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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

1989 part II ‑ the collapse of the Soviet Empire
John Harrison

The political map of the world shifted in 1989 in almost as radical a way as after the end of the Second World War. By the end of the year, the only country east of the Elbe still loyal to the socialist cause was Albania, and Albania had been hostile to the USSR since Khrushchev’s period in office. As central communist authorities began to crumble within Russia, the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe imploded, quickly. Suddenly the Berlin Wall was down and dictators who had been feared were ridiculed or even shot.

In December 1988, Gorbachev made a speech at the UN in which he repudiated the Brezhnev Doctrine, which lay at the core of the Soviet Union’s hold over Eastern Europe. He kept his word when he said he would not interfere in other country’s affairs. His non-interference was enough to seal the fate of the pro-Soviet regimes in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. If he had tried to preserve the old system, he would have forfeited western support for Perestroika. Any wavering in his liberal stance would have been exploited by Gorbachev’s emerging opposition inside Russia: Boris Yeltsin.


The first domino to fall was Poland, which was in a pitiful economic condition. General Jaruzelski, the leader of the Polish communist party, who had displayed no mercy in crushing Solidarity in 1981, agreed to parliamentary elections in 1989, after prolonged strikes. Fully understanding the implications of what was happening in Russia, Jaruzelski announced a “brave turnaround”. The Communists were defeated in June elections, and in August meekly joined a coalition under the anti-communist Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The Solidarity leaders, most of whom had no real understanding of economics, were plunged into managing a country in crisis, something the re-cast, reformed Communist Party was soon to take advantage of, yet the communists never came back to power.


Hungary had always been a reluctant member of the Soviet camp. Sensing the change from Moscow, the Hungarian government felt confident enough on the 2nd of May to switch off the power in the electrified security barrier running the length of its western border with Austria. Hundreds of East Germans drove to Hungary, ditched their cars and hiked across the border to Austria, then on to West Germany.

This signalled the beginning of the end of “Honecker’s wall”. Miklos Nemeth, the new Prime Minister had already ensured a visa-free passage through Austria for the escapees, and had made an agreement with Chancellor Helmut Kohl that they would be accepted. Gorbachev had in turn assured Kohl that under no circumstances would Moscow intervene.

Nemeth saw this as Hungary’s and his chance to make Hungary the first Eastern bloc nation to re-join the West. In September 11th the border was officially opened and tens of thousands mostly East Germans rushed across. Not everyone in West Germany welcomed the new citizens. The leadership expected up to 1.2 million people, and jobs and housing were scarce in West Berlin.

East Germany

Just as this exodus was at its peak, Erich Honecker who still thought he was in control of events in East Germany, managed to arrange for the southern Czech border to Hungary to be closed, blocking his citizens’ exit route through Hungary and on to the West. Thousands were trapped in Czechoslovakia, and most descended on the West German embassy in Prague for help.

As disease threatened the overstretched colony inside the embassy, Honecker announced his “solution” of special boarded-up trains which would transfer them straight through to West Germany. This lunatic decision, which likened escapees from East Germany to Jews being transported to extermination camps during Hitler’s “final solution”, put petrol on the fire of discontent within East Germany and also fostered the seeds of rebellion in Czechoslovakia.

On October 7th , Gorbachev met the East German politburo. He realised that Honecker was unreformable. Gorbachev made it quite clear to the leadership and the people as a whole that he had distanced himself from Honecker. 

Soviet stars coming down in Budapest

Demonstrations, unheard of in East Germany, broke out across the country. Police retaliated viciously, and foreign journalists were expelled. Demonstrators who at first demanded to be able to travel freely soon shouted out for the end of the Communist Party. In a final showdown Honecker backed down, it was all over.

On the 20th of October, the day that his successor, Egon Krenz took office, 50,000 people marched in Dresden demanding free elections. On November 4, half a million Berliners demonstrated in Berlin. On November 1, Krenz re-opened the border with Czechoslovakia and proposed to allow East Germans to visit the West from there. But this and other compromises weren’t enough.

At 11.17 on the 9th of November, border guards at Checkpoint Charlie, hearing that the Bornholmerstrasse crossing further north had opened up, shouted “Alles Auf” (all open). Only minutes before, top officials gave up trying to reach members of the Politburo. They had suddenly become unavailable. A few hours after the wall fell, Bulgaria’s communist leader of thirty-five years, Todor Zhikov resigned. The next day, the Communist Party gave up its political monopoly.


The Czechoslovak government was also replaced. In December, President Gustav Husak resigned and the dissenting dramatist Vaclav Havel was elected by parliament to take his place, while the communist leader of the 1968 Prague Spring, Alexander Dubcek, returned to head the federal Assembly. There was no Solidarity movement in Czechoslovakia, no political reformers who dismantled communism from above. It was the thousands of East Germans camped in and around the West Germany Embassy in Prague that gave Czech reformers the courage they needed. Here was solidarity, the writing was on the wall. The Hungarian Socialist Workers Party was abolished on October the 11th.


Events took a dramatic turn in December 1989 in Romania, when Nicolae Ceausescu appeared on his palace balcony to address a Bucharest crowd. The unthinkable happened. He was heckled. When he failed to intimidate the crowd, he tried to flee the country, but was captured, summarily tried, and executed on the 24th of December.

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