Perestroika-and-Velvet-Revolution


leaders of the USSR, on the left Leonid Brezhnev, on the right: Mikhail Gorbatchev. 

Narrator
By 1982, The Soviet Marxist experiment  had 1982.Only an omnipresent police force controlled the citizen at home, and the Red Army was the linchpin of the Warsaw Pact. The Eastern Block counterpart to the NATO.  Why 1982? History likes to refer to symbols and  British media foreign correspondent Mark Frankland,  observed such a symbol: 

Mark Frankland
"When Leonid Brezhnev was buried at noon on 15 November 1982, the two men who were lowering down his coffin at the Kremlin Wall , let this coffin slip from its white fabric  into the grave. It fell on the frozen ground and a bang echoed loudly, not only to the ears of the privileged guests at the funeral but also to the ears of  a million TV viewers. The incident was inevitably seen as an omen. A country, where the power is so far from the reach of the common people, becomes superstitious about the great and mighty, and looks for clues about their fate, wherever they may be. Ninety years earlier, the people of St. Petersburg had shaken their heads because of the wife of Emperor Nicholas II appeared for the first time as future Empress during the funeral of her father-in-law Alexander III. and so they said:  'She came to us behind a coffin.' , The prophecy of  a tragic destiny for Russia's last Emperor and Empress was later  fulfilled." 

Narrator 
Boris Yeltsin, a party official had criticized Brezhnev in August 1982, The criticism was  restrained  and revolved around matters of principles. 

Mark Frankland: 
'At the next party congress in 1986, Boris Yeltsin admitted that lack of audacity and political immaturity let him bite his tongue  in attendance of  Brejnev."

Narrator: 
For three years after the death of Brezhnev, the regime seemed to be ailing as both his successors Yuri Andropov and Constantin Chernenko suffered from health problems and died in short succession. Mikhail Gorbatchev succeeded to Chernenko as a new leader of the Soviet Union. He was a younger and more dynamic leader. He appointed Boris Yeltsin to Communist Party chief in Russia.Despite this gesture, it seemed at first, that Gorbatchev was going to preserve the continuity of the Soviet empire. And so it came as a surprise that he initiated reforms that became known under the name of 'Perestroika' - a Communism with Human Face. He brought Soviet Imperialism to an end when he ordered back the Red Army from Afghanistan. He also showed interest for human rights when he granted amnesty to dissidents and released  Andrei Sakharov from exile, the most famous regime opponent and 1975 UN Peace recipient. 

In the Soviet Union's relationship with the rest of the Eastern Bloc, he wanted to give more autonomy to the satellite countries.  Relaxed relations with the West helped to get financial credit. For instance the West German government signed a credit of a billion Deutschmarks to help the DDR. Considering that in 1947, the Soviet Union had pressurized its allies such as Czechoslovakia to refuse aid from the US Marshall Plan, this was a giant step towards East-West cooperation. 

When in August 1988, twenty years after the Prague Spring Reforms that were crushed by Brezhnev's Soviet Union,  Carl Bringer, West-German correspondent interviewed the former reform-leader Alexander Dubcek in Prague. The mood seemed cautiously optimistic. 


Carl Bringer 
Do the Gorbachev reforms - economic reorganization (Perestroika) and openness (Glasnost) - have something in common with your own 1968 Prague Spring reform programme?

Alexander Dubček
The official Czechoslovak propaganda denies any similarity. If you compare the two programmes, Gorbachev's and mine, you will realize that they are ideologically very, very close. The Prague Spring and now  the USSR have the same needs: the reorganization of the economy and the democratization of society and party.

Carl Bringer 
Is the atmosphere  in Gorbachev's Soviet Union comparable to  Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring?

Alexander Dubček
The desire for democracy was stronger in our country twenty years ago, than it is now in the Soviet Union.

Carl Bringer 
Perestroika  is a serious dilemma for Eastern Bloc politicians. Their economies are completely strangled by bureaucracy. But they can afford  to cut down red tape?

Alexander Dubček
This dilemma does not exist. For there is no alternative to the new path. And it is now impossible to follow the old ways.

Carl Bringer 
Are the Eastern European countries ready to accept Perestroika and Glasnost?

Alexander Dubček
No, they are not ready yet. Even the developments in the Soviet Union show how difficult it is. After the disappointments of the last twenty years,  people have lost faith in the future, and it will be very difficult  to restore this belief in them. 

Carl Bringer 
Do you support Gorbachev's policies?

Alexander Dubček
I support him in every way.

Carl Bringer 
Question: What went through your mind when on August 20.  1968 you heard that the Warsaw Pact troops invaded your country?

Alexander Dubček
When I heard that, I was just in a meeting of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. And my first thought was that this was a tragedy with deep consequences.

Carl Bringer 
Question: Is there anything that you regret?

Alexander Dubček
 Even after the many years I have to say: No. There was pent-up tension, and had to be resolved. Problems that had built up in the country needed to be tackled. No, I don't regret anything, we were on the right track.

Carl Bringer 
What happened to you and your staff after the invasion?

Alexander Dubček
I am nor ready to talk about this issue right now. 

Carl Bringer 
How has your life been since then?

Alexander Dubček
 After 1968, I was treated better than the intellectuals who had been severely punished. I was allowed to work in my earlier profession as a mechanic. In the forestry department,  I was employed as a supervisor to other mechanics. In the last years before my retirement I worked as a machinist. I have a cabin by the lake and a small sailboat.

Carl Bringer 
Question: Are you restricted in your relationship with other people?

Alexander Dubček
I always had contact with my family and closest friends. But in the last 19 years myself and my family were constantly under surveilance. This only stopped when Gorbachev came on an official visit to my country.


Carl Bringer 
Question: Would you like to travel to the West?

Alexander Dubček
Then I might not be allowed back again. Therefore, I do not want to leave my country. It is my home.

 

Narrator: 

Mikhail Gorbatchev wanted to save the Eastern bloc alliance by giving it a human face. The relaxed relations with the West helped to credit. But it was already too late in the Warsaw Pact countries. The economic situation was ailing and an increasing number of people took part in demonstrations against their own KP-parties. Nothing stood in the way of an upheaval in those countries. In 1989, Hungary rehabilitated the murdered reform politician Imre Nagy. In Poland, General Jaruzelski organized partial-free elections which  the  Solidarity  Party won. In East Berlin, DDR, the Wall was opened by the customs officer Harald Jager when  than ten thousand protesters stood in front of checkpoint Bornholm Street - earlier that day, party official Grabowski had announced that the borders would be open but not precised the date. A week later, there were also demonstrations against the CSSR government and the police fired shot at people, the consternation was so great that a few days later the government resigned.  Dissident playwright and activist  Vaclav Havel was elected president and former reform-politician Alexander Dubcek became Prime Minister. In Bulgaria the regime of Todor Shikow also resigned. All these Warsaw Pact countries could now determine their own foreign policy and they all decided to take on peaceful relations with the West. That was the end of the Iron Curtain. People were allowed to travel from and to these states on a simple visa. 

The year 1989 ended in tragedy . In Romania , 1104 protesters died  before the old regime was could be overthrown. KP Nicolae Ceaucescu secretary was sentenced to death and executed . Reform-politician Ion Ilescu steered the country towards a more peaceful future . 
 As Estonia , Latvia and Lithuania , the constituent republics of the USSR at the Baltic demanded their independence , Gorbachev offered a new alliance . The Commonwealth of Independent States ( CIS ) . Those  former Soviet republics saw this as  a temporary solution , because they intended a community of equal states , and not a  union with the powerful Russia . For the  last time, the  hardline  Communists tried to get to power in Russia  and re-establish a Marxist dictatorship. In summer 1991 , they organized a coup and Gorbachev was held captive at his holiday home by the Black Sea . Boris Yeltsin , the freely elected Russian president and his supporters stood resolutely against the rebels. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was subsequently  dissolved , the coup plotters were arrested, put on trial and jailed. The freed Gorbachev stepped back as president of the CIS . Since then he has been a private peace ambassador. 
 In conclusion: one can say that the former Eastern Bloc States and the Soviet Union found themselves in  a similar situation as independent colonies  and their former colonial power. For a long time,  they had been exploited by the metropolis ( Russia ) but they had also fought on its side and shared its world-vision. The challenge for a post-communist world was to find a peaceful way of moving on. As the current situation in the Ukraine and Crimea shows, there are border issues . Also there are friction zones (Russia was not keen of seeing the Baltic states joining Nato as this meant a Western power shift towards the East), minority problems have to be solved (travellers in Romania are victims of racism, and the Islamic minorities (notably Chechens) on Russia's Asian border were discontented . 

 In October 1990 , the DDR united with the Federal Republic of Germany after border treaties were signed with Poland . Germany would give up any claims to terrorities beyond the DDR Eastern-fronteer (Oder-Neisse line) The Western States were initially against German reunification , but in the end were the East and West Germans were allowed to decide for  themselves .  And the 1990 democratically elected East German government, opted for re-unification. One of its officials is now the German chancellor Angela Merkel who recently that the DDR failed because human rights were not respected. 

On 1.1.1993 , the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated . Both were with Hungary and Poland first members of Visehgrad Group ( V4 ) , and in 2004 , joined the European Union all of these states and the states in the Baltic region . On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall , Gorbachev said that the situation between Europe and Russia is tense  and that East and West need to find peaceful solutions. 

The former Czech President Vaclav Havel spoke about a common European identity when he wrote an article in the year 2002. We shall end on this note. 

Vaclav Havel
"breathing harmony" (2002) 

the current state of the European integration process cannot be separated from the reflection of its effects.We keep on  referring  to a number of important names and historical treaties.  But  are we not deviating here from the fact that the will to Europe seems to be getting weaker, that it is diluted into headlines and soundbites? Is this desire for Europe at the end of the 20th century not set against the indifference of selfish Europeans? 

The laudable efforts by Europe to bring closer its farthest reaches (eg through the construction of roads with funds from the European Union) do not always produce the desired effect.  In the eyes of the locals, this useful per se event may wither into a mere publicity stunt. 

At the present time, we can hardly speak about  a truly profound integration of European states and people because it is accompanied by an inscrutable crisis of coexistence of people within  families, communities and states. The steadily decreasing ability to understand our needs as interactions, increasingly permeates European culture. Moreover, this happens in a paradoxical way: the more we articulate our closeness and try to deepen our relationships (eg through the acceleration and deepening of the integration process), the more, new spaces are created and those are shamefully ignored and shunned by the current European institutions. I do not in the slightest doubt the importance of economic integration. But for most of the time, we Europeans have especially be connected through our common spiritual and cultural roots. For example, the heart of  a Polish consumer will not necessarily be won through the consumption of Dutch butter. But a Polish student knows about Erasmus of Rotterdam and the Dutch painters. And he feels a connection to them. He is educated and education provides answers. He feels close to people   who lived centuries ago  and to landscapes that he has never seen. I am sure that the standardized petrol stations and supermarkets  do not produce the desirable feeling of  European solidarity. Sure, we can find arguments in favour and against this impression. However, it is undisputed that wherever we walk into a theater or an opera house in Europe, we find ourselves immediately in a familiar environment. Anywhere in Europe, when we walk into  a Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox church, the same spirit breathes to us. A visitor from the North Bohemian town of Litoměřice stands in Vienna in front of the Cathedral, dedicated to the same saint as the church in his hometown. And the supporters of most political parties find sister parties and related institutions anywhere in Europe . Surely, this offers them the possibility to achieve a better European awareness. The language differences only play a minor role.

Neither the churches nor the parties care about the forced internationalism that has dominated  Central and Eastern Europe for so long. Indeed, the awareness of shared interests and values can not be forced upon us. We should not weaken those, but actively support them.  The cultural and spiritual traditions will help us. Traditions have the strength to carry us forward. They belong neither in the museum nor in the waste bin, because they provide us with inspiration for a shared path. The project for a new Europe represents  European states and nations growing together, listening and talking to each other, because only then can we develop a cooperation  that will allow new spiritual and economic values to grow in (not just) the 21st century.



sources: 
The text spoken by the narrator  is from my own essay: 'Die Integration Osteuropas' 
from 1994 - translated from German  and edited in 2014 

the text spoken by Mark Frankland is from his book: The Sixth Continent (1990)


the Carl Bringer interview with Alexander Dubček was originally published in HORZU Magazine (Germany)  in August 1988 to advertise a programme about the 1968 Prague Spring 

The Vaclav Havel speech was published by Erhard Busek in 2001 (Vienna) 

All translations by me, Dominique Hoffman
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