1989: The Year That Changed It All

About this Episode

Guests
Nicholas Breyfogle, Angela Brintlinger, Theodora Dragostinova

Twenty-five years ago this autumn, the world watched in amazement as events in Eastern Europe transformed the planet. Socialist states that had looked a permanent fixture on the map of Europe disintegrated, often with little resistance. And the Berlin Wall—that most iconic symbol of the Cold War—came tumbling down in November. The sense of possibility and astonishment were palpable: the world could change in the blink of an eye if only we tried.

But where are we now, twenty-five years later? Why should 1989 matter to us now? On this edition of History Talk, hosts Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins welcome historians Nicholas Breyfogle and Theodora Dragostinova and Slavic Studies Professor Angela Brintlinger as they consider these questions and more as we remember the year that changed it all.

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Cite this Site

Patrick R. Potyondy, Leticia R. Wiggins , "1989: The Year That Changed It All" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
October, 2014
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/1989-year-changed-it-all?language_content_entity=en.
October, 2014

Transcript

Leticia Wiggins  
This is your host Leticia Wiggins and welcome to History Talk, smart conversations about today's most interesting topics.

Patrick Potyondy  
And this is Patrick Potyondy, your other host. Twenty-five years ago this autumn, the world watched in amazement as events in Eastern Europe transform the planet. After more than four decades, the Soviet controlled communist bloc of Eastern European countries suddenly collapsed. A host of countries threw off the reins of one political system and grasped a new one. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, just to name a few.

Leticia Wiggins  
In 1989 socialist states that had looked a permanent fixture on the map of Europe disintegrated, often with little resistance and the Berlin Wall, that most iconic symbol of the cold war, came tumbling down in November. The worldwide surprise generated a scramble to try and reshape this epic reorganization. The sense of possibility and astonishment was palpable, the world could change in the blink of an eye if only it tried.

Patrick Potyondy  
But where are we now 25 years later? What has become of those hopes and aspirations? Why have some parts of the region moved forward peacefully and seemingly seamlessly, while others collapsed into factions of violence and instability? Why are the events of this year important to remember? All in all, why should 1989 matter to us now?

Leticia Wiggins  
Today, we'll talk to three guests about these and other questions as we remember the year that changed it all, 1989.

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
I'm Angela Brintlinger from the Slavic department here at Ohio State. 

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova  
My name is Theodora Dragostinova. I am a native of Bulgaria, and I teach Eastern European history at The Ohio State University.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle  
Hi, I'm Nick Breyfogle, I'm one of the editors of the magazine Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective and I'm also a professor of history at Ohio State.

Patrick Potyondy  
Alright, well, thanks to all three of you for joining us today on History Talk and we want to start our questions off on a personal note today. So we wanted to give you each the chance to recall your memories of the events of 1989.

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
My perspective is from the Soviet aspect. That's where I was and I have three words, two words from 1987, which was my first time in the Soviet Union, where we were reading Mikhail Gorbachev's new book, новое мышлени, New Thinking. So those are the first two words. It was about new thinking. It seemed like the Soviet Union was changing in that direction, in good directions, in interesting directions, but Gorbachev thought, in communist directions. The third word I'll just share briefly, from 1989, when I was living in Moscow, was  дефицит . Everything was "missing." There was a deficit of consumer goods and we didn't see November 1989 coming, but it did look like things were going wrong in the Soviet system.

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova  
For me, 1989 is a very personal experience. I was a junior in high school and I actually distinctly remember the day after school, when we heard on the radio that the Bulgarian communist dictator had resigned. We knew that was a big deal, because that had happened actually, the day after the Berlin Wall fell. So it was a clear political change, and didn't make many of us very hopeful. I went to school in a special school for gifted children and many of my friends were hugely talented people who were very optimistic, very enthusiastic, about the change. They thought that would bring good things to them and to their families. So they embraced the change and I remember that for the last two years in high school, our teachers would just let us go. That was, go to the squares, go chant, go demonstrate, go participate in the rallies. So it was a very, really formative moment for me. I mean, one, when you were 17-18, you are full of hope, you're full of optimism, you want to do your best and this coincided with this momentous historical change. So it was a very important moment for me personally.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle  
It's funny because  for me, it was also a very important moment, personally, but from a completely different vantage. I wasn't in Bulgaria, wasn't in a special school, but I was finishing up University heading off to grad school to study Russian and Eastern European history. This is a place that I had traveled to already several times and I thought I had been studying in some ways, you know, the enemy. I wanted to know a little bit about these people who were standing against us, that were part of this, you know, on the other, on the wrong side, ultimately, in our view at that point, of the, of this great global divide. And to watch the events of '89 was, for me, a kind of transformative moment where my sort of sense of how the world worked, the possibilities for humans, completely changed in front of me in the sense that, I mean as Leticia said, the beginning, that the sense that things could change, literally in the blink of an eye, and suddenly everything that had seemed permanent, no longer was, and the astonishment the wonder, the possibility, the sense that the view of the future could be better. The sense that people could, in fact, take to the streets in the squares, change their lives, throw officers from a government that they didn't want, embrace new forms of economic practice, that everything's suddenly possible. And that sense of optimism, which I didn't always have, has really stayed with me ever since. That event was very formative in terms of how I think about what is possible in in the world. So it's amazingly, an amazing moment.

Leticia Wiggins  
And building upon these wonderful recollections you've all shared, let's set some groundwork here. What happened in 1989, that was so important? In other words, what makes 1989 so important a year in European and global history? And Theodora we want to throw this to you first.

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova  
So 1989 showed the power of peaceful protest and if you wish, the power of the crowd, the historical agency of the crowd, the ability of people to basically guide their own destination to determine their own futures. So I mean, it was a hugely optimistic moment, and that is very important. We need to remember that optimistic moment. However, 1989 also showed the power or the sort of, the ambiguity of, unintended consequences, which as historians, we always have to remember. Because after the optimism of these early months, much of the region was thrown into conflict. For some countries, 1989 brought success, brought new lives that ultimately made their countries better. I mean, relatively speaking. For others, not so much. And I guess if I have to point to the sort of to poster children of success, and well, ultimate, I mean, failure of the project. I mean, I would point perhaps to the Czech Republic, which has embraced the change so well, and to Yugoslavia which disappeared as a result of these momentous changes. So what ultimately happened is that we have different dynamics in different parts of the Eastern Bloc, and we really cannot treat the block as a block anymore. We have to pay attention to what happened in each individually country. 

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
Well, and I really want to focus on the former Soviet Republics because their fates show what I experienced was not necessarily optimism, experiencing 1989 from the inside. I remember that I was in Tbilisi in November for the holiday, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1988 and we were pulled out in fears that there would be demonstrations and indeed, April 9, 1989, there were serious demonstrations on formerly Lenin square, now Freedom Square. And there were people who were dying, not during peaceful demonstrations, that it was the failure of the peaceful demonstration in many ways. And I guess I see a much more pessimistic side to that, to those changes. In many parts of the former Eastern Bloc, those possibilities didn't happen in Belarus, in a lot of other places.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle  
You know, I'm glad you asked this question, because I think it's really an important one.  There's lots of anniversaries that happen, and some we pay attention and some we don't, but it seems to be this is one that we should pay an enormous amount of importance to and I think, in some ways, for two reasons. The first is, is because this is an event that really speaks to, sheds light on, helps us to understand a whole series of really important questions that, that were with us then and are with us again, today. So questions like, how do you bring about a political transition? How do you change from one political system to another? I mean, you know, after our experience, you know, in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or all these other places in the world, you know, this is a question that we're still grappling with. And the example of what happens in Eastern Europe with it's good, and it's bad, is a really helpful one for us to think about the ways in which, you know, political changes occur or or don't, or don't occur. You know, as Theodora pointed out, we see the importance of crowds and the possibility of people to make change. On the flip side, though, it also reminds us of how important it is that the authorities don't shoot. And one of the big questions we have to think about is, when is it that the authorities decide to shoot and when is it that they decide not to? When is it that they accept that in some ways the game is done, and then they need to make some kind of compromises and when is it that they try to fight back? And the fact that, that in 1989, for the most part, with exception really of Romania, the powers that be did not fight back, whether it was the Soviet  kind of rulers, or any of the kind of local authorities strikes me as really important. It speaks to the big question of how you make the transition and particularly how you make the transition without violence, and what causes violence and these sort of big questions. So why does Yugoslavia break up into these horrifying waves of violence, while places like Czechoslovakia are able to split what they call the velvet divorce? So these large questions are really important. I think 1989 really helps us to think about those questions in important ways. I think it's also important for us to pay attention to this, this anniversary because of what it meant and what it means for Europe, in the sense that Europe had for decades existed in this kind of split format and since 1989, we've seen a fundamental restructuring, redefinition of what Europe is, and how it interacts within itself, or among itself, and how it interacts with the rest of the world. And because Europe is so important on a global stage, you know, we need to understand '89, to understand Europe, to help us make sense of what's going on today.

Patrick Potyondy
And we'd really like to kind of push you all a little further here to explore what's happened since 1989, that we've been really touching on already and so have those great expectations that much of the world had, have those changes in 1989 been attained in your opinion? And maybe if there's any kind of specific examples you can bring up here, feel free to do so.

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova  
So 1989 made it clear that political change is important. However, it also became clear almost immediately that politics is not everything, that even though we have political transformations, that may not be the most important thing for people, for the people, for everyday people on the ground. So I started on an optimistic note telling you about my experience going to the demonstrations and feeling the enthusiasm of political change for much of my junior in high school. By my senior year in high school, the shock therapy policies had settled in and what I remember is long lines, waiting to stock on basic goods. What I remember was that I was going to prom, and my mom was scrambling to find the gown for me because there was nothing in the stores and she wanted her daughter to have the best. But she was unable to deliver and this is a woman who spent her life building, you know, the bright future of communism, who was very enthusiastic about the changes, and who found herself scrambling to make the best out of this change. So political transformation is very important, but that's not all and if I can give one example, in 2009, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Pew Research Institute did this survey. And actually the title, if you wish of the survey, sort of like overview, really shows you the ambiguity of change. The title reads like this "end of communism cheered it but now with more reservations." And there was this stunning question there. People were asked, "Are you better off or worse off than under communism?" 72% of Hungarians answered that they're worse off than under communism, stunningly 62% of all Bulgarians answered the same, 62% of Ukrainians answered that. So what do you make of political change? Right and that's why we have so much actual nostalgia to communism that has developed in much of the area. And we cannot explain this, but with the clumsy, irresponsible way the political transition was handled and the complete lack of attention given to more mundane questions, such as, "how do ordinary people cope with profound political transformation?"

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
Well, I think we saw the Cold War as a political issue, but in many ways, it was an economic issue. And I just want to say that what Theodora was just describing is what I'm talking about, this deficit. This, what seemed to us in 1989, like this momentary glitch in the retail distribution, turned out to be a much more serious and almost a metaphor for the entire political and economic system. That everything was in deficit. Everything had been tied together, economically, deliberately, and when that system started to fall apart, people's lives became very difficult. And, you know, it's one thing to not be able to vote or to go and vote and try to forward, you know, democracy. You know, for years people had to go and vote, and they did vote, and it meant nothing. And what really meant something was whether or not there was bread in the store, whether or not there was milk in the store and those details of people's lives are highly important and they were very difficult in those years and they continue to be very difficult. That's part of my point is that here we are 25 years later, and there's still not milk in many post Soviet stores.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle  
I was thinking about Bulgaria and the whole integrated economic system. I was in the Soviet Union 1990, after this had happened, and staying in a hotel where there were no lights anywhere to be found and the explanation was that the light bulbs had been made in Bulgaria and now that Bulgaria had disappeared, there were no more light bulbs. And so we spent a fair amount of time in the dark wandering around, because of 89 and that kind of, it's just one small example of that, the extraordinary interconnectedness of it all and then the the daily life kind of material problems that you face. The question you asked, really hits on the really important thing that I think we all have to walk away from after any revolution is that to certain degree, revolutions are wonderful and they make change, and they're exciting, but the real work happens afterwards, over a long period of time, decades, generations, perhaps even centuries. And that it takes hard work, and it takes sacrifice and takes attention to detail to make these sorts of things happen and so that, ultimately, we're still living through the transition, even if it's just in 25 years, seems like a long time. But in these kinds of transitions, I think it's an enormously short period of time and it reminds us, in some ways, how difficult it is to develop participatory or democratic forms of government and reminds us how difficult it is to, to institute the rule of law and, and legal systems where people abide by the laws more or less in front of them, or at least that there are clear and uniform consequences if one doesn't abide by those kinds of laws. And just how long it takes to change an economic structure and that has a lot to do with, with past economic structures, but also what resources are there and the population and all these sorts of things. And I think that there's that sort of sense of, perhaps this wasn't what we all signed up for, with the revolution, that the revolution was supposed to be something perhaps a little bit more gallant and romantic and fundamentally changing and, and so I think part of that part of the statistics, you said Theodora, part of that reflects that sort of sense of, well, not having achieved what we hoped to achieve, and perhaps unreasonable expectations of what the reality is all about.

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova  
Nick had this enthusiastic statement, that revolutions are wonderful and I have to disagree. Having lived through this revolution, during my most formative years, I would not recommend revolutions as a means for political change. I actually have become a huge skeptic and even historically speaking, I'm not sure that I can point you to a successful revolution. So I'm not certain on a personal level, not even professional you know opinion here as a historian, but on a personal level, I do not believe in revolutions anymore. So I have become a skeptic. As far as the nature, the dynamics or the potential of radical political change, it may very well be better to have incremental change. Yes, within a democratic system, yes within a broad society that participates in the discussion of that change. However, revolution is not something that I would recommend.

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
Well, it's easier to plan and try to avoid unintended consequences. If you make plans and you see what the consequences are going to be, then those unintended consequences of revolution don't happen.

Leticia Wiggins  
So the next question we had, I mean, just kind of piggy backs off that a little bit. But we brought up personal recollections and memories earlier. And now looking at revolution, what it means for the state, we're kind of curious how these former Soviet Bloc countries dealt with their national memories and it appears that Germany, for example, is confronted its history in several ways, such as the DDR Museum in Berlin. But what about other countries? And do they just let sleeping dogs lie and get on with the future?

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
Well, I've been waiting for a long time for reparations for gulag victims. It was fascinating to be in Berlin a couple of years ago talking with somebody about the German reparations program. And this historian had tracked down a lot of Ukrainian slave workers who'd worked in Berlin and factories, and had found them in their villages. And had managed to prove that they were the people that he found in the file cabinet, and was dispersing government reparations and I was thinking, the entire Soviet system, the entire Soviet Union, the entire Soviet economy, infrastructure was built by slave labor and when are those conversations going to happen, about reparations.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle  
But it seems to me that there's there's an important difference in terms of memory between those states that were in the Eastern Bloc in the part of Eastern Europe and those republics that were within the Soviet Union, and that have now broken away. In part because the events of '89, and after were not just a change of politics and economy, were also kind of throwing off of, of the Russian yoke, or the Soviet yoke. And so I think that, you know, so that sort of sense of freedoms oneself, and that sort of sense of the system was imposed upon us allows for a different sort of set of memories in Central and Eastern Europe than what we see in the Soviet Union. Now, there are parts of the Soviet Union, like the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, in particular, but also in the south of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other areas where they also feel this sort of sense that the Soviet system was imposed upon them. And that they can make a break from that system in some ways a little bit more easily, because they have this the sense that, well, it wasn't us that did it, per se, but it was from outside, it was pushed upon us. But other parts of the former Soviet Union, particularly the Russian Federation, itself, they're caught in some ways holding the bag a great deal more in this regard. And so it strikes me that it's almost harder, you know, in places like Russia, to be able to deal with this, because it was us who did this, in some ways. Much like the Germans dealing with the Nazi past, you know, it was them, you can't avoid it. And so it strikes me that it's partly that reason that we have the, you know, the differences in terms of the difficulties within Russia of dealing with the past and the way in which they haven't really dealt with it. Or at least the way they've dealt with it is perhaps not how I would have hoped they would have done in the sense that to a certain degree, they haven't broken with it. They've embraced a lot of aspects of it. Particularly, I mean, Stalin still has some place, the Second World War, and its great triumphs of the Soviet system, the cultural accomplishments of the Soviet period. I mean, a lot of different things remain a part of who Russians think they are. So to a certain degree, I think they haven't dealt with it in quite the same way that many of these other states have.

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova  
So the issue of memory is fascinating. And I think that if you look at the different projects, that are out there in the region of Eastern Europe, you really see actually the potential for a democratic system that allows diverse voices to be, you know, sank at the same time. There's a lot of emphasis, obviously, on political violence and that is to be expected. Many of the memory projects come from the right and the right focuses on the issue of political violence. They want to remind us of the Gulag system. They want to remind us of the secret police. They want to remind us of Stasi, and the house of terror in Budapest, and all that. So you have that. But you also have a lot of other grassroots projects. You have actually a lot of people associated with the new political left, the new generation of the political left, who have been commemorating other things. There are all sorts of like virtual museums of socialism that really show that, you know, I mean, there are aspects of the socialist system that were quite so well developed under state socialism, things such as you know, the welfare system, education, the arts and culture, they all thrive under a state socialism and we need to remember, if we're going to remember political violence, we have to remember the other side of the system as well. So it's, there's a lot of ambiguity there, what should be remembered and then you also have in certain cases, things such as well, in Bulgaria in Sofia, in downtown Sofia you still have the monument of the Soviet Army standing in, in the city center, one of the few, but it's there. Yet, what happens is that every time there's political tension, there's political protest, young artists go and you know, they draw the graffiti on the monument. With the Ukraine crisis, they colored the figures of the Soviet liberating army in the colors of the Ukrainian national flag. When we were commemorating the Prague spring, they colored the monument pink, referring to the pink tank of Prague. I mean, so there's a lot of like street art, as well, grassroots street art. It is going against some of these memory projects. So there are a lot of different voices and I think this is ultimately refreshing.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle  
It's good to note, too, I think one of the other things about memory is the way in which it really breaks across generation. That there are those who existed in the system, and those who were born afterwards. And so those, those who were born afterwards to a certain degree, you know, their memory of it is in the way of, I mean, I find my students and how they think about the Cold War, it seems like this peculiar little strange event that they don't quite understand, because, you know, it hasn't existed in their lifetime. And I think that there is that big difference where the people in Eastern Europe who were born after '89, grew up in a completely different world and don't necessarily have any associations to what came before and only learn about it as, as historians. Those who came before lived their lives there. They grew up in that time period and I think that there's often that sort of sense of nostalgia, just partly because it's a nostalgia for youth, regardless of the political system. That, you know, when you're young life is better in some ways. The movies are more appealing. The music is the best there's ever been. You know, the air is fresher. And regardless of the political system, you're in that sort of nostalgia for youth is quite strong and so that, I think there's also that generational difference as well.

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
The only thing I would add to that is that if we think about 1989, as in some ways, the last battle of World War II, and I think there's a there's a good reason to think of it that way. World War II is still being fought in the former Soviet Union. I was in a Crimean in elementary school, and I was treated to their museum where they were talking about the fascists, you know, the aggressors of the German fascists, who were still, who had stolen our grandparents' childhood. And they were inoculating these ideas into the elementary school children. So then you wonder, what is, yes, you don't have that personal memory, but is what you're taught, in some ways, even stronger than what your grandparents experienced, because it's less diluted?

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova  
And it's a fascinating point, because there was just a study, actually they've done in Bulgaria, over the content of history textbooks. And they did a survey of you know, what kids knew about the communist period and it's not even even funny. But I will still give you an example that sort of like shows you how shockingly misinformed the new generation is. Because, basically, in Bulgaria, the history of communism is not in the textbooks, yet. It's too politically sensitive, so kids don't study the history of communism. So they asked high school students what they associate the term Gulag with. A stunning 17% answered, that it was an Internet search engine.

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
Google like Yahoo sounds like it.

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova  
Exactly.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle  
Gulag.com

Patrick Potyondy  
Gulag.com. The new Internet startup. So famously, or infamously, few saw these events coming and so in retrospect, have we learned better how to look for signs of radical political change, especially given recently the events, to take an example in Hong Kong? And in that same vein, what should we take away from the year 1989 in today's world, as we wrap up here with our final question?

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
Nobody saw it coming and we I don't think we've learned anything. We still don't see things coming up, right? The CIA chief famously in Berlin didn't know that the wall was coming down and the CIA has not been predicting the things that have been happening lately, either.

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova  
I mean, I think it's refreshing not to always know when change is coming, right. And everyone needs a little bit of surprise in their lives and, you know, it's good when you wake up in the morning, and you see that, you know, a popular movement has developed overnight. There's something to be said about it. We all need a charge once in a while. I mean, yes, I agree, hopefully, no one is going to shoot at anyone in these processes. That has to be the most important thing, which is one of the good lessons of 1989. But I mean, I don't know that we can, or that we should predict anything, because as a historian, I think that just unintended consequences is something that is so important that no one can possibly pin down.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle  
I agree, Angela, that I don't think we've learned very much. We don't necessarily see things coming, but that's also the case that I think it's hard to.

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
Absolutely. I'm not blaming anyone.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle  
I like to blame some people, but I'm not sure what we've learned. But I mean, in the sense of being able to predict when things are about to happen. But what 1989 teaches us is that there are ways that we can think about these kinds of events as they're going on in the sense that, you know, we need to be thinking about, you know, what are the crowds doing? And will the people in power respond? And how will they respond? With violence or not? And so when we look at, you know, the Arab Spring, or, you know, what happened in Ukraine, the spring and this sort of thing? Those are the questions, you know. What is bringing people to the street and how, you know, and what is the response of the people in power? And that those two factors are really going to help us to understand the direction of movements. I think the second thing we learned really clearly is the way, and to piggyback on what Theodora said, you know, we have to be as romantic and fabulous as revolutions are and I got swept away before and partly got swept away, because this is what I remember from my very young days of the extraordinary sense of possibility of this event. But then we have to be, we always have to be wary of revolution. So that there's a moment of great joy and euphoria and possibility, but then the hard work comes and that is exactly how this is, what this is all going to mean and how it's all going to play out happens in the years and decades and generations that come afterwards. And that's the lesson we really have to pay attention to as there are strivings for political change in other parts of the world today, that it's not that it's not the moment of the revolution, it's really crucial that if we really want to help, then we have to go in. We have to go in for a long time to, you know, to really institute the kind of endearing and embedded change we might want.

Leticia Wiggins  
Well, we'll conclude it there and big thank you to Angela, Nick and Theodora for joining us today on History Talk.

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova  
Thank you.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle  
Thank you so much.

Dr. Angela Brintlinger  
Thank you.

Patrick Potyondy  
This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the public history initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Stephen Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle, our executive producer is David Staley, our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. You can find our podcasts and more at our website origins.osu.edu on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

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