Monday, October 19, 2009

Remodeling the World

Timothy Garton Ash has the first of what I expect to be an avalanche of articles commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. (Well, Tom Friedman mentioned it the other day, but his op-ed was sufficiently incoherent that I will spare you clicking to it.)

Garton Ash reviews a group of books on that subject, or, more broadly, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Twenty years is about what it takes for documents to become available and context to clarify, although an enormous event like the fall of a superpower, without the death throes of war, will take many decades to assess.

Garton Ash says he comes away from this group of books “dreaming of another book: the global, synthetic history of 1989 that remains to be written.” His article, and the books reviewed, are primarily about the Soviet satellites: those countries that nominally were independent, but were fully under the sway of the Soviet Union. And, of course, about Moscow and Washington and the major European powers. He recognizes that Gorbachev “mistakenly believed such changes would stop at the frontier of the Soviet Union, which he saw as a country, not an internal empire,” but doesn’t consider much of that.

This article is a good overview of what was happening outside the Soviet Union. But
the Soviet Politburo did not even discuss Germany on November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall would come down, but instead heard a panicky report from Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov about preparations for secession in the Baltic states and their possible effects in Ukraine and Russia. "I smell an overall collapse," said Ryzhkov.
The Baltic states were republics of the Soviet Union, and by November 1989 their Supreme Soviets, made up of Communist Party members, had elevated their laws above those of the Union, made their languages primary and pre-Soviet flags legal. Nationalist political parties were growing, and demonstrations had been taking place for two years. Pro-Soviet protestors had peacefully been turned back from occupying the Estonian Parliament building. That August, on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which Hitler and Stalin had agreed on the division of eastern Europe, Baltic citizens had formed a human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius, accompanied by their flags. All that was inside the Soviet Union. No wonder Ryzhkov was worried.

Garton Ash recognizes that the interplay between people and institutions is important:
The point about such moments of popular mobilization and civil resistance is that, given certain preexisting conditions (including what may be tiny opposition groups and isolated political prisoners like Havel or Aung San Suu Kyi), forms of societal organization such as Civic Forum—improvised, often chaotic, but nonetheless definitely organization—can emerge with extraordinary speed. This is a phenomenon that historians of 1989 should study more deeply, not deny. To claim that popular and opposition agency in East-Central Europe had nothing to do with the outcome is as absurd as it would be to claim that "the people" alone toppled communism and a nuclear-armed empire. As with all historical processes, agency and structure must be understood in a complex interplay.
This can be seen quite clearly in Estonia’s actions: demonstrations followed by legislative actions followed by demonstrations.

A few years back, I interviewed some of the people involved in Estonia’s actions during that time in the hopes of telling a story that could be important to Americans. As we moved toward war in Iraq, I greatly regretted that I had not managed to tell that story; the justifications for the Iraq war both distorted what had happened in the Soviet Union and missed the facts on the ground that might have been deduced from a better understanding of those events.

But I was faced with clear evidence of “hindsight bias,” as Garton Ash notes,
the tendency, that is, to regard actual historical outcomes as more probable than alternatives that seemed real at the time (for example, a Tiananmen-style crackdown in Central Europe). What actually happened looks as if it somehow had to happen.
Further complicating this inevitable bias was the fact that events had turned out well for my interviewees: they achieved their goals and were joyous about that.

My Estonian was not good enough to ferret out all the documents I would have wanted to consult to help counteract that hindsight bias, like issues of Eesti Elu (Estonian Life magazine) from the late 1980s.

I found it remarkable that the Communist members of those Supreme Soviets had voted the Soviet forms of government out of existence. Another good lesson for Americans, I thought: not all Communists are like their stereotypes.

But the book remains unwritten, although I still have the notes and recordings of those interviews. I would very much like for Marju Lauristen to write her book. She is the daughter of two of the most prominent Communists in the Soviet takeover of Estonia in the 1940s. She became one of the most prominent members of the Supreme Soviet converting Estonia to independence. She was in the parliament building when the pro-Soviet demonstrators tried to take it over and played a large part in keeping a riot from taking place. The movie “The Singing Revolution” has dramatic newsreel footage of this event.

A couple of resources in English:

Lauristen has an article in Baltic Media in Transition.

The most complete history of Estonia in the 1980s is Rein Taagepera’s Estonia: Return to Independence.

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