Ukraine and Europe's Communist Memories

Putin is stirring up painful memories.

Given Vladimir Putin’s deep sense of anger over Russia’s humiliation by the West in the 1990s, can he possibly not be aware that his Crimean land grab and confrontation over Ukraine coincides with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet empire? And if so, what does he have planned for November, the month in 1989 when the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of Moscow’s grip on its Eastern and Central European vassal states? That question is making a lot of people across the Kremlin’s old domain, from Hungary to Estonia, very nervous.

Like Putin’s Crimean move, the end to forty years of Soviet control caught almost everyone by surprise—but in reverse, as everyone waited for the other shoe—the Soviet shoe—to drop. “Lurking in everybody’s mind was the historical precedent of the Prague spring,” Richard Barkley, who was U.S. ambassador in East Berlin at the time, recalled in an audio history program recently. “Whether or not finally Moscow would wake up and say ‘Oh my God, it’s out of control,’ and say reform and openness be damned we cannot allow this to get out of control.”

In Russian terms, reform and openness translated as perestroika and glasnost, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was focused on applying both in that order to his country’s seriously deteriorating economy and its sclerotic Communist government. When he came to power in 1985 he had abandoned the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, the policy of using military force if necessary to suppress opposition to Communist rule anywhere in the region. That left the regimes in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and elsewhere to tackle their own problems, with Gorbachev leading by example in Moscow, and exhorting them to seek new ways of gaining popular support.

History has gone, if not full circle, at least half way. As a result, Eastern Europe remembers 1989 with one eye on the achievements of the past, and another on a somewhat troubling future, with Russian troops once more on the move, and a Kremlin leader with predatory dreams of past glory.

Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader, would later claim that the Poland’s peaceful transition to democracy in 1989 was the catalyst that brought down Communism in Eastern Europe. In the first competitive elections in Eastern Europe since before World War II, Solidarity made widespread gains, forcing the Communists to share power with the first non-Communist government within the Soviet bloc since 1948. That election in effect changed the political system. “After Poland’s victory the whole of Central and Eastern Europe followed suit and then the Soviet Union fell apart and Germany was reunited…changes snowballed across the Communist bloc in Europe,” Walesa said in a recent interview to a Polish newspaper.

But the rot really set in when the Berlin Wall became “irrelevant,” as the East Berlin U.S. embassy reported to Washington. “East Germany was the gem in the imperial crown of the Soviet Union,” said Richard Barkley. “That it would be on the cusp of a true radical movement was barely believable.” It was also where Vladimir Putin operated as a major in the KGB at about the same time.

In November 1989, the East German spokesman Guenther Schabowski announced in a historic press conference that in response to demands for freedom to travel East Germans could get exit visas quickly, and the Berlin Wall was open. Crowds immediately swarmed to the crossing points into West Berlin like lemmings sweeping towards the sea; some danced on the wall and even began to tear it down. East German border guards at first tried to check visas, but overwhelmed by the crowds they gave up and just stood by and watched: they had had orders not to shoot.

There were more than half a million Soviet troops and their dependents stationed in East Germany, but not one Russian soldier appeared on the streets. With no orders to intervene, the entire Soviet force, with its 4,200 tanks, 3,600 artillery pieces, and an unknown number of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles remained in their barracks and bases—of which there were 777 throughout the country, with the greatest concentration on the East-West German border.

As the process of integrating the two Germanys unfolded, the new German government began negotiating the withdrawal of Soviet troops from East Germany, and the gradual pullout began in 1991 by sea, airlifts and train across Europe. But the last units didn’t depart for Russia until three years later, in September 1994. By that time, East Germany had adopted the German Deutschmark as its new currency, and Russian soldiers faced the added humiliation of being unable to exchange their ruble pay as they had in the past; and many began selling equipment and items from their uniforms for spending money.

What the New York Times at the time called “the biggest pullout by any army not defeated in battle,” was brought to a close with a send-off parade by Soviet troops through the main streets of the German capital, watched by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Russian President Boris Yeltsin and a very sparse crowd. Yeltsin pointedly recalled how the Soviet advance to Berlin in World War II had dealt the final blow to the Nazi regime. Kohl was conciliatory, saying “Germany and Russia now stand at the beginning of a new period of cooperation,” and that “security and prosperity in Europe cannot be achieved without Russia’s close cooperation.” If it wasn’t a defeat, it was still a humiliation, and one that Putin and many Russians like him have never forgotten.