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

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home