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People's Century 1989 - People Power

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People's Century

People Power
1989


MAN BREAKING WALL On November 9, 1989, East Germans mobbed the frontier posts that divided Communist East Berlin from the West. Although less than thirty years old, the Berlin Wall already seemed an ageless and enduring symbol of the old regime. Now, it stood breached -- demolished by the people who challenged the Party that claimed to rule in their name. For hospital worker Mike Fröhnel, it was a dream come true: "I wanted to really savor the moment. I looked down and took one step, and then another and I was over it. I was about that much over the white line, and suddenly it was too much. The wall, I had overcome this monster, this snake of a wall."

People Power tells the story of how the Communist system that dominated post-war Eastern Europe collapsed. Eyewitnesses remember the extraordinary weeks that preceded and followed the fall of the Wall; Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement in Poland; Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution," and more.

By the 1970s, the Soviet Union was at the height of its power, and the Communist world stretched from Asia to the heart of Europe. Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, and East Germans -- all were seen as part of the same family. The Soviet regime seemed impregnable -- and all-powerful: free health care, free schooling, no unemployment. But it was also a world of mass illusion. When Romania's President Ceaucescu was shown visiting markets, student Mihai Radu knew the displays of food had little to do with real life: "The truth is that the shops didn't even have one hundredth of what we used to see on TV. There was little food; no meat, butter, milk; no cheese."

And waiting -- whether fifteen years for an apartment or five hours to buy food at a grocer -- became a harsh reality. Radu remembers: "My good fortune was that my grandparents were still alive. I remember my grandfather would take the little stool down to the shop where he would sit all night until the shop opened the next morning. That was when the Romanian proverb was coined, 'If you don't have a Granny, you better buy one.'"

Soviet citizens were told that the iron curtain was meant to protect socialism from the evil influence of the West. By the late 1970s, however, the curtain could no longer shield them from the anarchic allure of Western culture. Moscow-native Natasha Kutznetsova remembers: "I got to know the West through music. Though I didn't understand a word. I imagined these people dancing and smiling -- you couldn't hide the freedom in that music."

The penalties were high for those who challenged the system. When Mike Fröhnel distributed dissident leaflets, he wound up in a Berlin Secret Police prison. "They knew quite a lot about me," says Fröhnel, "they knew more than I thought. They showed me photographs; they had photographed me in secret. It was unbelievable. For the first seven months I was in solitary. They dredged up your deepest secrets. There was nothing left of you. Nothing."

IMAGE OF SOLIDARNOSC In Poland, the opposition to Soviet domination and the socialist ideal was more widespread and deeply rooted than anywhere else. The election of a Polish Pope, and his triumphant journey back to Poland in 1979, gave the Poles a new confidence. Gdansk streetcar operator Henryka Kryzwonos remembers: "I just fell to my knees: this would change everything. Now life would improve. This Pole would bring us salvation. Our life was going to be different."

Discontent ran deepest in Kryzwonos's own Gdansk. In 1980, the shipyards went on strike. "We knew something was up in the shipyards," recalls Kryzwonos, whose route took her past the gate of the yards. "So I stopped [my streetcar] by number fifteen in front of the opera. I blocked [routes] fifteen, thirteen, and two. I brought all the traffic in central Gdansk to a halt." With the city at a standstill, the strikers gathered at the yards and issued their demands. Led by shipyard electrician Lech Walesa, the workers had taken on the full might of the Communist state and won: they were allowed to form the first independent non-Communist trade union in the whole of the Soviet empire: Solidarity. "People were born anew," says Kryzwonos.

But just sixteen months after the Gdansk agreement, Polish Party leader General Jaruzelski banned "Solidarity" and declared martial law. Thousands of Solidarity leaders were arrested. The Soviet leadership still held ultimate control in their hands -- but their grasp was faltering.

In Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader from a new generation, becomes General Secretary in 1985. A new policy of openness, or glasnost, allows Soviet citizens greater freedoms. Evgeny Mahayev, who for twenty-odd years had worked in a large State-run grocery, embraced the opportunities Gorbachev presented: "Gorbachev said, `Come on! Wake up! Make some money. Organize your own cooperatives.' It was good. I even set up my own little business. I liked it because I was responsible. I was feeding my family myself. I was free of the State. I was independent."

IMAGE OF POLICE All across the Soviet bloc, long-suppressed nationalism percolated to the surface. In Hungary, new leaders began to dismantle sections of the iron curtain. In Poland, the Solidarity movement forced the government to hold free elections -- and won. Dissident playwright Václav Havel swept away forty years of communist rule in two weeks with Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution." And in Romania, on the heels of a bloody rebellion in Bucharest, Nikolai Ceaucescu's government came tumbling down.

But back in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's reforms had shaken old certainties. Loyal party members were bewildered by the changes at home and abroad. Moscow factory worker Nina Motova remembers: "I felt the ground slipping from under my feet. I cried tears of despair. How could this be happening? Maybe we communists did make mistakes, I'll even agree to that. But did they need to ruin everything?"

With Gorbachev threatening everything they believed in, communist hardliners and the KGB staged a coup, holding him prisoner as they sought to reimpose the old order. But the leaders of the coup miscalculated: Boris Yeltsin, one of a new breed of radical politicians, urged the Soviet people to fight back. Major Sergei Evdikimov led the tank brigade sent to the Russian Parliament and remembers the call he received from Yeltsin's deputy: "He said the people who sent [us] are criminals. Then he asked, `Will you help us?' That was his key phrase. I knew what he meant: Would we defend Yeltsin's Whitehouse. I said, yes, I will."

Unwilling to turn their guns on their own people, the young soldiers were the first to disobey their commanders. The coup crumbled. Russia had a new hero. And the people were asked to put their faith in two decidedly Western values: Democracy and Capitalism.

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