It started with a man setting himself on fire in protest. The outpouring of grief created a groundswell of angry demonstration. The movement grew until suddenly a dictator and a system that seemed so immovable toppled so easily. And after one nation fell, citizens of other nations began to rise up and overthrow their leaders…
- Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen. 480 pages. Pantheon. $30.
“The people’s will had triumphed over tyranny in a dizzying few months of almost entirely peaceful revolutions which changed the world… a point of bright hopes, intelligent optimism, sincere thanksgiving…” This may sound like a report from the Middle East, but it is actually Victor Sebestyen writing about Central and Eastern Europe.
The pattern is familiar. It’s shocking how easily revolutions in different places in the world are built on the same frame. The revolution in Tunisia and the way it spread across the region followed the same basic template as that of Eastern Europe. What follows next is bound to be vastly different in many ways, but the way the pressure can build — and how it can happen so quietly and take everyone by surprise — is familiar. Sebestyen’s Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire doesn’t just examine in detail how much of Eastern Europe went from communist to democratic within the span of a few months: It shows you how decades of tyranny in any region can be toppled in an instant.
The similarities between revolutions in Eastern Europe then and some Middle Eastern countries today is striking. After a few protesters set themselves on fire in moments of despair in a few Eastern European countries, the memorial services transformed the dead into martyrs and the public’s mourning into resistance. Learning of their leaders’ corruption via Western television caught on satellite dishes fueled public anger — and also caused massive jumps in the cost of basic necessities. (Other things seem familiar, too, such as news of Egyptians reading their own secret police files post-revolution, echoing accounts of East Germans reading that the Stasi even sometimes recorded whether or not they ordered their sausage with mustard.)
Even the West’s reaction is similar. During 1989’s turn of the tides, the United States — which had been calling for democracy in the region for decades — suddenly panicked when faced with real revolution. It began backing the old communist guard, saying reform was the safer option. George H.W. Bush wondered publicly whether those Eastern Europeans could be trusted to govern themselves. It’s incredibly disappointing the Obama administration seemed to take its speaking point cues about Egypt from Bush the elder, but not surprising, given America’s preference for the firm hand of predictability — even occasionally a tyrannical one — over a more cacophonous, populous movement.
Tyranny is unsustainable. It looks like an immovable block, but it’s surprisingly fragile once the force of the people start to push back. And if the violence in Libya and Bahrain is more reminiscent of Hungary in the bloody year of 1958 than the peaceful turnover of 1989 — or the vicious splintering of Yugoslavia — it’s important to learn from the past. The similarities are eerie, and one can find your next step in the blueprint of history. • 23 March 2011