Adam Roberts: The peaceful revolution of 1989

Apart from civil resistance, one crucial factor was the huge role of Gorbachev

Share
Related Topics

If 25 years ago you had said that within a few years communist rule would end in Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union would cease to exist as a state – and that all would happen with very little violence – you would have been thought seriously deranged. Yet, in fact, a nuclear-armed superpower did fold its tents, and its empire did cease to exist.

Civil resistance – non-violent action in pursuit of social goals – was part of this surreal story. In 1989-91 it was clearly part of the dramatic series of events that ended communist rule in Europe – and thereby brought to a conclusion the Cold War between the Soviet Union and Western states that had dominated international politics for nearly half a century. Was civil resistance a main cause of change – or just one element in a process that involved many other factors?

The claim that it played an essential part in the changes is strong. In Poland, industrial strikes under the banner of Solidarity undermined the whole raison d'être of a workers' state. In East Germany, a huge emigration movement through Hungary and Austria exposed the futility of the Berlin Wall as a means of containment, while demonstrations in the streets showed that even those who stayed wanted change.

The consequences of these actions were far reaching. Poland was the "icebreaker". It was there that Solidarity, a highly effective civil resistance movement, sat down at a round table with communist officials and hammered out a transition to free elections and a multiparty democracy. After Solidarity then went on to win the June 1989 elections, it provided the basis for a new government, formed in August, headed by a non-communist prime minister. Such a transition away from Communist Party rule had never happened before.

Throughout Eastern Europe many people, and regimes, saw the Polish events as signifying that change might be possible. The pattern of popular civil resistance, followed by official capitulation and transition to a new political system, was repeated within a few months in both East Germany and Czechoslovakia. In Bulgaria the change had more the character of a "palace revolution" – a revolution which could never have happened if the ice had not been broken in Poland.

The effect of civil resistance did not end there. Already in August 1989 the two-million-strong "Baltic Chain" demonstration showed the remarkable unity of the inhabitants of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in calling for independence from the Soviet Union, into which they had been forcibly incorporated 50 years earlier. Even the ruling communist parties of these three states approved the demonstrations – another sign of a fundamental shift in the communist world. By September 1991, all three states had regained their independence.

The culminating contribution of civil resistance to the end of European communism came in August 1991, when in response to a latter-day communist coup d'état against the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, citizens went on to the streets of Moscow to demonstrate their opposition. Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, famously stood atop a Soviet tank and urged people to resist. The coup's organisers were isolated, eventually backing down in face of a large but peaceful crowd.

How should this apparent triumph of "people power" be viewed today? It is easy to view these events as a triumph of politics from below: the people in the street prevailing over their rulers and their armed forces. However, more factors have to be brought in to explain the astonishingly peaceful end of European communism. Civil resistance operated in conjunction with force in a number of key ways. In Moscow in August 1991, the putschist soldiers reacted not only to the arguments of the demonstrators, but also to the clear indications that Russian state power would be used against them if they continued their rebellion.

Even the clearest cases of civil resistance against communist rule involve interesting ambiguities about the use of force. The leaders of these movements were not pacifists, and saw some uses of force as necessary. They would have been horrified at any suggestion that Nato should simply fold its tents. And after some of them came to power – for example, in Poland and the Czech Republic – they supported admission into Nato.

Apart from civil resistance, other crucial factors that ended communist rule in Europe included, of course, the huge role of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose principled stand against the use of force contributed greatly to the success of civil resistance. War played a part: perhaps change in Eastern Europe could never have been so complete, and so peaceful if the Soviet Union had not just emerged from a debilitating war in Afghanistan.

Do the number and complexity of factors involved mean that civil resistance was unimportant? Far from it. If you ask yourself a question – might communist rule have survived for much longer if it were not for the Solidarity struggle in Poland? – the answer will be almost certainly yes.

What these events do show is that the tradition of viewing civil resistance as in a category of its own needs to be modified. There has long been a tendency to view it as a phenomenon that is not sullied by any involvement in power politics, and can even transform international politics on its own. In fact, it operates in conjunction with other elements of power. The events of 1989 show the potential of this form of action – but also challenge us to rethink familiar assumptions about it.



Adam Roberts is the president of the British Academy and the co-editor, with Timothy Garton Ash, of 'Civil Resistance And Power Politics: The Experience Of Non-Violent Action From Gandhi To The Present', published by Oxford University press; www.britac.ac.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
 

Labour's Simon Danczuk is flirting with Nigel Farage, but will he answer his prayers and defect?

Matthew Norman
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick