Conference reports After the “German question”: A “Russian question” in Europe remains

Södertörn University held a conference on the legacies of 1989, “Recasting the Peaceful Revolution”. The predominating perspective during the entire conference: the fall of communism was the result of popular pressure and protest from below, not of great-power politics. Much was to be celebrated the automn of 2009.

Published on on February 24, 2010

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Nobody wanted the reunification of the European continent in 1989.” Hungarian analyst László Bohri delivered this harsh first assessment during a panel debate at Södertörn University, in connection with the Södertörn conference on the legacies of 1989, “Recasting the Peaceful Revolution”. He sharpened his tone still more: “The liberation of Eastern Europe was in conflict with the original idea of perestroika. And perestroika was conceived to save the Soviet Union.” Bohri wanted to remind us that continental stability was more important to the West than national liberation. Control of Eastern Europe stabilized the continent, and the West was afraid that Michail Gorbachev was losing control. The West feared that all of Europe would degenerate, as Yugoslavia later did. Bohri’s Czech fellow panellist, Peter Brod, took the argument even further: “In the 1970s, communism had been winning in Africa and Vietnam. The only hope in the West was that containment would still be efficient in Europe.” And then he turned the comment around: “Still, it happened. Even today we do not understand what was achieved.”

Even if the panel topic — “How We Knocked Down the Wall” — may not have been totally proper, it reflected a perspective that predominated during the entire conference: the fall of communism was the result of popular pressure and protest from below, not of great-power politics.

Those of us who were around in the 1960s, and observed what happened then, were suddenly, paradoxically, reminded of that time’s Marxist — or even Maoist — rhetoric: the liberation of the working class is the result of the struggle of the working class alone. Substitute class for people. And wir sind das Volk. If one focuses on popular demands and power, Poland obviously comes to mind first — even more so than the fall of the Wall. But the events of November 9 had an overwhelming symbolic and illustrative power, as concrete was literally crushed and masses of people moved forward joyfully. “The Wall is a problem for Poles”, Tomasz Jastrun, Polish poet-turneddiplomat, remarked during the panel discussion. “We were first but we have no better symbol.” Poland’s heroic pictures of the Solidarity strikes and the demonstrations in

Gdansk predates the images of the Wall by almost a decade. As was to be expected; only veteran Swedish diplomat Örjan Berner defended conventional wisdom during the conference days:

“The development in the Soviet Union was absolutely decisive”, he said bluntly, speaking at a seminar for Swedish witnesses to the events of 1989, which had preceded the international conference at Södertörn. “Gorbachev’s decision not to support the GDR regime in Central Europe sealed the fate of the GDR.”

In any case, Michail Gorbachev will go down in history as a hero of retreat. Regardless of his original intentions or miscalculations, he set a process in motion that he realized was irreversible. And he decided against using force in an attempt to stop it. So Europe became free and was, eventually — at least to a large part — unified within the EU. But Russia considers itself defeated. It is a frightening fact that Russia — and particularly the current Russian leadership — still, two decades later, looks back on these events as a defeat. And — to allow a heretical, cynical comment that I do not like to utter — maybe contemporary Western leaders were right in fearing that the liberation of the European continent would lead to continental instability.

There was much to celebrate in the autumn of 2009. But the “Russian question” is still there, and it is a peculiar and discouraging twist of history that we felt more at ease with the leaders in Moscow 20 years ago than we do with their successors today. ≈