1989, revolution in Eastern Europe
October 27, 2009 9:49 AM   Subscribe

My most vivid memories are of watching TV footage from Romania that the Icelandic state broadcaster would pipe straight from satellite feeds when regular programming wasn't on. It was the first time I experienced historical events vicariously in real time, something that's now become very common.
posted by Kattullus at 9:52 AM on October 27, 2009

But, but... everyone knows the BBC is full of unreconstructed leftists who secretly hate Catholicism and wished the Berlin Wall could have stretched as far as Shepherds Bush.

/end boilerplate wingnut theory

Thanks Katullus - this is why I love the BBC. Amongst other things, for reminding us not just that we have history, but that it's pretty interesting too.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:52 AM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

This gives me the sadly familiar, creepy feeling that afflicts me when my vivid memories show up as history. Thanks for this great post, though. It is a pleasure to learn about such a complete and visual resource. Vive le BBC!
posted by bearwife at 10:14 AM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I could never figure out why the Catholic church gave so much support to these movements in Eastern Europe but essentially left the liberation theologians out to dry in South America.
posted by The White Hat at 10:24 AM on October 27, 2009

Catholic church gave so much support to these movements in Eastern Europe

Close(r) to Rome?
posted by scrutiny at 10:47 AM on October 27, 2009

The liberation theologists were heavily influenced by Marxist class theory. Is it any surprise that the Polish JP II would balk at supporting or endorsing them?
posted by ArgentineBlonde at 10:58 AM on October 27, 2009

My most powerful memory of that time is watching the live feed from Romanian TV on CNN at Christmastime -- the rebels had taken over the station and were reporting that the Ceaucescu family were in custody, etc. You could hear the emotion in the voice of CNN's translator, it was very moving.
posted by gubo at 11:00 AM on October 27, 2009

Ceaucescu, basically a Dracula.
posted by Artw at 11:08 AM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Author Colin Woodard has been recounting his 1989 trip to Romania on his blog over the last few days: part 1, part 2.
posted by Vectorcon Systems at 11:16 AM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

It must have been a few hours after the demonstrators, mostly students, had brought down the statue of Enver Hoxha in Tirana and a few friends and I were watching the crowds from the roof of our five story apartment building. This was located about five minutes from the national TV station and near Student City (where a good majority of student dorms were). We had little idea what was happening but noticed that many students were now returning to their dorms.

From our vantage point we could see two roads that merged into one leading to Student City. The fork closest to us was full of students; on the other we noticed a small tank and armored cars quickly coming up to the point where the roads merged. The students were unaware of this and my friends and I started screaming and jumping up and down to try to draw their attention. This was, of course, futile, but thankfully there was no confrontation at that point. Thirty seconds seemed like hours.
posted by preparat at 11:58 AM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I remember watching all these revolutions on television with my family, who were just marvelling at the fact that *everyone* was falling, everyone! Hoxha, Ceausescu, Poland, East Germany, the Baltic states.

Boy, did we feel priviliged to be living in always somewhat Western-centric little Yugoslavia, a beacon of stability and properity behind the Red Curtain! Little did we know . . .
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:20 PM on October 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

prosperity, that should have been.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:21 PM on October 27, 2009

Timothy Garton Ash has an excellent review article in the latest NYRB (to be followed by a sequel that "will look at the post-1989 history and prospects of 'velvet revolution'"). An intriguing paragraph:
A model of the kind of fine-grained, multinational analysis that we need is the work of the Harvard scholar Mark Kramer on Soviet–East European relations, so far published only in a series of scholarly articles, research papers, and book chapters.[6] Basing his work on extensive digging in Soviet and East European archives, plus a wide range of published sources, Kramer demonstrates the full intricacy of the interaction between imperial center and periphery. He concludes that what he calls the "spillover" was mainly from the Soviet Union to Eastern Europe between 1986 and 1988, in both directions in 1989, and then mainly back from Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union in 1990–1991, as the Baltic states, Ukraine, and eventually Russia itself were emboldened to follow the East-Central European example of self-liberation. If leading academic publishers are not already pursuing Kramer to turn this work into a book, they should start doing so now.

[6]The most important set of articles is his "The Collapse of East European Communism and the Repercussions within the Soviet Union," published in three parts in the Journal of Cold War History, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Fall 2003); Vol. 6, No. 4 (Fall 2004); Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter 2007). But see also his research reports published by the Cold War International History Project, and his chapter in Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present; edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash. (Oxford University Press, 2009).
posted by languagehat at 12:43 PM on October 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Vectorcon Systems: Author Colin Woodard has been recounting his 1989 trip to Romania on his blog over the last few days: part 1, part 2.

There are more stories on his blog about 1989 when Colin Woodard was an exchange student in Hungary and used the opportunity to travel all over Eastern Europe.
posted by Kattullus at 1:04 PM on October 27, 2009

I, too, share the feelings some other people have already expressed in this thread: on one hand, the pride of having been a part (however insignificant) of something big (I was one of the links in the Baltic Way human chain); on the other hand, it's kind of creepy that events from my childhood, which wasn't that long ago, are now categorized as history, which supposedly is something that took place a long time ago...
posted by daniel_charms at 2:00 PM on October 27, 2009

Now we can all move on to being nostalgic for the brief post cold-war period when Russia wasn't evil.
posted by Artw at 2:15 PM on October 27, 2009

I could never figure out why the Catholic church gave so much support to these movements in Eastern Europe but essentially left the liberation theologians out to dry in South America.

I'm going to assume this is not sarcastic.

In any case, the explanation is remarkably obvious. The Catholic Church hierarchy is deeply conservative. It is in natural opposition to any ideology that attempts to free people from religious belief, and importantly, which interferes with the CC economic power. The biggest sin Communism committed was having an atheist ideology and expropriating church property. Of course, the CC church would oppose Communism/Socialism anywhere and everywhere. Now we get to Latin American and libertarian theologians. Note, those were for the most part lower on the power pole in the CC hierarchy. And the system they opposed was for the most part not in conflict with the CC. Indeed, ideologically and economically they were often aligned. Not surprising that the CC would make their uneasy peace with right wing dictatorships, and actually reign back and combat front line priests who first developed liberation theology in response to the depredations of right wing power. JP II's personal history also played into this, as ArgentineBlonde noted... of course, one may make a deeper inquiry and ask how it is that JP II was chosen in the first place, but that's deeper down the rabbit hole.
posted by VikingSword at 3:38 PM on October 27, 2009

I will never forget the 9th of November 1989. Where I was, what I did when I learned that the wall between the two parts of Germany was finally open and what I did the days after. I purposely stopped and reflected on being a part of this historic change, that history is being made and that I was part of it by being a member of one of the two people coming together. The following Saturday 11/11/89 we drove to the border line on the Hamburg-Berlin highway and were allowed by the Grenzschutz to walk up to the big fat white line which was the official border between the two states. We stood there for hours welcoming the little plastic cars (Trabant) driven by most East Germans back then. Some got out out of their cars and stepped over the white line with tears of joys in their eyes. Others stayed in their cars and drove slowly over the line, overwhelmed by their emotions. Some could not believe it at all. We welcomed them all by applauding, greeting them and hugging them.

I still tear up when I think about these moments. You could easily spot the brothers and sisters from the Easy by their clothing and the looks on their faces. The post offices where handing out a welcome money. Long lines.

When the finally opened the border right at the Brandenburger Tor we drove to Berlin just to walk through this gate after all these years of seeing it behind the wall in the forbidden zone. I stayed away from the New Years celebrations in Berlin because it was just too huge for my taste.

I remember vividly the viewing platform on Bernauer Strasse, you could climb up and look over to the East of Berlin. The next day I crossed over and walked as close as I was allowed to the viewing platform - from the East side. And then of course the last few hundreds meters were off limits and I would have possible been shot at for trying to go further. I could see the people on the other side, where I was the day before. Only a few hundred meters away. And I imagined how it must be to live in this part of the town every day, seeing the West and yet not being able to go there. Which I was of course more than happy to do after spending a few hours in East Berlin.

When the embassies started to open in other parts of East Europe and the folks from East Germany jumped the fence and stayed in the West German Embassy until they were allowed to leave by train through East Germany into the West - we know it was only a matter of time until it would all fall apart. Yet still it was just amazing to see it actually happening. Without the use of guns. (Of course many people died trying to leave the East)

And now this is all 20 years ago. We all sobered up and paid huge, huge amounts of money to rebuilt the East.

Thanks for listening.
posted by nostrada at 4:42 PM on October 27, 2009 [7 favorites]

When the finally opened the border right at the Brandenburger Tor we drove to Berlin just to walk through this gate after all these years of seeing it behind the wall in the forbidden zone.

Just this month I came back from a 3 week trip to Berlin. I sought out the remnants of the wall. Yes, there was a lot of emotion back when they were tearing it down, as you so eloquently stated. All the more interesting to revisit it just a couple of decades later. What happened to all that emotion? And what happened to the very physical symbol of that division? Judging by what remains of it, that emotion is long gone. What remains is a cheap Disneyesque tourist trap at Checkpoint Charlie, where for a few Euros, tourists can take a photo with a guy in a guard's uniform. You can buy a lot of postcards and there's a superoverpriced "museum" that actually contains next to nothing. Not criticizing here, just marveling at how we got from there (the time of such strong and real emotion) to here (inevitable commercial exploitation of a symbol). Walking around Berlin, going from the former East to the West and back - what has really happened in those 20 years? And who cares anymore, other than the street vendors who sell both fake and real Soviet/East German accouterments... belts, hats, gas masks, medals. I didn't know if I should now start feeling old, or shrug my shoulders and say: that's life, time stops for no one. Thanks, nostrada for your eloquent testimony.
posted by VikingSword at 4:59 PM on October 27, 2009

I did not see any of this first hand but I remember a 1989 appearance by Andrei Codrescu at my campus. He suggested that someone needed to organize a tour company so folks could fly into these newly liberated countries and enjoy dancing in the streets with the locals for a few days and then leave before the somber reality of having to determine your own fate settled in. He said the tourists would be "euphoria vampires."

Also, I fell in for a short time with some Chinese nationals who were students at my school (the University of Chicago). They were organizing, emailing furiously, watching the events in eastern Europe and timing their trips back home to coincide with the overthrow of communism there. At some point it occurred to me that I was hanging with future leaders of the democratic China that was right around the corner. Not so much.
posted by LarryC at 11:27 PM on October 27, 2009

« Older The Timeslice Phenomenon   |   Nails Goes to Wall Street Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments