Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

Moscow's Revolution

May 25, Moscow, U.S.S.R.

My most treasured souvenir of Moscow in 1989 is a white laminated card with a decorative blue border and a sketch of the Kremlin on the front. It's the official menu of the first session of the Congress of People's Deputies, a gathering that started on May 25 of that year and which, in hindsight, marked the beginning of the end of Soviet power.

The menu is very Soviet. The choice of items is limited, the language terse — "bread with cheese," "meat broth" — and the prices ridiculously low. A caviar sandwich cost 56 kopeks, which at the official exchange rate was about 80 cents but in reality about half that or less. The very fact that delicacies such as caviar, iced pastries and oranges were served in the congress canteen at a time of major national food shortages, is a reminder of how the Kremlin élite lived in a world of privilege far removed from the everyday hardships suffered by their subjects.

Yet in almost every other way, the proceedings of that congress marked an astonishing break with Soviet tradition. Such gatherings had previously consisted of fawning functionaries voting unanimously in favor of official Communist Party decisions, turning the glass-and-concrete-fronted Palace of Congresses into Rubber-Stamp Central. In 1989, there was none of that. This was the nearest the Soviet system had come to creating a true parliament. The majority of the 2,250 delegates to the congress had been chosen in direct elections that were often contested. They included the famous dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov as well as a clutch of insolent young reformers from the Baltic republics and elsewhere, who would go on to break up the Soviet Union just two years later.

For days, people across the Soviet Union tuned in to live television broadcasts to watch the delegates excoriate the country's leaders for failings that ranged from soap shortages to the all-embracing control of the KGB. There were heckles and insults. The aggressive candor, combined with procedural chaos as party apparatchiks struggled to keep order, made for a gripping spectacle. And there, darting around with a huge grin on his face, was Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader whose idea it all was.

Nineteen eighty-nine was a colossal year for Gorbachev, who had turned 58 in March. He crisscrossed the globe on a series of historic visits that took him to Havana, London, Bonn, Beijing and Berlin, among other places. Toward the end of the year, after the Berlin Wall had fallen and the communist bloc had begun crumbling from its western flank, he dropped in on Pope John Paul II in Rome and met up with President George H.W. Bush on a storm-tossed boat off the coast of Malta.

I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow at the time, and accompanied Gorbachev on some of his travels. I quickly appreciated that Gorbachev was taking himself, the Soviet Union and the rest of the world on a momentous journey away from rigid doctrine and toward his own increasingly flexible, nondogmatic and — above all — noninterventionist interpretation of reformed socialism. He killed off the Brezhnev doctrine, which had unblinkingly used military force to defend communism in Eastern Europe, and he did nothing to prevent the demise of old-line party leaders in places like Bulgaria and East Germany, whom he deemed out of touch with reality. In Malta, he and President Bush declared the Cold War over, proclaimed the start of a "new world order" and worked through details of German unification. In his conversation with the Pope, Gorbachev acknowledged the importance of spirituality and freedom of worship.

All the trips were extraordinary in that they unleashed a passion — and sometimes an official fury — in the countries he visited. But over the course of the year, Gorbachev became visibly more confident of his message, even as it ripped through the ideological fabric of the communist world. Gorbachev's domestic critics, and the geriatric leaders throughout Eastern Europe who hated him, complained that all this change would bring down Soviet communism, and of course they were right.

But Gorbachev didn't see it that way. Time and again — before, during and after that revolutionary year — he insisted that he was reforming the system in order to save it. "By the mid-1980s, our society resembled a steam boiler," he wrote in his memoirs, published in 1996. "There was only one alternative — either the Party would lead a process of change that would gradually embrace other strata of society, or it would preserve and protect the former system. In that case, an explosion of colossal force would be inevitable."

Beijing Protests
Of all the trips we took that year, two stand out most vividly: the one to Beijing and Shanghai in May, and the one to East Berlin in October. The trip to China was monumental, marking the official end of three decades of Sino-Soviet suspicion and hostility. Meeting in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on May 16, Gorbachev told the veteran Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping: "Karl Marx lived in the last century and can't provide the answers to all the questions of today." Deng wasn't quite so sure about that, or at least he wasn't about to acknowledge it in public. "Genuine Marxist-Leninists must understand, carry forward and develop Marxism-Leninism," came his reply.

The China trip provided immediate surprises, especially to those of us used to the rationing of basic foodstuffs and daily deprivations of life in Russia. The shops in Beijing and Shanghai overflowed with food and consumer goods. On the streets, it was thrilling to see the energy Gorbachev's presence helped to unleash among students and other protestors — an energy that was tragically crushed in Tiananmen Square a few days after the Soviet leader flew back to Moscow.

The Chinese protests had begun well before Gorbachev arrived, but once he was there, they swelled in number. There were so many people camping out in Tiananmen Square that it was almost impossible to walk across it. In his memoirs, Gorbachev writes about how his hosts were "extremely concerned." He trod carefully. "All societies have their hotheads who want to renovate society but want to do it overnight. But you can't do it overnight," he told Zhao Ziyang, the then General Secretary of the Communist Party.

What a contrast it was back in Moscow for the Congress of People's Deputies. While Beijing had just sent in the tanks, Gorbachev laid on a riotous official celebration of Soviet hotheadedness — and broadcast it live on national TV. Indeed, one of the few sober notes at the congress was its reaction to Tiananmen: a mildly worded statement that urged the Chinese people "to turn this tragic page of their history as soon as possible."

Berlin Bonfire
The trip to East Berlin in early October proved even more momentous. Four months earlier, on a visit to the West German capital of Bonn, Gorbachev had received a rapturous welcome from Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The official reception in East Berlin could hardly have been more different. Neither Erich Honecker, the long-serving Communist Party leader, 77 and in failing health, nor his colleagues in the East German Politburo, hid their dislike of Gorbachev's calls for change. "If my neighbor decides to change his wallpaper," chief ideologist Kurt Hager had said in 1987, "that doesn't mean I have to do the same."

The occasion for the visit was the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, complete with stiff military parades and set-piece speeches at the hideous concrete-and-glass "Palace of the Republic," which has since thankfully been torn down. Signs of trouble abounded: by the time Gorbachev arrived in Berlin, thousands of East Germans had fled to the West German embassy in Prague, Czechoslovakia, seeking asylum, and it was only a matter of time before Hungary and others opened their borders. In Leipzig and other towns, there was growing public discontent that soon led to mass demonstrations. And churches across Berlin turned themselves into ad hoc meeting places for the disgruntled, who turned out in huge numbers to cheer the visiting Russian leader.

As was his custom on official visits, he leaped out of his official black Soviet ZIL limousine at one point to talk to people in the street. We all swarmed to hear what he was saying. His snappy, subversive one-liner quickly did the rounds of Germany, East and West: "Those who come too late will be punished by life."

Later that day, standing on a podium during one of the anniversary parades, Gorbachev was greeted by chants of "Wir sind das Volk!" (We are the people!) and "Gorby help us." Just behind him was Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the Polish Prime Minister, who spoke both Russian and German fluently. "Do you understand what they are screaming?" he whispered to Gorbachev. "Yes, I understand it," the Soviet leader replied, according to Rakowski. "This is the end."

And so it was. Gorbachev left East Berlin with no illusions about Honecker's waning hold on power — and not the slightest intention of helping him. As the street protests swelled, the half-million Soviet troops stationed in East Germany were ordered to keep to their barracks and all military maneuvers were canceled. One of Gorbachev's closest aides, Anatoly Chernyayev, recalled that, "The situation was truly explosive. Gorbachev intuitively felt the inevitability of German unification, and he was no longer bothered by the ideological consequences of the disappearance of an outpost of socialism in the middle of Europe."

The Radical
The rest is history. These days, many people are credited with bringing down the Berlin Wall, from Ronald Reagan to Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. All played a role, as did millions of ordinary men and women throughout Eastern Europe who were sick of the all-intrusive yet dysfunctional system under which they lived. But when I think back to those days in Moscow, or thumb my menu from the Congress of People's Deputies, it's impossible not to marvel at Gorbachev and his Shakespearean role in the drama of that year.

He didn't set out to destroy the entire socialist edifice; in fact, he was keen to rebuild it. But once it started crumbling, he wasn't about to go back on everything he had propagated in a hopeless effort to hold it together. He didn't bring down the Berlin Wall, but having undermined its foundation, he didn't stop it from being toppled, either.

For his role, he is hailed in the West and reviled or ignored at home; today's Russian leaders blame him for allowing the Soviet empire to collapse. "Some say that Gorbachev did not defend socialism, that he more or less 'betrayed his friends,'" he writes in his memoirs. "I firmly reject these accusations. They derive from outdated notions about the nature of relations between our countries. We had no right to interfere in the affairs of our 'satellites,' to defend and preserve some and punish and 'excommunicate' others without reckoning with the people's will ... Those who still blame Gorbachev are, in effect, lacking in respect for their own people, who have gained freedom and made use of it as best they could." Caviar sandwich, anyone?