Ukraine and Europe's Communist Memories

April 11, 2014 Topic: HistorySociety Region: Eastern EuropeEurope

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.

East European reformists were disappointed when the West failed to reward their courage with much needed financial aid, at least to the level of their expectations. “Like many people in Poland, I was hoping at some point for something along the lines of the Marshall Plan, but nothing like that happened,” Poland’s first non-Communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, said in an interview with a Polish newspaper shortly before his death in 2013. “We only managed to secure, after difficult negotiations, a reduction of Poland’s foreign debt.” Western development funds “did not arrive until 2004, when Poland joined the European Union.” Lech Walesa told the same paper that after the Berlin Wall came down, “the West left us to our own devices even though we were prepared for neither democracy nor a market economy. We were missing almost everything needed to carry out effective reforms in Poland.”

In reality, there was no shortage of advice and guidance - generally through an army of NGOs. Elena Poptodorova, currently Bulgaria’s ambassador to Washington, recalled how Bulgarians received a lot of expert assistance from the United States and Europe.”The ABC of parliamentary structure was actually greatly assisted by experts,” she said. “And, of course, we had economic experts: the World Bank was there.”

The Czechs called the dramatic transition to democracy the “Velvet Revolution,” denoting the absence of violence, and the term quickly acquired a broader reference to Communism’s retreat in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. A seismic crack had opened in Europe’s historical surface with Communist rule on one side and democracy on the other. But the overshadowing question was how to deal with the past while at the same time coping with the challenge of creating a democratic state.

What ultimately focused the minds of East Europeans was the tempting prospect of joining the European Union (then still the European Economic Community) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In June 1993, the European Union decided that the Eastern and Central European states (at this point Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria) could become members of the EEC—provided that they fulfilled three conditions: 1. The candidate countries had to achieve stable institutions that guaranteed democracy, legality, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; 2. They had a working, competitive market economy; and 3. They were capable of accepting membership responsibilities—political, economic, and monetary. These criteria—the so-called Copenhagen conditions or avis communautaire—were and remain the “open sesame” for any European country aspiring to join the European Union.

East Europeans were forced to take action to consolidate their gains and demonstrate that democracy was there to stay. In 1991, the new Czechoslovak government had adopted a Lustration Code, a screening process based on secret security and police files. Retribution focused on those who had brought suffering to fellow citizens, either as members of the security apparatus, or had collaborated with it, for example informing on friends, neighbors or even relations.

Clearance under the Lustration Code (from the Latin lustratio, meaning purification by sacrifice) was required to retain or obtain a position in a wide range of occupations from the bureaucracy, security, and the military to journalism and academia. The actual files remained secret until much later when they were finally opened to the public; but special law officers were authorized to peruse them and issue clearance documents depending on what was discovered.

Hungary followed suit in 1994. Twelve thousand high-ranking or middle-level officials were subjected to the official screening . Whenever the search proved “positive,”—a euphemism for being found to have an activist past in one of the proscribed areas—the official in question was given 30 days to resign. Failure to do so meant being publicly exposed in the Hungarian Official Gazette—and fired. Poland got round to introducing a similar vetting process in 1997, and Bulgaria in 2006.