From Berlin to Cape Town to Tiananmen Square, what do the revolutions of 1989–90 mean a quarter century later?
November 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—a deeply symbolic moment in 1989–90, the year of revolutions that swept Central and Eastern Europe. And just before Christmas, the U.S. Congress dedicated a bust in the Capitol to Václav Havel, Czech playwright, dissident, and then president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.
We sat down with two political scientists and a historian from Santa Clara to talk about the meaning of that year of revolutions—and how what was happening in Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had profound effects from South Africa to China, as well as, ultimately, in the tiny country of El Salvador and throughout Central America. Below are excerpts from our conversations with these experts.
Jane Leftwich Curry
Professor of political science at SCU and the first Fulbright Distinguished Chair in East European Studies at the University of Warsaw. First visited Poland in the 1960s and has conducted research throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. She led Santa Clara University exchanges with Poland and the USSR (to Donetsk) in the late 1980s and is currently finishing a book on the mass demonstrations in the early 2000s in Ukraine, Georgia, and Serbia, based on 200 interviews she did there. Books include Central and East European Politics: From Communism to Democracy, Poland’s Journalists: Professionalism and Politics, and The Black Book of Polish Censorship.
Associate professor of history with extensive work in Russia and on Soviet society over the past three decades. Her books include The Soviet Dream World of Retail Trade and Consumption in the 1930s.
Peter Rožič, S.J.
A research fellow and special assistant to the president of Santa Clara University through February 2015. Scholarship focuses on transitional justice, democratization, East-Central Europe, and the former Soviet Union. A native of Slovenia, Fr. Rožič has been a member of the Society of Jesus since 1997 and founded the Slovenian branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service.
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE? THREE ANSWERS.
SCM: So why should people care now, 25 years later, and more specifically, why should people here in Santa Clara, and think of Santa Clara’s connections to the world, you know, why should that time matter to them?
Jane Curry: At Santa Clara we should particularly care about it because we had exchanges with the university in Donetsk and a university in Poland just as communism fell. The events that ended the Cold War were peaceful mass movements asking for democracy, asking for humane conditions, and standing up to regimes that were repressive. In a number of cases, churches and religious leaders played key roles not only in triggering the “revolutions” but also in ensuring reconciliation happened. And, leaders who had been in control for years gave up power peacefully and quickly everywhere but Romania and China.
Consider South Africa—apartheid had been the basis of that system, dividing human beings by the color of their skin for almost 50 years. For whites to give up control was an amazing leap of faith, when they were less than 10 percent of the population and held all of the economic, social, and political power, especially when so many of the other 90 percent had been repressed and jailed in horrendous conditions. Mandela and the other ANC leaders who had suffered years of imprisonment were the ones who sought compromise and reconciliation.
In Eastern Europe, there were many people who had sacrificed for a long time because they believed in ethical principles. They stood up to their governments in peaceful and creative ways no matter what the government did. The events of 1989 also taught me not to make assumptions about people on the basis of their roles. In Poland, top communist leaders deliberately sought a way to share power in 1989—and when they lost the elections, they resigned. The same thing happened in Hungary. They could do this when Mikhail Gorbachev himself began to make major changes in the Soviet Union because he realized the communist system did not work.
The story of the Berlin Wall coming down did not begin that November night. It began when weekly prayer groups in Leipzig had grown so large they turned into peaceful marches on the street. When it looked like the police would attack, the symphony director, the pastors of the churches, and other intellectuals worked together with the local Communist Party officials to make sure the police did not attack. When hundreds were able to march peacefully holding candles, it inspired others in East Germany until the leaders realized they had to give in.
One of the ironies is that the Jesuits in El Salvador were killed in November 1989 after the Berlin Wall had come down, making it clear communism was dead.
Then there is the tragedy of China. We don’t know how many thousands of people were killed in Tiananmen Square and towns outside of Beijing—but we know that it was thousands—for standing up in a square and calling for democracy. The divisions between East and West that had long fueled our military and defined our international relations essentially, at that moment, disappeared. Or so we thought.
Sadly, it seems, Putin is trying to recreate the Soviet Union. We’re faced with what to do—and with the question of where we failed in trying to aid democratization in Russia, Ukraine, and other places (including Hungary) and what we should do now in the face of Russia’s assault on Ukraine.
Amy Randall: I don’t think you can understand the 20th century without understanding the Soviet experiment, and then the communist systems set up not only in the Soviet Union, but also in China, Eastern Europe, and other places. And to not appreciate or understand the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall is to not really understand the significance of communism for the 20th century—in terms of world politics and the Cold War, the development of alternative models of modernity, domestic politics (for example, the rise of fascism in the interwar era or approaches to governance), economic structures (for example, the evolution of capitalism in the West in the post–World War II era and the expansion of European welfare states), cultural values, social systems, racism, nationalism, gender norms, and so much more. It is an understatement to say that the fall of the Berlin Wall—symbolizing popular liberation and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe (and ultimately the Soviet Union)—was a huge turning point in our global history.
Some people say that what happened in 1989 was revolution from below, that civil society emerged—that people, despite all odds, in the face of oppression, nonetheless managed to form networks and to begin to have conversations and express more dissenting opinions, to offer a more persistent critique. Even if this civil society didn’t articulate a unified or specific critique, it offered an alternative way of life for individuals. Spaces emerged that were not directly controlled by the Communist Party and the state, despite the continued existence of informants. And that, in and of itself, was important.
So if you want to understand how societies change or how governments collapse, thinking about what happened in 1989 is tremendously important. Some people downplay the importance of people power or civil society in the collapse of communism. I do think that’s only one aspect; I don’t want to overplay it, either. But if it you want to understand how people protest against an unjust and repressive system, and contribute to the possibility of major political changes, considering their role is critically important. Also, we can’t really understand what’s going on in Europe today without looking at what happens in 1989 and then 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Another thing that I would say is that it’s a mistake to think of Russia as a democracy in the 1990s, because I don’t think of Yeltsin as a democratic president—or that he was really supporting a democratic system. I was there for the election in 1996. The media were very much controlled by Yeltsin and his supporters. It was a very engineered election in some ways. We have this narrative of him being this incredible democrat sitting on the top of the tank, and I don’t think that’s quite true. It’s more complicated than that.
In the context of Gorbachev and his reforms, it’s not clear if Yeltsin was genuinely interested in a more democratic system, but he was an opportunist. He saw that he could be the leader of a more democratic system. We have a simple perception in the West of: Yeltsin, democrat; Putin, autocrat. It’s not so simple. In post-communist Russia, the state control of media only faded briefly, and there were already increasing restrictions under Yeltsin. To better understand Putin today, it is necessary to have a more nuanced understanding of Yeltsin’s political and economic order and Western interactions with Russia in the 1990s.
Peter Rožič: The current political situation in that region has deep implications for U.S. politics, for European politics, for the economy. Just take, for example, the sanctions that are now implemented against Russia, making its economy bleed. Such sanctions do not necessarily foster economic growth in the United States, either, let alone Europe. Germany has already taken a toll for implementing those sanctions, and it’s the same for other countries. This conflict may have roots in the revolutions of ’89, especially in cases where these revolutions were unfinished.
It’s very important to understand the way revolutions occur and the way the subsequent path leads toward either democracy or some other type of plutocracy—because not all revolutions will lead to democracy. The type of regime change may really matter even 25 years later on. Many people had high hopes and important dreams about the future in ’89, and some of them were realized—but not all of them.
Maybe the region was more stable before the regime change. Now you see a war going on in Ukraine. You have a dictator in Belarus. You have Central Asia that hasn’t moved much out of autocracy. You have Russia, where democracy was such a big promise, where there were hopes in ’91, ’92, ’93 with Yeltsin and others to move ahead—yet it didn’t occur, partly because they didn’t have lustration. They left many people from the former KGB—even though some of them were really high-quality politicians, some not—to continue to rule the country, and then manage the democracy they had, which now of course can no longer be called democracy. It’s not even a hybrid regime. It’s an authoritarian state, although the support that Putin has is still enormous.
SCM: Jane Curry, you mentioned the troubling politics in Hungary now. I think that’s something that’s not as well understood here.
Jane Curry: Well, in Hungary the economy has gotten worse and worse. And Hungarians were used to—even in the communist period—having about the best economy in Central and Eastern Europe. As the economy has declined, Hungarians have become more and more right-wing. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who at one time was one of the most daring dissident leaders, is now talking about how Hungary will no longer be a liberal democracy. It will be an illiberal democracy where the government will control the economy, the media, the courts, and what groups are legal and what are not.
In the Czech Republic you have a high degree of corruption, most recently by top leaders—which is a bit of black comedy, but it is also tragic in a country that has traditionally been seen as one of the most honest and productive of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe. In Slovakia you have a fairly right-wing leadership coming back. And, in some cities in East Germany, there are weekly demonstrations against Muslims, especially the immigrants.
Now, 25 years after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, it’s again the failures of the economy to give many a decent life that are turning people against their systems. Repression is coming back or never ended in most of the former Soviet Union. But, as the EuroMaidan demonstrations in the central square in Kyiv last winter demonstrated, people are still willing to stand up against repression and corruption no matter what the risk.
REVOLUTION AND RECONCILIATION
SCM: Peter Rožič, what about from the Jesuit perspective, from someone who cares deeply about social justice: What’s in play if we’re talking about the legacy of ’89?
Peter Rožič: Reconciliation is one of the key elements here. Just a few years ago, the Jesuits published one of their guiding documents, in which reconciliation appears as one of the main fields of work—not just political, also personal reconciliation, with the environment, or reconciling a nation with its own past. Helping people to come together after this huge experience of an oppressive regime is very important, because we see conflicts lingering among people who did not create them. These are sons or even grandchildren of people who fought and created these divisions, and yet they still live them.
BUILDING BRIDGES BETWEEN SLOVENIA AND SANTA CLARA
SCM: Peter, you’re returning to Slovenia in February. Do you have plans for collaborating with Santa Clara?
Peter Rožič: I came to United States with a desire to see how a democracy functions. For me it became clear that if you want to see a functioning democracy—imperfect as the U.S. democracy is—you have to go to United States, because it’s a big country and it’s very hard to maintain a big democracy such as this one. To see so much of civil society here is tremendously valuable. In East-Central Europe, civil society is still pretty weak.
What we did very recently was create a foundation, the American-Slovenian Education Foundation, to build bridges between United States and Slovenia in terms of faculty and student exchanges. That can help academic excellence. It can help character-building. And that’s very Jesuit. Good education helps reduce corruption if we help people to think critically—and to be aware of their own passions and desires and egoism, as well as their gifts and their many talents.
We had a student here from Slovenia in summer 2014 who worked at Center for Science, Technology, and Society for a few weeks as an intern, and I hope we’ll be able to send a few more to various departments. It was very enriching for that particular student to come here. On his way back to Slovenia, he wrote a book about how organizations, in civil society and elsewhere, should develop their vision. It’s very important, how to create, how to maintain vision, how to follow it.