This week The Record columnist Hal Colebatch continues his special four-part series looking back on the collapse of what once seemed to be a monolithic and global threat to societies everywhere.
Gorbachev introduced his wife to the Pope with the words: “Raisa Maximova, I have the honour to introduce the highest moral authority of Earth.” Coming from the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – the position occupied previously by Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev, it was as awesome, world-changing statement: an admission that atheistic communism had been defeated – Lenin has said there was no morality except what advanced communism.
Yet it is hard to know how fully Gorbachev understood that the Pope was not seeking to play a political game in any conventional sense. (Gorbachev’s pronouncements about his own religious beliefs remain somewhat ambiguous).
Meanwhile another Communist Party apparachik, Boris Yeltsin, was forming a political opposition. The Communist Party’s complete, mafia-like control of the Soviet Union was guaranteed by a single article of the Constitution, which effectively nullified all the rest of that otherwise democratic-sounding document.
An opposition was simply incompatible with continued Communist rule and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Lending his prestige to sweeping reform also was Russia’s greatest scientist, Andrei Sakarov, the voice of scientific and technological civilisation, the man who might have harnessed fusion energy for peaceful purposes, and from exile its greatest writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (pictured, centre of page) – not by any means the first, but the greatest and most comprehensive and effective chronicler of the Gulag – and others whose work had exposed the communist system as a criminal organisation.
A few years previously, in Australia, the Czech-Jewish political philosopher Frank Knopfelmacher had written that either Solzhenitsyn or the Soviet Union would have to go. The world could not accommodate both. His words had been true, but looking at the great tyrant State and the lone ex-inmate of the Gulag and the cancer ward, it would probably not have been a difficult matter to lay a bet on which one it was going to be.
Even many within the party were bcoming aware that the system was so far gone – not only in mass-murder and terror, which was what it had been in Stalin’s time, but also now in sheer corruption and irrationality – that it could not be reformed a little.
Gorbachev would later tell Reagan and Bush that he was pulling troops out of Eastern Europe because: “I need to. I’m doing this because there’s a revolution taking place in my country. I started it. And they all applauded me when I started it in 1986, and now they don’t like it very much, but there’s going to be a revolution nonetheless.”
Gorbachev and the Pope, the President and the Prime Minister developed a certain rapport and mutual respect. Gorbachev stated: “Surely, God on high has not refused to give us enough wisdom to find ways to bring us an improvement… in relations between the two great nations on earth.”
But this feeling that they might be dealing with a very new kind of Soviet leader did not deflect the new political leaders of the West from their course.
In Berlin on 12 June, 1987, Ronald Reagan, standing before the Berlin Wall and despite the advice of his more cautions or defeatist aides, threw out the challenge: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (Today, a piece of the Berlin Wall stands in the garden of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library). Who would have foreseen that at Ronald Reagan’s funeral service it would be Mikhail Gorbachev, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who would sit beside Nancy Reagan?
In February, 1988, Gorbachev announced the full withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Also during 1988, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine, and allow the Eastern bloc nations to freely determine their own internal affairs. This was jokingly dubbed the “Sinatra Doctrine “by Gorbachev’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov , (ie: “I did it my way.”)
The East European countries were quick to take Gorbachev at his word. Basically, and to the dismay of some Western admirers of Communism, the moment the East European countries were freed of the threat of Soviet tanks, Communism was kicked out.
In Hungary the reformists who had gradually taken control of the government quietly began to privatise the economy, even ahead of the wave of privatisation which would sweep the non-Communist world.
From May 1989 the Hungarian Government began to dismantle the Iron Curtin. From September 1989 it allowed East Germans to use it as an escape-route to the West and 30,000 did so (creating not only a crisis in relations with the East German regime but giving the Hungarian people, for better or worse, thousands of abandoned Trabant cars). The Baltic States rose. And the guillotine came down faster.
The Red Army began to pull out of Eastern Europe. Nobody now believed that the East European Communist regimes would survive a week without Russian tanks to back them. But it seems an unspoken compact was reached: if the leaders of the Communist satellites did not hang from lamp-posts, the Soviet Union would not intervene. Hungary, Poland, and then the die-hard Stalinist regimes of East Germany and Czechoslovakia crashed. In the days of the Vietnam War, some of us who supported the war had been ridiculed for, among other things, evoking the domino theory. Now we saw the dominoes crashing down indeed, but not the way we had feared.
In East Berlin it had, not long before, been death even to approach the Berlin Wall. Between 100 and 200 people had been shot trying to scale it. Countless others had died in attempts to escape across the main East German border.
Now, on 9 November, 1989, after several weeks of unrest, crowds stormed the Wall and began to destroy it with hammers, picks and their bare hands. Totalitarianism’s teeth had been kicked out. As the American writer P. J. O’Rourke told it:
“The East German border guards didn’t interfere. Instead they came up to openings in the Wall and made V signs and posed for photographs. One of them even stuck his hand through and asked would somebody please give him a piece of concrete to keep as a souvenir.
“The hand of that border guard – that disembodied, palm-up, begging hand … I looked at that and began to cry.
“I didn’t really understand before that moment, I didn’t realise until just then – we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against life-hating, soul-destroying, slavish Communism – which had shaped the world’s politics this whole wretched century – was over …
“All the people who’d been sent to gulags, who’d been crushed in the streets of Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, the soldiers who’d died in Korea and my friends and classmates who’d been killed in Vietnam – it meant something now. All the treasure we in America had poured into guns, planes, Star Wars and all the terrifying A-bombs we’d had to build and keep – it wasn’t for nothing.”
In Czechoslovakia too the Church threw its weight behind the resistance: Cardinal Tomasek told Catholics: “In this hour of destiny for our country, not a single one of you may stand apart … Religious liberty cannot be seperated from other human rights, freedom is indivisible.” Young and old responded spontaneously. Even in this apparently brutalised society, previously under one of the worst remaining communist regimes, the revolution was carried out in a completely peaceful way. But there was no compromise with the rotten remnants of what President Reagan, not long before, had been criticised for calling the “evil Empire”: Zdenek Mlynar, an associate of Dubcek’s “Prague Spring,” spoke of “reforming” communism. The crowd did not attack or lynch him but simply whistled him off the stage.
In Prague vast crowds surged into Wenceslas Square to cheer the new President, Vaclav Havel, released from a concentration camp, and beside him Alexander Dubcek, leader of the reform attempts which had been crushed by Soviet tanks in 1968.
There were people in the West who had wept to hear the news of Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968 who now wept again. Gorbachev began to face the Soviet Union’s own past – the massacre of Polish Army officers in World War II was admitted, Soviet archives were opened to scholars and historians, mass graves began to be exposed. The bones of the murdered Imperial Family would be recovered for solemn and religious reburial.