The Road from Berlin in 1989 to America Today

(Photo by Claudio Schwarz via Unsplash)



In November 1989, the world watched with disbelief as the Berlin Wall fell. In America, we followed one breathless report after another about the end of communism, and we speculated about the rise of democracy in Eastern Europe and perhaps even the Soviet Union. Fortified by an attitude of triumphalism and optimism, the United States soon launched a massive effort to build democracy and create a new liberal economic order in the Soviet bloc.

This continued for the next several years, but soon other unanticipated consequences began to emerge. In many cases these were ominous and stood in striking contrast to expectations of the heady days of November 1989. Today these distressing developments have shaped our world to such a degree that the fall of the Wall seems to be just a bit player in a much larger drama.

November is an appropriate time of the year to reflect on what transpired in Berlin in 1989 and the events that followed. For decades, it was on November 7 that the USSR and Eastern Europe celebrated the “Great October Socialist Revolution.”¹ Soviet leaders viewed this event in 1917 as the most important happening in the twentieth century if not in world history, and its observance was by far the country’s most important public holiday. I witnessed firsthand the fervor with which it was celebrated when I was in Moscow on a couple of occasions in the 1970s and 1980s and saw how the official and unofficial celebrations on November 7 dwarfed New Year’s Day, Lenin’s birthday, and everything else on the Soviet calendar.

However, by the late 1980s these festivities were beginning to flag, and with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 they largely disappeared. In 1995, President Boris Yeltsin tried to repurpose November 7 to commemorate the liberation of Moscow from the Polish-Lithuanian Army in 1612, but no one seemed to notice. Then in 1996, it was given the vapid title “Day of Accord and Reconciliation.” This did not save it, though, and observance of it essentially disappeared when Russians discovered that it was not a paid day off from work. Today a few scattered groups of Communist Party members celebrate the day, but Russia has moved on to May 9 as the supreme national holiday. That is the day that Russia celebrates the victory over fascism that ended the Great Patriotic War in 1945, an achievement that now stands at the core of Russian national identity. This shift from November 7 to May 9 is just one reflection of a larger transition away from communist internationalism to Russian nationalism as the county’s defining ideology, which is part of the story of what happened in the former Soviet bloc and beyond.

It is impossible to draw a direct causal link from 1989 to all that came in its wake, but by making the unthinkable thinkable, the fall of the Berlin Wall set off a much larger cascade of events. To be sure, criticism and reform efforts were already underway in Moscow to encourage openness and economic restructuring (“glasnost’” and “perestroika”), but virtually no one could believe the fall of the Berlin Wall, let alone the collapse of the Soviet Union, was possible. Initial attempts to make sense of these events occurred against a background of such incredulity that some analysts suggested it was all a feint by the Kremlin to get the West to let its guard down. Some even denied that a real upheaval had occurred at all. For many people in Eastern Europe and the USSR, though, 1989 was the moment they began to imagine a future that differed radically from anything they previously deemed possible.

In the following decades, the story of the collapse of the Berlin Wall has been told and retold from many angles. It has been attributed to massive corruption, economic stagnation, defeat in Afghanistan, and endemic cynicism. And earlier signs of trouble were already emerging in the form of local uprisings in places like Poland, Lithuania, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. But in Russia, the story focused on a particular culprit, Mikhail Gorbachev. This comes as a surprise to most Americans who remember “Gorby” as a courageous and personable leader who tried to negotiate an end to the nuclear arms race with Ronald Reagan in 1986 and pushed the Soviet Union to abandon its most oppressive policies in Eastern Europe and at home. But in the view of most Russians, he is dismissed, even despised as a weak and ineffectual leader whose policies led to disaster. As is the case with collective memory in general, this involves impatience with ambiguity and other forms of simplification, but partly for those very reasons, the story of Gorbachev remains firmly in place, making it possible to channel anger, disappointment, and humiliation toward a single individual.

Like many other western observers, I believe that Gorbachev’s leadership in the 1980s helped prevent the sort of massive armed conflict that often follows the collapse of an empire. In this case, the conflict could have even involved nuclear weapons. But again, this is not the view most Russians have about him. For them, Gorbachev was a clueless and weak leader who destroyed the USSR as a world power and whose culpability includes the upheaval in Berlin in 1989. Any serious account of what happened in Berlin requires more nuance than Gorbachev detractors would have it, but for them, it largely boils down to a statement he made a month before the fall of the Wall: “Those being late will be punished by history.” This was actually something he said repeatedly in his protracted struggles with conservative forces at home, but when he said it to East German leader Erich Honecker, it was a warning, a call to launch liberalizing reforms before it was too late. In essence, he was telling Honecker time was running out if he did not liberalize his regime’s policies. This also came with the threat that Soviet forces would no longer intervene to prop up East Germany in the face of popular movements against its oppressive leaders.

Gorbachev was egged on by enthusiastic crowds in Berlin that met him in 1989 chanting, “Gorby! Gorby!” But all along, he knew his actions were unorthodox and risky and were bound to set off alarm bells for leaders across Eastern Europe and at home—which was precisely what happened. From today’s perspective, it is difficult to recall both the excitement and anxiety of the times in which this was playing out. Large demonstrations against oppressive regimes were occurring daily and posed threats to several dictators. Meanwhile, Gorbachev was in contact with Communist Party leaders across the Soviet bloc, trying to cajole them to recognize the need for liberal change, and part of his message was that any repetition of the brutal suppression the Kremlin had used in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 was not in the offing. Over the following months, mass demonstrations and strikes forced communist governments to step down and be replaced by others in search of democratic change. To add to these ominous developments ethno-national conflicts broke out in the Caucasus.

All this culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991. The fact that Gorbachev failed to prevent this in a society with a long history of brutal oppression dumbfounded observers everywhere. A large part of his failure stemmed from his naïve belief in the possibility of creating a new, more humane Communist Party. But it also reflected a perfect storm of other forces. In particular, the Soviet leadership failed to appreciate the power of what Isaiah Berlin called the “bent twig” of nationalism in places like Georgia, Lithuania, and Estonia. This was a force that was destined to snap back into place sooner or later. Whatever its causes, the fact that this collapse occurred with only a minimum of violence is worth special note, if not admiration, and is largely overlooked in today’s Russia. Instead, Gorbachev continues to be despised there as the leader, if not traitor, who let the country’s destiny as a great power slip away.

Most of this is little appreciated in America, where Gorbachev is largely forgotten, not because of a tarnished reputation, but due to our short attention span and memory, especially for foreign events. But elsewhere, including some other places far from Moscow, Gorbachev is very well remembered. In particular, I have in mind China, which may come as a surprise to most Americans. In Beijing, however, Gorbachev’s actions have been examined endlessly as a case study of how states and entire societies can collapse if they do not have a strong, even brutal leader at the helm. China shares with Russia deep-seated fears of social upheaval and the catastrophic consequences that follow. In both places, national memory of such episodes extends back centuries, and in both places, the pantheon of heroic leaders includes figures who brutally crushed any hint of rebellion. The upshot is that in China, the story of Gorbachev’s failure stands out as a cautionary tale about the consequences of ineptitude and weakness in a leader. There are enormous differences between Russia and China, but today this tale resonates as clearly with Chinese leaders as it does with Russians.

One of the ironies of this is that leaders and intellectuals in both Russia and China are now discussing parallels between the demise of the Soviet Union a few decades ago and the situation in the United States today, and they warn of a similar catastrophic outcome for America if we fail to follow an autocratic path similar to theirs. Sometimes, their warnings come in the form of what might be called advice from a concerned friend. Consider a January 2021 column titled the “World recoils in horror at alarm sounded by Capitol riots”² that appeared in the Global Times, a nationalistic paper in China. The columnist, Xin Qiang, draws on words from Gorbachev to support his own claims about where America is headed. Writing about the January 6 riot, he notes that Gorbachev warned that “the events called into question the US’ continued existence as a nation,” and he goes on to write that “some media outlets” have reported that Gorbachev believes the United States could follow the path of the USSR to disintegration.

Of course, such alarmist assessments constitute praise for the supposed far-sighted vision of the Chinese Communist Party and its infallibility in deciding to crack down on dissent at home. For this reason, there is a tendency for American analysts to dismiss such commentaries as little more than self-serving propaganda. But in 2021 we live in a world where it is no longer so easy to laugh off warnings coming from nationalistic Chinese media about the future of America. What makes this especially ironic is that a Chinese columnist is drawing on the words of a former Soviet Communist leader to make his case.

Furthermore, dire warnings about America’s problems are not just coming from China and Russia. Thoughtful and well-informed Westerners also are asking, “Could there really be parallels between the twilight of the Soviet Union and America’s current trajectory?” In the UK, for example, David Miliband, the former Member of Parliament and British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has asked a similar question. And in the United States, Fiona Hill, a distinguished Russia watcher at the Brookings Institution, outlines the ominous parallels in her powerful new volume There Is Nothing for You Here. At one point in her argument, she pithily suggests that America’s “Ghost of Christmas Future” might be seen in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1989, such a vision was completely unimaginable for almost everyone in the United States and elsewhere. In retrospect, however, some of the advice we were so busy giving others on how to run a democracy might have been better applied at home. The self-confidence, if not hubris, with which we gave out that advice seems to have blinded us to impending challenges we did not—or were unwilling—to see. As a result, we find ourselves in the ironic position of no longer being able to laugh off Russian and Chinese advice about how to avoid a collapse like that experienced by the Soviet Union. In 1989, if we had seen this strange course of events unfolding ahead of us, could we have addressed impending problems of our own? Or will the events that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago remain an episode in human history that no one seems to understand, let alone control? We will know more in another thirty years.


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¹ In 1918 Soviet authorities changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one, making some October dates fall in November.



James V. Wertsch

James V. Wertsch studies language, thought, and culture, with a special focus on national memory and narratives. His publications include Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind (Harvard University Press, 1985), Voices of the Mind (Harvard University Press, 1991), Mind as Action (Oxford University Press, 1998), Voices of Collective Remembering (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and How Nations Remember (Oxford University Press, 2021), as well as edited volumes with Cambridge University Press on Vygotsky and memory studies. After finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, Wertsch was a postdoctoral fellow at the USSR Academy of Sciences and Moscow State University, where he studied with the neuropsychologist Alexander R. Luria. He has held faculty positions at Northwestern University, the University of California, San Diego, Clark University, and Washington University in St. Louis, where he has also been Vice Chancellor for International Affairs. Wertsch is a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Russian Academy of Education, and he holds honorary degrees from Linköping University and the University of Oslo. He is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and has served as a guest professor at the University of Oslo in Norway, Tsinghua University in Beijing, and at Fudan University in Shanghai.