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: Direct Mail Machine Operative

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an i...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: a duchess by any other name is just wrong

Guy Keleny
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US