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Fall of the Berlin Wall eyewitness: An accidental explosion of freedom

A journalist who witnessed the events of 1989 from a Soviet perspective looks back on a surreal period when attempts at moderate reform quickly an uncontrollable momentum of their own

Patrick Cockburn
Monday 27 October 2014 23:49 GMT
The Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, watched by his wife Raisa, right, kisses his East German counterpart Erich Honecker in East Berlin in October 1989
The Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, watched by his wife Raisa, right, kisses his East German counterpart Erich Honecker in East Berlin in October 1989 (AP)

I went to Moscow as a correspondent in 1984, just as the Brezhnev generation of leaders was beginning to die off or be replaced. There was nothing to suggest that Soviet control of Eastern Europe had only another five years to run and that the Soviet Union itself would disintegrate a few years later.

In retrospect, it might seem self-evident that by seeking to reform the centralised, militarised and authoritarian Soviet state, the General Secretary of the Communist Party (CPSU), Mikhail Gorbachev, was sawing through the branch on which he and the party were sitting. But it was not obvious at the time when the most striking feature of the Soviet Union was its political and military strength and not its sclerotic leadership. In a sense, the Soviet Union had been too successful for its own good. Lenin, Stalin and their successors had built a powerful military and industrial state machine in a beleaguered peasant country. Through a mixture of ideological fanaticism and physical coercion, they had achieved their aim, defeating the Nazis and rivalling the US as a super-power.

But the Soviet Union paid a price for creating a system that was geared for concentrating all resources for coping with emergencies, but not for providing for day-to-day needs. Victory in the Second World War left Moscow in control of Eastern Europe, but its rule could continue only through the use or threat of military force. Once this threat disappeared, it was highly probable that Communist governments would disappear, from Berlin to Bucharest. Once Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985, subsequent events such as the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union three years later have a feeling of inevitability about them, which this is surely a misreading of what actually happened.

The Soviet Union in 1984 was not in a state of crisis, though it did have a moribund feel to it. This was symbolised by the leader of the day, Konstantin Chernenko, once an aide to Leonid Brezhnev and now white-haired and gasping for breath because of his emphysema. He spent much of his time resting in his dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, though he did once make a macabre appearance on television. He was shown clutching the back of a chair to stand upright as he received a delegation. The delegation leader offered him a bunch of red flowers and twice he visibly strained as he tried to raise his right hand from the chair to take the bouquet, but the effort was too much and his hand fell back.

A few weeks later, Chernenko was dead and Gorbachev took over the leadership. For the next three years, much of my time was spent writing articles trying to persuade sceptical editors and readers that something significant and new was happening in the Soviet Union. Academic and diplomatic Kremlinologists largely discounted changes, often seeing developments in Moscow as a cunning PR ploy designed to deceive journalists like myself or, more persuasively, a doomed attempt to rescue an ossified system. In 1983, Lieutenant-General William Odom, the head of the US National Security Agency, and a leading expert on the Soviet Union, said that he “expected sound and fury about domestic reform accompanied by little actual change”.

In the first years of Gorbachev there was a certain of truth in this, but the “sound and fury” was very revealing as the reformers tried to use glasnost – openness – to stir up the political system and discredit their opponents by exposing various scandals. Revelations were sometimes trivial but always fascinating, such as a newspaper report that Soviet teeth were in such bad repair because the man in charge of dental policy, who had held his job for decades, was a specialist in gum disease and had no interest in teeth. Who were the people I could see milling about regardless of weather conditions on a little triangle of land called Smolensk Square between the Soviet foreign ministry and the Beograd Hotel? It turned out that they were black-marketeers and prostitutes who were taking advantage of the fact that the square was on the intersection of two police districts, both of which disclaimed responsibility for what went on there.

Moral puritanism was in the air, and a notable feature of it was Gorbachev’s campaign against excessive drinking that raised the price of alcohol and made it more difficult to obtain. High above Mayakovsky Square in the centre of Moscow, I saw a flashing electric sign carrying the message: “A glass of mandarin juice a day contains all the vitamin C an adult needs.” Down below in the street, a long queue of people waited in the driving snow for a drink shop to open. Criminals took over the alcohol trade just as at the time of Prohibition in the US, making me wonder about the realism of the highly principled people trying to reform the Soviet Union.

For all the talk about greater openness, the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine in 1986 was only grudgingly admitted as a radioactive cloud spread to Scandinavia and the disaster became undeniable. The accident appeared at home and abroad as a prime example of criminal sloppiness protected by obsessive secrecy and all too typical of the Soviet system. We should, perhaps, have been more careful about seeing such disasters as validating stereotypes. Twenty-five years later, when an accident happened at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, following the tsunami in 2011, the supposedly super-efficient Japanese politicians and technicians proved to be almost as incompetent and secretive as their Soviet counterparts.

It was never clear to me what Gorbachev and those around him were aiming to achieve. Change was being driven by the Communist Party but with the apparent purpose of putting itself largely out of business as the institution which monopolised power. It had been an oppressive administrative apparatus for so long that it was wholly unsuited to competing with other political parties in an election. Nor was there an obvious alternative to the party, since potential rivals had long been eliminated – other than predatory gangs and networks looking for power and money.

Authoritarian governments that have ruled for decades without seeking democratic endorsement are unlikely to fare very well when they do start to take public opinion into account. Furthermore, governments which have long claimed credit for anything good happening to their people not surprisingly get blamed by them in the long run for everything bad. This was noticeable not just in Russia in the late 1980s but during the Arab Spring of 2011, when opponents of the status quo genuinely believed their own demonisation of the old regime as responsible for all of the ills of society.

Gorbachev and the reformers had great difficulty getting reform under way, but once they did so the pace and direction of change became uncontrollable. The Cold War had never really ended and the priority of the West was to see an end to the Soviet Union as a political and social rival. In later years, Russian leaders complained that the West failed to fulfil promises made in the early 1990s that there would be no expansion of Nato further east. But once the Russians had withdrawn their armies from Eastern Europe, they had little leverage left.

What is most striking about the fall of Communism, a movement that had convulsed the world and battled for power in state after state, is that so few fought for it at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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