In November 1989, the world watched with disbelief as crowds tore down the Berlin Wall. In America, we assumed that we were witnessing the end of communism and speculated about the rise of democracy in Eastern Europe and maybe even in the Soviet Union. These ideas guided our thinking for the next several years, but soon other unanticipated developments began to appear, many of which stood in striking contrast to the heady expectations of November 1989.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a watershed event that made what had previously been unthinkable thinkable, and it set off a cascade of developments such as the decision by several former Soviet republics’ decision to break with Moscow and become independent sovereign states. Initial attempts to make sense of what was going on took place against a background of such incredulity that some analysts suggested it was all a feint by the Kremlin to get the West to let its guard down. Some even denied that any real upheaval had occurred at all. For many people in Eastern Europe and the USSR, though, 1989 was the moment they began to imagine a future that differed radically from anything they previously deemed possible.
Much of this is now forgotten in the United States due to our short attention span and collective memory, but elsewhere it is remembered very well. I have in mind China in particular. This may come as a surprise to Americans, but in Beijing decisions made in 1989 by General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev continue to be studied avidly in an effort to understand how states and entire societies can collapse if they do not have a strong, even brutal, leader at the helm. In both China and Russia, national memory of social upheaval extends back centuries, and in both places, the pantheon of heroic leaders includes figures who brutally crushed any hint of rebellion. For China, then, the story of Gorbachev’s failure in 1989 serves as an object lesson about what comes with having inept and weak leaders.
In 2021, this has given rise to a strange and shocking irony for America. Today, public figures in Russia and China see clear parallels between the demise of the Soviet Union a few decades ago and the situation in the US today. This is sometimes formulated as advice from a concerned friend. For example, the Global Times, a nationalistic paper in China published a column titled the “World recoils in horror at alarm sounded by Capitol riots” in which it warned America of an impending danger. To compound this irony, the column drew on words from Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed the US could follow the path of the USSR to disintegration and warned that “the events called into question the US’ [sic] continued existence as a nation.”
Such assessments in Chinese media of course amount to praise for the supposed far-sighted vision of the Chinese Communist Party and its infallibility in dealing with dissent at home. But these warnings are harder to laugh off in an America characterized by the extreme polarization and an attempted overthrow of a presidential election in January 2020. And these warnings are coming not just from China and Russia. Responsible and thoughtful Western figures have come to similar conclusions. In the US, for example, Fiona Hill, a distinguished Russia watcher at the Brookings Institution, outlines ominous parallels in her powerful new volume There Is No Place for You Here, where she warns that “Russia Is America’s Ghost of Christmas Future.”
Such a vision of where we would be in 2021 was completely unimaginable in 1989. In retrospect, however, some of the advice we were so busy giving others at the time on how to run a democracy might have been better applied at home. Had we seen this strange course of events unfolding ahead of us, would we have addressed impending problems of our own? Could we have? Or will the events that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago remain an episode in human history that no one seems to understand, let alone control? Another 30 years will tell.