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December 22, 2008

When the Chips Are Down

Prague's Wenceslas Square, November 20, 1989. 
Photo: Peter de Jong / AP

by Guy Martin

As we have been experiencing lately--while putting the SUV up on blocks and chopping it into a big horse-drawn Christmas sleigh for the kids--history is a wild ride, a live run-through of chaos theory, starring, well, all of us. Whether we like it or not.

So this season, let's take a heartening cue from the roughly 80 million Eastern Europeans upon whom history rained down the amazing serial revolutions over the turn of the year 1989-1990. After a half century under the Russian boot, only a few--the nomenklatura--had anything left to lose. The 80 million had everything to gain by putting their civil courage and in many cases their lives on the line. And they did.   

The citizenry of Warsaw, Gdansk, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, East Berlin, Leipzig, Bucharest, and Timisoara has very different holiday memories than those of us in the "complacent" West, as the legendary chronicler of the Soviet gulag Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would have put it. These revolutions were the first. Bulgaria, the Balkans, the Baltics, the Ukraine, and Belarus would follow months, or years, later. But for a start, let's understand that for the first tier of former Soviet satrapies, December and January are a time of the anniversaries of complete political upheaval and, often, life-or-death decisions that altered those societies forever. 

Here are just a few of those revolutionary moments that should get us ruminating on some of the gifts that we Westerners take for granted:

Romania, December 25, 1989: Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and wife Elena are executed. On December 17, Ceausescu had sent troops to the town of Timisoara to quell a protest; they had permission to shoot and massacred 97 people. The country rebelled and was in a great hurry for retribution. The army itself turned against Ceausescu on December 22, ferrying him by helicopter into incarceration. Three days later, on Christmas, the dictator and his wife were tried and convicted of genocide by a military tribunal in a trial that lasted one hour. They were put before a firing squad that same day.

Czechoslovakia, December 29, 1989: Uber-dissident-philosopher-king Vaclav Havel is unanimously elected president of Czechoslovakia. After the first violently suppressed demonstration on November 17, the drumbeat mounted. On November 20, some 200,000 Czech and Slovak protesters filled Wenceslas Square. Then, on December 4, a 150,000-strong demonstration called for the resignation of the communist-led cabinet and for Havel to "go to the castle," meaning, to form a new government. Twenty-five days later, Havel was the country's first democratically elected president since 1939. 

East Berlin, January 15, 1990: East German State Security headquarters in Berlin are stormed by demonstrators, ripping the last veil of authority from the East German government under Hans Modrow. Demonstrations throughout October and November in Leipzig and Berlin led to an abdication and reformation of the government, but the communists retained power; there were as yet no talks of reunification. The Wall "fell" on November 9 as a result of a misstatement by East German government spokesman Gunther Schabowski. State Security police (Stasi) regional headquarters were stormed by the citizen's committees throughout December. Although there would be diplomatic hurdles ahead, the storming of Berlin's Stasi HQ--and the public airing of the Stasi's role--was a major factor in the dissolution of the communists' control of the country.

Warsaw, Poland, January 27, 1990: Solidarity party leader and shipyard dog Lech Walesa finally sits down in working groups with communist party members to discuss their abdication. Although the Polish revolution had largely been won by Solidarity's mulish resistance to the communists by August 1989, the communists' mulish resistance to the will of the people and the election results left a lot of governance in question. The communist premier finally gave up in late August, but only after a 40-minute telephone conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev, who urged him to do so. It took Walesa and Solidarity until January to force the actual handing-over of the reins. 

When it was over, of course, it was by no means over; all the revolutionizing was just the starting gun. Germany had not yet begun its torturous reunification. Czechoslovakia had not yet split into two countries. The Baltics had not yet been able to pull away. Belarus and the Ukraine were years away from freedom. In June 1989, an interviewer dropped in on Havel, then fresh out of prison and six months before the wildest ride of his life into the presidency of a new republic. 

"Everywhere," Havel said, "I observe the economic, political, ecological signs of a deep-seated crisis. In my view, this crisis is an existential crisis, a crisis of identity: Man has lost the sense of responsibility he had previously felt towards something higher than him, something which transcended him. There are many men and women in the world who have felt it, understood it, and who are seeking a way out."


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