By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
For those following the event from Moscow at the time, the contrast was striking. On one side, the thrill caused by the fall of Berlin Wall in the outside world, especially in the West; on the other, the quasi indifference with which it was met in the Soviet Union.
The reasons were simple: at the time, the Soviet citizens’ attention was entirely turned inside. In November 1989, the Soviet Union was living in a state of permanent crisis with demonstrations in the republics calling for more autonomy (including autonomy for their own Communist parties), difficulties in daily life, and fears that the fight at the top between conservators and reformers might turn into violence through the country. Against this grim background, agitation in Communist Europe, directed against the local regime and the continued compulsory links with Moscow, seemed a secondary issue. The fall of the Wall was perceived as an element of the internal politics of the countries involved, a question to settle between themselves, more than as a geopolitical reshuffle.
But more largely, the revolts in the East and the fall of the Wall have to be seen in the context of Mihaïl Gorbatchev’s reforms – perestroika and glasnost. They were anathema for the Central and Eastern communist leaders. For them, Gorbachev was not as a model to emulate, but a danger for all the communist bloc – and their own political survival. In that, they were natural allies of Soviet conservators who were hoping to retake the upper hand in Moscow and come to the recourse of European “brothers” threatened by popular revolts. This union should have reinforced the anti- reformist camp in the communist world.
Hence their bewilderment when Gorbachev was met by delirious crowd shouting “Gorbi, Gorbi” as he arrived in Berlin in October 1989 to attend the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the RDA. For those well-wishers, he was the man who saw the need to reform communist societies before the cracks in the wall became too wide to be repaired and while their leaders might be pressed to accept change too.
But Erich Honecker was convinced he would survive Gorbachev, not the opposite, and decided to celebrate this anniversary with a demonstration of personal support and regime’s solidity, multiplying grandiose ceremonies, popular concerts and processions.
Gorbachev was in no mood to buy those demonstrations, but he made a brilliant splash of diplomatic skills, multiplying friendly words and signs of support. He even did not hesitate to kiss Honecker on the mouth. At the same time, his press department was emphysasing one of the sentences extracted from his final press conference that “life punishes those who dither”. He knew too well that the East Germany borders were already leaking, that dissensions were undermining the German Politburo, and that opposition movements were popular and on the rise.
Honecker was blind to Gorbachev’s position, but Eastern Germans were not. In the hours following the return of Gorbachev to Moscow, demonstrators were shouting « Freiheit, Freiheit », confronting the police in Berlin et other German cities. Clearly Moscow was letting the Germans decide for themselves.
They did: on 11 October, Honecker resigned and his successor, Egon Krenz, rushed to Moscow to proclaim his support for perestroika. On 3 December, he also resigned together with all the RDA’s Politburo. Everywhere through Communist Europe, leaders were falling one after another; communist parties were marginalised or dissolved. Even leaders or parties who had tried their own perestroika were not saved.
On the other side of the wall, the West was thrilled by events in Communist Europe, but afraid of a violent reaction from Moscow. But it never materialised. Gorbachev was not Brejnev and, by letting European communist regimes collapse one after another without reaction, he was respecting the promise he made to the leaders of Warsaw Pact’s members. When they met for the first time in 1985, at the funeral of his predecessor Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev told them about the start of a different era. He said that each of them was responsible for their national politics, that it was out of question to intervene in communist countries if socialism was threatened. He would repeat that later, and more than once.
By doing so, he was disposing with the “Brejnev doctrine” adopted in 1968 to justify a posteriori the intervention of the forces of the Warsaw Pact in Prague.
Out of touch
In Moscow, liberals were still supporting Gorbachev and shared his conviction that the Wall and the presence of Soviet soldiers in the countries of the Warsaw Pact was a costly relic of the second world war and of Stalinism. Even not politisised Soviet population was believing that this presence was an expensive and unproductive burden for their country, the USSR, that needed all the attention and the money. In consequence, when step by step communist European countries left the Soviet orbit, the event was received with philosophy.
The feeling of humiliation would come later on, when Gorbachev accepted a hurried and unorderly return of the Soviet troops from those countries. On the top of that, very soon, it appeared that Gorbachev did not get from the West the return he had expected from his opening, which further increased his alienation from the Soviet population.
On the other hand, he had not much choice. Resisting the wave of liberation aspirations from Central and Eastern Europe would have required costly, and moreover bloody, operations. But he acted naively, believing the West could see him as a man capable of mixing reformed communism and liberal reforms.
Soon his country would be gone. He had failed the challenge of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and even his reformist allies will turn their back to him.