Berlin's joy: unprecedented, a bit naive and yes, justified

Russia may still be an antagonist for Western governments, but the end of the Cold War was the start of something much bigger.
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November 10, 2014

The euphoria that night was fuelled by the enormity of the notion of freedom, but also by the suddenness of its arrival. President Reagan had chided ‘Mr. Gorbachev’ to ‘Tear down this wall!’ but no one expected him to do so.

In effect, he did, withdrawing support from the hapless mummy who presided over the Stasi-soaked pseudo-state of East Germany that was ludicrously titled ‘democratic.’

Mikhail Gorbachev knew the Soviet Empire was unsustainable, from the economic evidence alone. But in a more existential sense, he was also deeply convinced of the moral burden of the Soviet regime’s great crimes against four generations of Soviet citizens who were showing signs of collective post-traumatic stress disorder inflicted by 70 years of terror, violence, cruelty and institutionalized conformist mediocrity.

In November, 1989, it wasn’t apparent there would be a disabling conflict between Gorbachev’s zeal as a reformer and his “inner socialist” that would brake Soviet reforms once it was realized the whole undertaking of changing everything to its opposite had no precedent or blueprint and would result in what David Remnick called “the wreckage of everyday life.”

We in the West would presume to give advice but we had no comparable experience to draw from.

In the months after the Wall fell, changes to the international order cascaded at a frenzied pace, beginning with the first East-West meeting two months later, in Ottawa as it happened, of the suddenly high-level Open Skies conference that had been called to agree some modest East-West military confidence-building measures.

The new circumstances permitted key foreign ministers in Ottawa to launch the ‘Two-Plus-Four’ negotiations that soon would end the German Democratic Republic forever, send 1.4 million Soviet troops and dependents home to the Soviet Union, and create some misunderstandings about the eastward expansion of NATO that roil diplomacy even today.

Many in the West sensed that Gorbachev, in ending the Cold War, which had been the working paradigm of Western diplomacy and security policy for 40 years, had changed our world as much as he had their own.

Indeed, in the early summer of 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev turned up as a guest (Brian Mulroney’s suggestion) at the London G7 Summit and stepped out on the balcony of Lancaster House before his lunch with leaders, the G7 officials being fed on the lawn outside rose spontaneously to applaud him as some kind of global secular saint.

We assumed naively that by becoming our partner, the Soviet Union would become like us, would hold elections and open MacDonald’s left and right throughout a happier land. We didn’t get that being behavioral, and not a process that can just be transferred, democracy takes a lot of working practice over time. We tried to avoid proclaiming “winners” and “losers” from the Cold War. But before long, the Russians felt like losers.

Today, a snarly, vain, and resentful Russian regime has undone the fledgling electoral democracy Gorbachev’s glasnost ignited. In a spirit of xenophobic small-mindedness, they have even begun to close MacDonald’s, which had opened to somewhat innocent public acclaim 20 years ago. Much more important is their vindictive effort to punish Ukraine for dumping the kind of regime they have in Moscow.

Putin’s Russia (or is he more accurately a resentful “Russia’s Putin?”) is what it is. We are sorry they have grievances. But it would help if we could figure out how much trouble it’s going to cause others in the neighbourhood.

Perhaps the part of our euphoria that focused on Russia back in those heady days was a bit delusional. Remember when Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan once talked of “irrational exuberance” in the stock market? The next day, a huge “correction” — an over-correction — began. In time, the market came back, until it corrected again.

Relations with Russia are going through a correction and will improve once Putin gets over things or the Russian people get over him. This is not how Russia will turn out. It’s a long game.

Since 1989, transition hasn’t been a pleasure cruise for anybody. The Czechs seem disappointed in their whole political class and the Hungarians have elected a leader who extols “illiberalism.”

These are bumps in the road of passage. The world’s exuberance in November, 1989, celebrated the end of systemic trauma to whole peoples.

It is perhaps sad that little remains now of the Wall itself to remind us of the fateful division of a city, a people, and a continent.

But to the Southeast from Berlin is the border between Germany and the Czech Republic that 30 years ago held whole peoples hostage behind a dystopian no-man’s land of barbed wire, snarling dogs, and AK-47s with the safety off.

Today, it’s a bike path.

Anyone wondering if the euphoria 25 years ago was justified should take that bike ride.

Also in the series


Journey to the Khyber Pass

Samira Sayed-Rahman details the beautiful and dangerous path across the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The politics of making maps

Cartographer Sébastien Caquard on how technology is both democratizing and controlling the border-making process.

Jerusalem: A city on edge

Is there a place on earth with borders and real estate so highly contested? By Saeed Rahnema.

Remembering ‘our moon walk, our JFK moment’ – the end of the Berlin Wall

Jennifer Jenkins reflects on what the fall of the Berlin Wall meant 25 years ago.

Redrawing borders

What do borders mean today? In this graphic, we consider a number of ways of conceptualizing the divisions between us beyond just nationality.