there the similarities end.
As in Hungary, so in Czechoslovakia, Communist rule rested uneasily upon the silent memory of a stolen past. But whereas in the Hungarian case Kádár had semi-successfully distanced himself and his party from their Stalinist inheritance, the leaders of Czechoslovakia had managed no such transition. Nor had they sought it. The Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 and the subsequent ‘normalization’ lived on in Gustav Husák, in power since 1969. Even when Husák, now 75, resigned as General Secretary of the Party in 1987 (while remaining state President), he was replaced by Miloš Jakeš—younger, to be sure, but best known for his prominent role in the mass purges of the early Seventies.
The Czechoslovak Communists were actually rather successful at maintaining total control to the very end. Neither the Catholic Church (always a minor player in Czech, if not Slovak affairs) nor the intellectual opposition gained significant support in society at large. Thanks to the brutally efficient management of the purges, most of the country’s intelligentsia, from playwrights to historians to Sixties-era reform Communists, had been expunged not just from their jobs put from public visibility. Until 1989 some of Czechoslovakia’s most outspoken domestic critics of Communism, beginning with Václav Havel himself, were better-known abroad than in their own country. As we saw in the last chapter, Havel’s own civic organization, Charter 77, managed fewer than two thousand signatories in a population of 15 million.
Of course, people were afraid to take the risk of openly criticizing the regime; but it has to be said that most Czechs and Slovaks were not actively unhappy with their lot. The Czechoslovak economy, like most other Eastern European economies since the early Seventies, had been deliberately geared to supplying basic consumer goods, and in the Czech case something more. Indeed, Communist Czechoslovakia consciously mimicked aspects of Western consumer society—notably television programming and popular leisure pursuits—albeit in a mediocre key. Life in Czechoslovakia was dull, the environment was deteriorating and younger people especially chafed at the omnipresent and censorious authorities. But in return for avoiding confrontation with the regime and paying lip service to its turgid rhetoric, people were left to their own devices.
The regime kept a tight and even brutal lid on any signs of dissent. Demonstrators in Prague and elsewhere who came out to mark the twentieth anniversary of the invasion in August 1988 were arrested; unofficial efforts to hold an ‘East-West’ seminar in Prague were quashed. In January 1989, on the twentieth anniversary of Jan Palach’s suicide in Wenceslas Square, Havel and thirteen other Charter 77 activists were arrested and once again imprisoned (though in contrast with the harsh treatment meted out to him in earlier years, Havel—now an international figure whose mistreatment might embarrass his jailers—was released in May).
In the course of the spring and summer of 1989 informal networks and groups sprang up around the country, in hopeful imitation of developments in neighboring lands: following the ‘John Lennon Peace Club’ formed in December 1988 there came the ‘Prague Mothers’ protest of May 1989, followed by environmentalist demonstrations in Bratislava the following month. None of these tiny and easily-contained bubbles of civic initiative posed any threat to the police or the regime. But in August, just as Mazowiecki was finalizing plans for his government in Warsaw and shortly before the Hungarian borders were flung open, demonstrators filled the streets of the Czech capital to commemorate, once again, the overthrow of the Prague Spring.
On this occasion, however, the Czech police were decidedly more restrained. The Jakeš regime had decided to trim a little, offering at least the appearance of acknowledging the change of mood in Moscow, while altering nothing of substance in its rule. The same calculation doubtless explains the authorities’ hands-off approach to the next major public demonstration on October 28th, the anniversary of the foundation of the Czechoslovak state in 1918 (officially ignored since 1948). But there was still no great public pressure upon the Communist leadership—even the announcement on November 15th that exit visas would no longer be required for travel to the West was less a concession to demand than a strategic imitation of changes elsewhere.
It was this apparent lack of real reforming intent on the part of the party chiefs, and the absence of any effective external opposition—the summer demonstrations lacked common objectives and no leaders had yet emerged to channel discontent into a programme—that lent credence to a widespread suspicion that what followed was in some measure a staged ‘plot’: an attempt by would-be reformers in the administration and police to jump-start the moribund Party in the direction of a Czech perestroika.
This is not as bizarre as it may sound in retrospect. On November 17th the Prague police officially approved a student march through the inner-city to commemorate yet another gloomy date, the 50th anniversary of the Nazi murder of a Czech student, Jan Opletal. But when the marching students began to chant anti-Communist slogans the police attacked, scattering the crowd and beating up isolated victims. The police themselves then encouraged the rumour that—in a replay of Opletal’s own murder—one of the students had been killed. This was later acknowledged to be a false report; but meanwhile it had the predictable effect of provoking anger among the students themselves. In the course of the next forty eight hours tens of thousands of students were mobilized, the universities were occupied and huge crowds began to gather in the streets to protest. Now, however, the police merely stood by.
If there ever had been a plot it decidedly backfired. To be sure, the events of November 17th and their aftermath dislodged the neo-Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party: within a week the entire Praesidium, led by Jakeš, had resigned. But their successors had absolutely no popular credibility and were in any case immediately submerged by the speed of events. On November 19th Václav Havel, who had been consigned to virtual house arrest in rural northern Bohemia, returned to a capital city in turmoil, where the Communists were rapidly losing power but there was as yet no-one around to take it out of their hands.
Installing himself—appropriately enough—in a Prague theater, Havel and his friends from Charter 77 formed Občanské Fórum (Civic Forum), an informal and fluid network that metamorphosed within days from a debating society to a civic initiative and thence into a shadow government. The discussion in Civic Forum was driven partly by the longstanding goals of its best-known participants, but mostly by the spectacularly accelerating course of events in the streets outside. The first thing the Forum did was to demand the resignation of the men responsible for the invasion of ’68 and its aftermath.
On November 25th, the day after the Party leaders duly resigned en masse, a crowd of half a million people gathered at the Letná stadium in Prague, not so much to demand particular reforms as to make their presence known, after two decades of cowed public silence: to themselves and to one another. That same night Havel was granted an unprecedented interview on Czech television. The following day he addressed a crowd of 250,000 in Wenceslas Square, sharing a platform with the Communist Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec—and Alexander Dubček.
By now it had become clear to the emerging leadership of Civic Forum that they were, despite themselves, running a revolution. In order to provide some direction—and to have something to say to the massed crowds outside—a group led by the historian Petr Pithart drew up the ‘Programmatic Principles of Civic Forum’. These contained a brief summary of the general objectives of the Forum and are an instructive guide to the mood and priorities of the men and women of 1989. ‘What do we want?’ the program asks. 1: A state of law. 2: Free elections. 3: Social justice. 4: A clean environment. 5: An educated people. 6: Prosperity. 7: Return to Europe.
The mixture of boilerplate political demands, cultural and environmental ideals, and the invocation of ‘Europe’ is characteristically Czech and owed much to various Charter 77 pronouncements over the previous decade. But the tone of the Programme nicely captured the mood of the crowds in the heady days of November: pragmatic, idealistic and wildly ambitious all at once. The mood in Prague and the rest of the country was also more avowedly optimistic than in any of the other Communist ‘transitions’. This was an effect of acceleration .293
Within a week of the bloody repression of the student demonstrators the Party leadership had resigned. One week later Civic Forum and Public Against Violence (PAV—its Slovak alter ego) had been legalized and were negotiating with the government. On November 29th the Federal Assembly, responding meekly to a Civic Forum demand, removed from the Czechoslovak constitution the seminal clause guaranteeing the Communist Party its ‘leading role’. At this point the Adamec government proposed a new governing coalition as a compromise but the representatives of Civic Forum—boosted by large and determined crowds now in permanent occupation of the streets—rejected it out of hand.
By now the Communists could hardly fail to note events abroad: not only had their colleagues in the former East German leadership been expelled on December 3rd; but Mikhail Gorbachev was sitting down to dinner with President Bush in Malta and the Warsaw Pact states were preparing publicly to renounce their 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Discredited and disqualified by their own paymasters, the remaining members of the Husák group of Czech and Slovak Communists, including Prime Minister Adamec, resigned.
After a two-day ‘Round Table’ meeting (the briefest of all the round tables of the year) the Civic Forum leaders now agreed to join a cabinet. The Prime Minister—the Slovak Marían Čalfa—was still a Party member, but a majority of the ministers—for the first time since 1948—were non-Communists: Jiří Dienstbier of Charter 77 (a stoker until just five weeks earlier) was to be foreign minister; the Catholic lawyer Jan Čarnogurský of PAV was to be Deputy Prime Minister; Vladimír Kusý of Civic Forum was information minister; and the hitherto obscure free-market economist Václav Klaus was to direct the Ministry of Finance. The new government was sworn in on December 10th by President Husák, who then promptly resigned.
The re-emergence of Alexander Dubček from two decades of obscurity had opened the possibility that he might be chosen to replace Husák as President—in part as a symbol of continuity with the thwarted hopes of 1968, in part to assuage the wounded feelings of the Communists and maybe even mollify hard-liners in the police and other services. But as soon as he began to make public speeches it became embarrassingly clear that poor Dubček was an anachronism. His vocabulary, his style, even his gestures were those of the reform Communists of the Sixties. He had learned nothing, it seemed, from his bitter experiences, but spoke still of resurrecting a kinder, gentler, Czechoslovak path to Socialism. To the tens of thousands of young people in the streets of Prague, or Brno, or Bratislava he was at first a historical curiosity; soon he became an irritating irrelevance.294
By way of compromise Dubček was elected chairman (i.e. Speaker) of the Federal Assembly. It fell to Václav Havel himself to become President—a notion so bizarrely implausible just five weeks before that he had gently dismissed the suggestion when it was first mooted by cheering crowds in the streets of Prague: ‘Havel na Hrad!’ (‘Havel to the Castle’). By December 7th, however, the playwright had come around to the view that his acceptance of the post might be the best way to facilitate the country’s exit from Communism; on December 28th 1989 the same Communist Assembly which had dutifully rubber-stamped the legislation that had hitherto consigned Havel and others to years of imprisonment now elected him President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. On New Year’s Day 1990 the new President amnestied 16,000 political prisoners; the following day the political police itself was disbanded.
Czechoslovakia’s remarkably expeditious and peaceful exit from Communism—the so-called ‘velvet revolution’—was made possible by a confluence of circumstances. As in Poland, the intellectual opposition was united above all by the memory of past defeats and a determination to avoid outright confrontation—it was not for nothing that the leading civic organization in Slovakia called itself ‘Public Against Violence’. As in the GDR, the utter bankruptcy of the ruling Party became clear so fast that the option of an organized rearguard action was excluded almost from the start.
But the role of Havel was equally crucial—no one individual of comparable public standing emerged in any other Communist country, and while most of the practical ideas and even the political tactics of Civic Forum might have been forthcoming in his absence, it was Havel who caught and channeled the public mood, moving his colleagues forward while keeping the expectations of the crowds within manageable bounds. The impact of Havel and his public appeal cannot be overstated. Like Tomáš Masaryk, with whom he came increasingly to be compared, the improbably charismatic Havel was now widely regarded by many as something akin to a national saviour. One Prague student poster from December 1989, in a possibly unintended but highly apposite religious allusion, depicted the incoming President with the words ‘He gave Himself to us.’
It was not just Havel’s multiple incarcerations and his unflinching record of moral opposition to Communism that placed him upon this pedestal: it was also his distinctively apolitical disposition. It was not in spite of his theatrical preoccupations that his fellow-citizens turned to Havel, it was because of them. As one Italian commentator observed of Havel’s emerging role on the Czechoslovak political stage, his distinctive voice allowed him to articulate the feelings of a silenced nation: ‘Se un popolo non ha mai parlato, la prima parole che dice è poesia’.295 For just these reasons it was Havel—notably skeptical of the seductions of capitalism (in contrast to his Finance Minister Klaus)—who alone could bridge the uncomfortable gap separating the mendacious but seductive egalitarianism of a defunct Communism from the uncomfortable realities of the free market.
In Czechoslovakia such a bridge was important. For all that it was in many respects the most western of the European Communist lands, Czechoslovakia was also the only one with a markedly egalitarian and left-leaning political culture: this, after all, was the only country in the world where almost two voters in five had ever chosen a Communist Party in free elections, back in 1946. In spite of forty years of ‘real existing Socialism’—and twenty years of deadening ‘normalization’—something of this political culture still endured: in the first post-Communist elections, held in June 1990, 14 percent of the electorate opted for the Communist Party. It was the enduring presence of this sizeable core of Communist supporters—together with the much larger penumbra of apolitical citizens not sufficiently dissatisfied to protest their condition—that had led dissident writers like Ludvík Vaculík to question the likelihood of great changes in the immediate future. History seemed to be against the Czechs and Slovaks: ever since 1938, Czechoslovakia had never quite managed to recover control of its own destiny.
Thus, when the people themselves finally seized the initiative in November 1989, the ensuing velvet revolution appeared almost too good to be true. Hence the talk of police plots and manufactured crises, as though Czechoslovak society had so little self confidence that even the initiative to destroy Communism must have come from the Communists themselves. Such skepticism was almost certainly misplaced—all the evidence that has since emerged suggests that on November 17th the Czech security police simply went too far. There was no ‘plot’ to force the hand of the ruling clique. In 1989 the people of Czechoslovakia really did take charge of their destiny.
The Romanian case was another matter. There it seems clear that in December 1989 one faction within the ruling Romanian Workers’ Party did indeed decide that its best chance of survival lay in forcibly removing the ruling coterie around Nicolae Ceauşescu. Romania, of course, was not a typical Communist state. If Czechoslovakia was the most western of the Communist satellite countries, Romania was the most ‘oriental’. Under Ceauşescu, Communism had degenerated from national Leninism to a sort of neo-Stalinist satrapy, where Byzantine levels of nepotism and inefficiency were propped in place by a tentacular secret police.
Compared with Dej’s vicious dictatorship of the Fifties, Ceauşescu’s regime got by with relatively little overt brutality; but the rare hints of public protest—strikes in the Jiu mining valley in August 1977, for example, or a decade later at the Red Star tractor works in Braşov—were violently and effectively suppressed. Moreover, Ceauşescu could count not only on a cowed population but also upon a remarkable lack of foreign criticism for his actions at home: eight months after imprisoning the strike leaders in the Jiu Valley (and murdering their leaders) the Romanian dictator was visiting the United States as the guest of President Jimmy Carter. By taking his distance from Moscow—we have seen how Romania abstained from the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia—Ceauşescu bought himself freedom of maneuver and even foreign acclaim, particularly in the early stages of the ‘new’ Cold War of the 1980s. Because the Romanian leader was happy to criticize the Russians (and send his gymnasts to the Los Angeles Olympics), Americans and others kept quiet about his domestic crimes.296
Romanians, however, paid a terrible price for Ceauşescu’s privileged status. In 1966, to increase the population—a traditional ‘Romanianist’ obsession—he prohibited abortion for women under forty with fewer than four children (in 1986 the age barrier was raised to forty-five). In 1984 the minimum marriage age for women was reduced to fifteen. Compulsory monthly medical examinations for all women of childbearing age were introduced to prevent abortions, which were permitted, if at all, only in the presence of a Party representative. Doctors in districts with a declining birth rate had their salaries cut.
The population did not increase, but the death rate from abortions far exceeded that of any other European country: as the only available form of birth control, illegal abortions were widely performed, often under the most appalling and dangerous conditions. Over the ensuing twenty-three years the 1966 law resulted in the death of at least ten thousand women. The real infant mortality rate was so high that after 1985 births were not officially recorded until a child had survived to its fourth week—the apotheosis of Communist control of knowledge. By the time Ceauşescu was overthrown the death rate of new-born babies was twenty-five per thousand and there were upward of 100,000 institutionalized children.
The setting for this national tragedy was an economy that was deliberately turned backward, from subsistence into destitution. In the early Eighties, Ceauşescu decided to enhance his country’s international standing still further by paying down Romania’s huge foreign debts. The agencies of international capitalism—starting with the International Monetary Fund—were delighted and could not praise the Romanian dictator enough. Bucharest was granted a complete rescheduling of its external debt. To pay off his Western creditors, Ceauşescu applied unrelenting and unprecedented pressure upon domestic consumption.
In contrast to Communist rulers elsewhere, unrestrainedly borrowing abroad to bribe their subjects with well-stocked shelves, the Romanian Conducator set about exporting every available domestically-produced commodity. Romanians were forced to use 40-watt bulbs at home (when electricity was available) so that energy could be exported to Italy and Germany. Meat, sugar, flour, butter, eggs, and much more were strictly rationed. To ratchet up productivity, fixed quotas were introduced for obligatory public labour on Sundays and holidays (the corvée, as it was known inancien régime France).
Petrol usage was cut to the minimum: in 1986 a program of horse-breeding to substitute for motorized vehicles was introduced. Horse-drawn carts became the main means of transport and the harvest was brought in by scythe and sickle. This was something truly new: all socialist systems depended upon the centralized control of systemically induced shortages, but in Romania an economy based on overinvestment in unwanted industrial hardware was successfully switched into one based on pre-industrial agrarian subsistence.
Ceauşescu’s policies had a certain ghoulish logic. Romania did indeed pay off its international creditors, albeit at the cost of reducing its population to penury. But there was more to Ceauşescu’s rule, in his last years, than just crazy economics. The better to control the country’s rural population—and increase still further the pressure on peasant farmers to produce food for export—the regime inaugurated a proposed ‘systematization’ of the Romanian countryside. Half of the country’s 13,000 villages (disproportionately selected from minority communities) were to be forcibly razed, their residents transferred into 558 ‘agro-towns’, Had Ceauşescu been granted the time to carry through this project it would utterly have destroyed what little remained of the country’s social fabric.
The rural ‘systemization’ project was driven forward by the Romanian dictator’s mounting megalomania. Under Ceauşescu the Leninist impulse to control, centralize and plan every detail of daily life graduated into an obsession with homogeneity and grandeur surpassing even the ambitions of Stalin himself. The enduring physical incarnation of this monomaniacal urge was to be the country’s capital, scheduled for an imperial make-over on a scale unprecedented since Nero. This project for the ‘renovation’ of Bucharest was to be aborted by the coup of December 1989; but enough was done for Ceauşescu’s ambition to be indelibly etched into the fabric of the contemporary city. A historic district of central Bucharest the size of Venice was completely flattened. Forty thousand buildings and dozens of churches and other monuments were razed to make space for a new ‘House of the People’ and the five-kilometer-long, 150-meter-wide Victory of Socialism Boulevard.
The whole undertaking was mere façade. Behind the gleaming white frontages of the boulevard were run up the familiar dirty, grim, pre-cast concrete blocks. But the façade itself was aggressively, humiliatingly, unrelentingly uniform, a visual encapsulation of totalitarian rule. The House of the People, designed by a twenty-five-year-old architect (Anca Petrescu) as Ceauşescu’s personal palace, was indescribably and uniquely ugly even by the standards of its genre. Grotesque, cruel and tasteless it was above all big (three times the size of the Palace of Versailles . . . ). Fronted by a vast hemicycle space that can hold half a million people, its reception area the size of a football pitch, Ceauşescu’s palace was (and remains) a monstrous lapidary metaphor for unconstrained tyranny, Romania’s very own contribution to totalitarian urbanism.
Romanian Communism in its last years sat uneasily athwart the intersection of brutality and parody. Portraits of the Party leader and his wife were everywhere; his praise was sung in dithyrambic terms that might have embarrassed even Stalin himself (though not perhaps North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, with whom the Romanian leader was sometimes compared). A short list of the epithets officially-approved by Ceauşescu for use in accounts of his achievements would include: The Architect; The Creed-shaper; The Wise Helmsman; The Tallest Mast; The Nimbus of Victory; The Visionary; The Titan; The Son of the Sun; A Danube of Thought; and The Genius of the Carpathians.
What Ceauşescu’s sycophantic colleagues really thought of all this they were not saying. But it is clear that by November 1989—when, after sixty-seven standing ovations, he was re-elected Secretary General of the Party and proudly declared that there were to be no reforms—a number of them had begun to regard him as a liability: remote and out of touch not just with the mood of the times but with the rising level of desperation among his own subjects. But so long as he had the backing of the secret police, the Securitate, Ceauşescu appeared untouchable.
Appropriately enough, then, it was the Securitate who precipitated the regime’s fall when, in December 1989, they tried to remove a popular Hungarian Protestant pastor, Lázslo Tökés, in the western city of Timisoara. The Hungarian minority, a special object of prejudice and repression under Ceauşescu’s rule, had been encouraged by developments just across the border in Hungary and were all the more resentful at the continuing abuses to which they were subject at home. Tökés became a symbol and focus for their frustrations and, when the regime targeted him on December 15th, the church in which he had taken refuge was surrounded by parishioners holding an all-night vigil in his support.
The following day, as the vigil turned unexpectedly into a demonstration against the regime, the police and the army were brought out to shoot into the crowd. Exaggerated reports of the ‘massacre’ were carried on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and spread around the country. To quell the unprecedented protests, which had now spread from Timisoara to Bucharest itself, Ceauşescu returned from an official visit to Iran. On December 21st he appeared on a balcony at Party headquarters with the intention of making a speech denouncing the ‘minority’ of ‘troublemakers’—and was heckled into shocked and stunned silence. The following day, after making a second unsuccessful attempt to address the gathering crowds, Ceauşescu and his wife fled from the roof of the Party building in a helicopter.
At this point the balance of power swung sharply away from the regime. At first the army had appeared to back the dictator, occupying the streets of the capital and firing on demonstrators who tried to seize the national television studios. But from December 22nd the soldiers, now directed by a ‘National Salvation Front’ (NSF) that took over the television building, switched sides and found themselves pitted against heavily armed Securitate troops. Meanwhile the Ceauşescus were caught, arrested and summarily tried. Found guilty of ‘crimes against the state’ they were hastily executed on Christmas Day, 1989.297
The NSF converted itself into a provisional ruling council and—after renaming the country simply ‘Romania’—appointed its own leader Ion Iliescu as President. Iliescu, like his colleagues in the Front, was a former Communist who had broken with Ceauşescu some years before and who could claim some slight credibility as a ‘reformer’ if only by virtue of his student acquaintance with the young Mikhail Gorbachev. But Iliescu’s real qualification to lead a post-Ceauşescu Romania was his ability to control the armed forces, especially the Securitate, whose last hold-outs abandoned their struggle on December 27th. Indeed, beyond authorizing on January 3rd 1990 the re-establishment of political parties, the new President did very little to dismantle the institutions of the old regime.
As later events would show, the apparatus that had ruled under Ceauşescu remained remarkably intact, shedding only the Ceauşescu family itself and their more egregiously incriminated associates. Rumours of thousands killed during the protests and battles of December proved exaggerated—the figure was closer to one hundred—and it became clear that for all the courage and enthusiasm of the huge crowds in Timisoara, Bucharest and other cities the real struggle had been between the ‘realists’ around Iliescu and the old guard in Ceauşescu’s entourage. The victory of the former ensured for Romania a smooth—indeed suspiciously smooth—exit out of Communism.
The absurdities of late-era Ceauşescu were swept away, but the police, the bureaucracy and much of the Party remained intact and in place. The names were changed—the Securitate was officially abolished—but not their ingrained assumptions and practices: Iliescu did nothing to prevent riots in Tirgu Mures on March 19th, where eight people were killed and some three hundred wounded in orchestrated attacks on the local Hungarian minority. Moreover, after his National Salvation Front won an overwhelming majority in the elections of May 1990 (having earlier promised not to contest them), and he himself was formally re-elected President, Iliescu did not hesitate in June to bus miners in to Bucharest to beat up student protesters: twenty-one demonstrators were killed and some 650 injured. Romania still had a very long road to travel.
The ‘palace coup’ quality of Romania’s revolution was even more in evidence to the south, where the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party unceremoniously ejected Todor Zhivkov from power at the advanced age of 78. The longest-serving leader in the Communist bloc—he had risen to the head of the Party in 1954—Zhivkov had done his best, in characteristic Bulgarian style, to hew closely to the Russian model: in the early Eighties he instituted a ‘New Economic Mechanism’ to improve production, and in March 1987, following Moscow’s lead, he promised an end to ‘bureaucratic’ control of the economy, assuring the world that Bulgaria could now point to a perestroika of its own.
But the continuing failures of the Bulgarian economy, and the Communist leadership’s growing insecurity as the new shape of affairs in Moscow became clear, led Zhivkov to seek out an alternative source of domestic legitimacy: ethnic nationalism. The significant Turkish minority in Bulgaria (some 900,000 in a population of fewer than nine million) was a tempting target: not only was it ethnically distinct and of a different religion but it was also the unfortunate heir and symbol of an era of hated Ottoman rule only now passing from direct memory. As in neighboring Yugoslavia, so in Bulgaria: a tottering Party autocracy turned the full fury of ethnic prejudice upon a helpless domestic victim.
In 1984 it was officially announced that the Turks of Bulgaria were not ‘Turks’ at all but forcibly-converted Bulgarians who would now be restored to their true identity. Muslim rites (such as circumcision) were restricted and criminalized; the use of the Turkish language in broadcasting, publications and education was proscribed; and in a particularly offensive (and angrily resented) move, all Bulgarian citizens with Turkish names were instructed henceforth to assume properly ‘Bulgarian’ ones instead. The outcome was a disaster. There was considerable Turkish resistance—which in turn aroused some opposition among Bulgarian intellectuals. The international community protested loudly; Bulgaria was condemned at the UN and in the European Court of Justice.
Meanwhile Zhivkov’s fellow Communist oligarchs abroad took their distance from him. By 1989 the Bulgarian Communists were more isolated than ever and not a little perturbed at the course of events next door in Yugoslavia, where the Party seemed to be losing control. Things were brought to a head by the exodus to Turkey, during the summer of 1989, of an estimated 300,000 ethnic Turks—another public relations calamity for the regime, and an economic one too, as the country began to run short of manual laborers.298 When the police over-reacted on October 26th to a small gathering of environmentalists in a Sofia park—arresting and beating activists from the Ecoglasnost group for circulating a petition—party reformers led by foreign minister Petar Mladenov decided to act. On November 10th (not coincidentally the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall) they ousted the hapless Zhivkov.
There followed the by-now familiar sequence of events: the release of political prisoners; sanctioning of political parties; removal from the constitution of the Communists’ ‘leading role’; a ‘round table’ to plan for free elections; a change in the name of the old party, now dubbed the ‘Bulgarian Socialist Party’; and in due course the elections themselves, which—as in Romania—the former Communists easily won (there were widespread allegations of electoral fraud).
In Bulgaria the political ‘opposition’ had emerged largely after the fact and as in Romania there were suggestions that it was in some measure fabricated for their own purposes by dissident Communist factions. But the changes were nonetheless real. At the very least, Bulgaria successfully avoided the catastrophe awaiting Yugoslavia: on December 29th, in the face of angry nationalist protests, Muslims and Turks were granted full and equal rights. By 1991, a mainly Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedom, had secured enough electoral backing to hold the balance of seats in the country’s national Assembly.
Why did Communism collapse so precipitously in 1989? We should not indulge the sirens of retrospective determinism, however seductive. Even if Communism was doomed by its inherent absurdities, few predicted the timing and the manner of its going. To be sure, the ease with which the illusion of Communist power was punctured revealed that these regimes were even weaker than anyone supposed, and this casts their earlier history in a new light. But illusory or no, Communism lasted a long time. Why did it not last longer?
One answer is a version of the ‘domino theory’, Once Communist leaders started falling in one place their legitimacy elsewhere was fatally impaired. The credibility of Communism rested in part upon its claim to embody necessity, to be the logical product of historical progress, a fact of political life, an inevitable presence on the modern landscape. Once this was shown to be palpably untrue—in Poland, for example, where Solidarity had apparently put History into reverse—then why continue to believe it in Hungary, or Czechoslovakia? We have already seen that the example of others clearly weighed in the balance.
Nevertheless, the striking aspect of Communism’s collapse in Europe was not contagion per se: all revolutions spread in this way, corroding the legitimacy of established authorities by cumulative example. That is what happened in 1848, 1919 and, in a minor key, in 1968. The novelty of 1989 was the sheer speed of the process. As late as October 1989 Imre Pozsgay in Hungary, or Egon Krenze in East Germany, fondly supposed that they could control and manage their version of perestroika. Most of their opponents tended to agree and continued to look for some interim compromise. Back in 1980 Adam Michnik had written that ‘a hybrid society is conceivable, one where totalitarian organization of the state will co-exist with democratic institutions of society’; well into the summer of 1989 he had little reason to expect anything else.
One novel factor was the role of the communications media. Hungarians, Czechs and Germans in particular were able to see their own revolution on the television news each evening. For the population of Prague, repeated television re-runs of the events of November 17th constituted a sort of instant political education, drumming home a double message: ‘they are powerless’ and ‘we did it.’ As a consequence, Communism’s crucial asset, its control and monopoly of information, was lost. The fear of being alone—the impossibility of knowing whether your own feelings were shared by others—was dissipated for ever. Even in Romania the take-over of the national television studios was the determining moment in the uprising. Not for nothing was the gruesome fate of the Ceauşescus filmed for broadcast to a national audience. This was not a new pattern, of course—throughout the twentieth century radio stations and post offices were the first objectives of revolutionary crowds, from Dublin to Barcelona. But television is fast.
The second marked characteristic of the revolutions of 1989 was their pacific quality. Romania was the exception, of course; but given the nature of Ceauşescu’s regime this was to be expected. The real surprise was that even in Timisoara and Bucharest the scale of bloodshed was far less than everyone feared. In part this, too, was a function of television. With the whole population—not to speak of much of the rest of the world—observing their every move, the Communist regimes were stymied. To be observed in this way was itself a loss of authority and severely restricted their range of options.299
To be sure, such considerations did not inhibit the Communist authorities in China, who shot down hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4th of that same year. Nicolae Ceauşescu would not have hesitated to emulateBeijing had he been able to do so. And we have seen that Erich Honecker at least contemplated something similar. But for most of their colleagues that was no longer an option. At some crucial moment all dying authoritarian regimes vacillate between repression and compromise. In the case of the Communists, confidence in their own capacity to rule was evaporating so rapidly that the chances of clinging to power by force alone began to seem slim—and the benefits of doing so by no means clear. In the calculus of self-interest the balance of advantage to most Communist bureaucrats and party apparatchiks was rapidly swinging the other way—better to swim with the current than be washed away in a tidal wave of change.
That calculation might have looked different had the crowds been angry or their leaders belligerently determined to wreak revenge upon the old order. But for many reasons—including the example of Tiananmen itself, unfolding on television the very day of the Polish elections—the men and women of 1989 consciously eschewed violence. It was not just the Polish revolution that was ‘self-limiting’. With decades of violence to their discredit, and all the guns and bullets on their side, the Communist regimes had very effectively taught their own subjects the impropriety and imprudence of resorting to force. With the police still breaking heads in Berlin and Prague until the dying hours of the old regime, Slovaks were not the only ‘Public Against Violence’.
Distaste for violence was all that many of the revolutionaries of 1989 had in common. They were an unusually motley group, even by the standards of most previous insurrections. The balance varied from place to place but typically ‘the people’ included a mix of reform Communists, social democrats, liberal intellectuals, free-market economists, Catholic activists, trade unionists, pacifists, some unreconstructed Trotskyists and others besides. This very variety was itself part of their strength: it constituted de facto precisely the informal complex of civil and political organizations which is so inimical to a one-party state.
At least one significant fault line—that separating liberal democrats from populist nationalists—could already be detected, distinguishing Mazowiecki from Wałesa, for example, or Hungary’s left-leaning Free Democrats (led by János Kis and other dissident intellectuals) from old-line nationalists in the Democratic Forum. There was also (as we have seen) a distinct generational aspect to the crowds of 1989. Many of the seasoned leaders of the intellectual opposition shared a common history with the regime’s own critics within the Party. To students and other young people, however, they thus appeared cast in the same mould: part of a past that could not and should not be revived. In the image of its 26-year-old leader Viktor Orbán, Fidesz in Hungary was originally designated as a political party exclusively for people under thirty.300
The memories and illusions of the ‘Dubček generation’ were not shared by their children, who evinced little interest in remembering 1968 or saving the ‘good’ aspects of the GDR. The new generation was less concerned with engaging its rulers in debate, or offering radical alternatives to their rule, than in simply getting out from under it. This contributed to the carnival-like aspect of 1989 remarked upon by some observers in Poland and Czechoslovakia; it also contributed to the unconcern with violent retribution. Communism was no longer an obstacle so much as an irrelevance.
This can be seen best in the language in which the objectives of 1989 were commonly expressed. The theme of ‘returning to Europe’ was not new. Long before Communism, the continent’s eastern half had been the Europe that sought recognition and acknowledgement; Western Europe was the Europe that ‘knew’ itself and from whom the acknowledgement was so longingly sought.301 With the coming of the Soviet bloc, the sense that their part of Europe was severed from its roots had become a leitmotif of intellectual dissent and opposition across the region.
But the lament for their lost European identity had acquired special significance for Eastern Europeans in recent years with the emergence in the West of something new: an institutional entity—a ‘European Community’, a ‘European Union’—built around self-consciously ‘European’ values with which East Europeans could all too readily identify: individual rights, civic obligations, the freedom of expression and movement. Talk of ‘Europe’ became less abstract and therefore, among other things, more interesting to young people. No longer just a lament for the lost culture of old Prague or Budapest, it now represented a concrete and attainable set of political goals. The opposite of Communism was not ‘capitalism’ but ‘Europe’.
This was more than just a matter of rhetoric. Whereas the old Communist cadres could convincingly (and even with conviction) point to the depredations of an abstraction called ‘capitalism’, they had nothing to offer in place of ‘Europe’—because it represented not an ideological alternative but simply the political norm. Sometimes the thought was inflected as ‘the market economy’, sometimes as ‘civil society’; but in either case ‘Europe’ stood—squarely and simply—for normalcy and the modern way of life. Communism was now no longer the future—its insistent trump card for six decades—but the past.
Naturally, there were variations. Nationalists and even some political and religious conservatives—many of them active and influential in 1989—were not disposed to think so much of Europe as of ‘Poland’ or ‘Hungary’. And some of them were perhaps less interested in freedom and individual rights than others. The immediate priorities of the crowd also varied—the idea of somehow returning to Europe was more important in mobilizing popular sentiment in Czechoslovakia than in Romania, to take an obvious example, where removing a dictator and putting food on the table took precedence. And whereas some of the leaders of 1989 set out from the start to build a market economy (when forming his first government in September 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki memorably declared that he was ‘looking for my Ludwig Erhard!’) others—notably Havel—preferred to focus upon the civic foundations of democracy.
The significance of these nuances would only emerge later. It may be appropriate here, however, to offer an observation concerning the place of the United States in this story. Eastern Europeans, especially East Berliners, were perfectly well aware of the US’s role in containing the Soviet Union. They also understood the nuances distinguishing West European politicians—who, for the most part, were content to live with Communism so long as it left them alone—from American politicians like Ronald Reagan who openly described it as an ‘evil empire’. Solidarity was financed largely from the US and it was the US that gave the most insistent official encouragement to protesters in Berlin and elsewhere—once it was clear that they would probably win.
But it should not be concluded from this, as it sometimes is, that Eastern Europe’s captive peoples were yearning to become . . . American; much less that it was American encouragement or support that precipitated or facilitated their liberation. 302 The US played a remarkably small part in the dramas of 1989, at least until after the fact. And the American social model itself—the ‘free market’—was only occasionally posited as an object of admiration or emulation by the crowds or their spokesmen. For most people who had lived under Communism, liberation by no means implied a yearning for untrammeled economic competition, much less the loss of free social services, guaranteed employment, cheap rents or any of Communism’s other attendant benefits. It was, after all, one of the attractions of ‘Europe’, as imagined from the East, that it held out the prospect of affluence and security, liberty and protection. You could have your socialist cake and eat it in freedom.
Such euro-dreams were harbingers of disappointments to come. But few saw this at the time. In the marketplace of alternative models, the American way of life was still a minority taste and America, for all its global clout, was a long way away. The other superpower, however, was right on the doorstep. The satellite states of eastern Europe were all colonies of the Communist empire based in Moscow. Accordingly, there is only so much about the changes of 1989 that can be attributed to indigenous social or political forces—whether they were underground Catholic organizations in Slovakia, rock-music groups in Poland or free-thinking intellectuals everywhere. In the last analysis, it was always Moscow that counted.
In the heady afterglow of liberation, many East Europeans belittled the significance of Moscow, the better to highlight their own achievement. In January 1992, Democratic Forum’s József Antall, now prime minister of Hungary, bemoaned to a Hungarian audience the West’s lack of appreciation for Central Europeans’ heroic role in the downfall of communism: ‘This unrequited love must end because we stuck to our posts, we fought our own fights without firing one shot and we won the third world war for them.’ Antall’s embittered account, however flattering to his audience, misses the seminal truth about 1989: if Eastern Europe’s crowds and intellectuals and trade union leaders ‘won the third world war’ it is, quite simply, because Mikhail Gorbachev let them.
On July 6th 1989, Gorbachev addressed the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and informed his audience that the Soviet Union would not stand in the way of reform in Eastern Europe: that was ‘entirely a matter for the people themselves.’ At a conference of eastern bloc leaders in Bucharest on July 7th 1989, the Soviet leader affirmed each socialist state’s right to follow its own trajectory without external interference. Five months later, in a stateroom on the SS Maxim Gorky off Malta, he assured President Bush that force would not be used to keep Eastern Europe’s Communist regimes in power. There was no ambiguity about his position. Gorbachev, as Michnik had remarked in 1988, was ‘the prisoner of his foreign policy successes.’ Once an imperial metropole had so publicly acknowledged that it would not, could not hang on to its colonial periphery—and had been universally acclaimed for saying so—its colonies were lost and with them the empire’s indigenous collaborators. All that remained to be determined was the manner and direction in which they fell.
The collaborators themselves certainly understood what was happening: between July 1988 and July 1989 Károly Grósz and Miklós Németh, the leading reformers in the Hungarian Party, made four separate visits to Moscow to meet Mikhail Gorbachev. Their colleague Rezsõ Nyers also spoke with him in Bucharest on July 7th 1989, the day after Kádár’s death, by which date it was already clear that their cause was lost. Gorbachev did nothing actively to precipitate or encourage the revolutions of 1989: he merely stood aside. In 1849 Russian intervention had sealed the fate of the Hungarian and other revolutions of that year; in 1989 Russian abstention helped assure their success.
Gorbachev did more than just let the colonies go. By indicating that he would not intervene he decisively undermined the only real source of political legitimacy available to the rulers of the satellite states: the promise (or threat) of military intervention from Moscow. Without that threat the local regimes were politically naked. Economically they might have struggled for a few more years, but there, too, the logic of Soviet retreat was implacable: once Moscow started charging world market prices for its exports to Comecon countries (as it did in 1990) the latter, heavily dependent on imperial subsidies, would have collapsed in any event.
As this last example suggests, Gorbachev was letting Communism fall in eastern Europe in order to save it in Russia itself—just as Stalin had built the satellite regimes not for their own sake but as a security for his western frontier. Tactically Gorbachev miscalculated badly—within two years the lessons of Eastern Europe would be used against the region’s liberator on his home territory. But strategically his achievement was immense and unprecedented. No other territorial empire in recorded history ever abandoned its dominions so rapidly, with such good grace and so little bloodshed. Gorbachev cannot take direct credit for what happened in 1989—he did not plan it and only hazily grasped its long-term import. But he was the permissive and precipitating cause. It was Mr Gorbachev’s revolution.