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1989 and all that

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COMMENTS

28 June 2011 12:24

John Besemeres is a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for European Studies, ANU. He has previously written for The Interpreter on Belarus and the Ukraine.

Discussions of the fall of communism often conflate at least three distinct phenomena: the fall of the Soviet empire, specifically in Eastern Europe; the disintegration of the Soviet Union; and the implosion of the communist autocratic state within its Russian/East Slavonic heartland. 

Clearly the three processes were interrelated. Parts of those processes took longer than others and in a real sense some have still not fully played themselves out. Post-communist regimes in the former Soviet bloc sometimes still continue to resemble one or other version of Soviet communism in important respects.

In Romania, the communist apparatus remained influential, even dominant for many years after the dispatch of Ceausescu. The economic system and police state of the brutal ex-collective farm chairman Lukashenka in Belarus are still essentially neo-Soviet, even to the point of having a highly active secret police lovingly called the KGB. Many would argue that the later years of the Putin presidency (roughly 2004-8), in their anti-Western foreign policy and in their approach to state structures and 'ideological' issues (notably the place of Stalin in Russia's history) were neo-Soviet restorationist.

As Sam's recent post noted, it's often said that everyone got it wrong and that no one predicted any of the above. Western government agencies often come in for particularly withering scorn for having supposedly entirely failed to grasp what was going on. Even if that were wholly true (and as Sam pointed out, it isn't), it wouldn't be entirely surprising. Relatively few people in any walk of life envisaged the fall of communism, and no one described the scenario in detail years beforehand. 

Given that key actors like Gorbachev weren't expecting, much less intending, anything of the kind, it wasn't an obvious call for outsiders to make. And given that, before perestroika, the Soviet Union and most of its empire remained a tough police state, it's also not surprising that the area was not overrun with Le Carré characters ferreting out details of all kinds. But even if they had been there in great profusion, it would have availed them little. Some events in human affairs are and will always remain the almost totally unexpected outcomes of immensely complicated interwoven causal chains: in other words, mysteries, not secrets.

There were some exceptions. Andrei Amalrik, the valiant Soviet dissident, wrote a samizdat work with the archly provocative title 'Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?'. For his pains, he was exiled to the Gulag ('Involuntary Journey to Siberia'), an experience few Western intellectual observers can probably fully comprehend, before dying in exile in a mysterious road accident. 

There was a category of observers, this blogger included (ANU PhD thesis 1976, published as 'Socialist Population Politics' New York 1980), who thought that ethno-demographic trends in the Soviet Union would eventually lead to its demise or at least to serious 'structural adjustments'. The locus classicus of this type of literature was 'L'Empire éclaté' by the Georgian-French historian Hélène Carrére d’Encausse. There were others tilling the same fields to similar effect.

But Western academics were not by and large brilliant performers in this matter, any more than journalists were. I myself recall once attempting to suggest to a distinguished Soviet expert at a conference that ethno-demographic tensions building in Soviet Central Asia might lead to a fracturing of the Soviet Union. The look on his face of kindly concern for my sanity was so eloquent that I did not persevere.

The residents of the empire did a bit better. There was in particular a class of provincial imperial intellectuals in Eastern Europe, who longed for the day when their servitude would finally come to an end, and who toyed with various thoughts of how that might all come to pass. Such thinking occasionally surfaced in Western discourse, for example in the writings of Zbigniew Brzezinski, distinguished political scientist and National Security Adviser to President Carter, but without prescient and detailed scenarios.

Intimate nocturnal discussions among close friends in that part of the world often turned to such matters, but usually the tone was pessimistic. As a Polish samizdat publication once put it, radical change in the communist system was both absolutely imperative and at the same time totally impossible. In particular it was hard for anyone resident in the empire reviewing the history of the Soviet Union to imagine any benign circumstances in which the whole system could be dismantled. History strongly suggested that if it were indeed to happen (and people always reminded each other that all empires hitherto had finally come a cropper), it was likely to do so with great bloodshed, and possibly lead to the erection of another tyranny as bad or worse than the one that had just been demolished.

In retrospect (a useful vantage-point), the amazingly limited amount of bloodshed involved at the end now seems less surprising than it did at the time. Clearly there is a great deal of credit to be awarded to a wide variety of actors for this achievement, some of them not entirely obvious candidates: Gorbachev, Pope John Paul II, Solidarity leaders like Lech Walesa, Hungarian reform communists who let East German tourists escape across their borders to the West en masse, Estonians in vast human chains, Western politicians as diverse as Willy Brandt, Margaret Thatcher and, dare I say the words, Ronald Reagan. Any list will be unfair to millions who are not mentioned.

But also consider the events of 1953, 1956, 1968 and 1981 in the Soviet bloc: the death of Stalin and the uprising in East Berlin; the Hungarian revolution of 1956 (and the Polish October); Dubcek's  Prague Spring of 1968; the almost bloodless Solidarity transformation of 1980-81, but also Jaruzelski's spectacularly comprehensive yet also relatively bloodless martial law counterrevolution of December 1981 and thereafter. What these events describe as a historical graph is, among many things, a process of progressive debrutalisation of the Soviet empire. 

Khrushchev, though a significant reformer and thus a vital part of that process, didn't hesitate to inflict ferocious damage and high casualties on Hungary. But the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the 'fraternal armies' of the Warsaw Pact in 1969 was already quite different.  There were some specific reasons for this, but precedents were being set that Jaruzelski followed, and which the dissidents for their part also sought to encourage by their own non-violent tactics. Non-violence only works if the oppressor has some scruples. It would be nice if the Assads and the Lukashenkas and the Ahmedinajads were to see these examples as inspiring. But alas, in so far as they pay attention to them, they draw the opposite conclusion. Let them look then rather at the example of the 'least comfortable barrack in the camp', Romania.

Most Westerners spent little time on the sort of fantasies that Soviet bloc dissidents indulged in, even if they had some vague sense of the bloc's latent brittleness. Leading Western statesmen 'realistically' assessed that the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence were a reality that had to be accepted, negotiated with, perhaps softened slightly at the edges, but essentially treated with great respect and as a partner. Hence détente and Ostpolitik. For some such practitioners, dissidents were at best a bit of a nuisance, at worst a possible source of that dread international contagion 'instability'. Far better that they should know their place and stick to it.

Hence the de facto doctrine of the Kissinger era attributed, unfairly perhaps, to a less prominent US official of the time, Helmut Sonnenfeldt: essentially that Eastern Europeans should accept that they would be part of the Soviet bloc for the duration, not rock the boat and do their best with what they had. Any other course of action by them would be very inconvenient and get in the way of bigger issues. Hence George Bush Senior's celebrated 'Chicken Kiev' speech in which — for fear of the consequences for Mr Gorbachev and much else besides — he rather late in the piece unsuccessfully implored Ukraine not to seek independence from Russia.

All of these thought patterns were swept away by the tumultuous events of 1989-1991. Popular Western retrospective thinking about those events still has its fallacies. One of them is the idea already addressed above that failing to predict them all in detail was some kind of massive collective stupidity by incompetent specialists rather than a natural professional group-think that affected different milieus probably in equal measure. Another misapprehension is that it all really happened the night the Berlin Wall fell, and that no one had any idea till then that anything of major consequence was taking place. But that is another story, one which I've tried to tackle here.

Photo by Flickr user rcolonna.

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