It was, in retrospect, merely the hollow shell of a once-fearsome system, but we still felt trepidation as we passed by train from Finland into the USSR in the middle of June 1989. We were students from various U.S. colleges and had just watched the events at Tiananmen Square, which quashed any premature dreams of a quick end to dictatorship in communist countries. Most of us had begun studying Russian amidst the spirit of hopeful liberalization that accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession to power four years earlier, but Tiananmen cautioned us to harbor no illusions about what was possible in a world defined by the stark, brutal opposition between us and them, East and West, communism and capitalism.
In my teenage rebellion, I had worn a red t-shirt with a bright gold hammer and sickle, but only as a provocation. I had read Marx with great interest, but I had also studied some economics, including Friedrich von Hayek, and was left somewhat confused about how to reconcile aspirations for a better world with what seemed like iron laws of human behavior and motivation. I was familiar with Orwell, Huxley, Koestler, A Clockwork Orange and other books that should easily disabuse one of utopia, but in the bifurcated world of the Cold War any opposition to one’s own society tended almost irrepressibly to affirm the dreams, if not the reality, of the other side. No less than by 1984 my apocalyptic mood was captured by the 1978 song “1989,” sung by punk troubadour Pete Petrol, of the band Spizz Oil:
I’ve a feeling that is only mine.
It won’t be all that bad,
It’ll be the worst we’ve ever had.
For me, going on twenty, Eastern Europe was much like the moon had been for our parents. Claude Lévi-Strauss claimed that he only ever watched TV for the moon shots, since it was “the one moment when the prison opens on something other than the world in which we are condemned to live,” even if the moon seemed “not an earthly paradise, but a desolate, dead, inhospitable place.” Similarly, the Eastern bloc presented at least an imaginary alternative to what I knew, and in that sense it bore an irresistible link to a dreamable future.
When we studied the Eastern bloc in college we discovered an entire parallel world, as if out of a science-fiction novel. It had its own fashions and its own hierarchies—of professions, material goods and rock bands (for instance, Deep Purple and King Crimson were widely admired, though at home I knew no one who listened to them). It also had its own lingua franca, or rather lingua russa, which almost everyone was supposed to learn to a certain degree. More importantly, perhaps, it had its own myths, many centered on World War II, which seemed much more serious than our own.
At a certain point it wasn’t enough viewing it from afar; we all felt we had to be there, despite our parents’ concerns and our own best judgment. The fear quickly melted. The overwhelming impression from our official itinerary was not one of Soviet menace but rather Soviet morbidity. The trip began, on our very first morning, with an excursion to the huge cemetery in Leningrad that holds hundreds of thousands of war dead in mass, unnamed graves. We were taken to the Museum of the Revolution, the Museum of the Blockade and many other repositories of official collective memory, most of them full of unimaginable trauma and grim heroism. Some major landmarks were still closed for postwar renovation; in other areas you could still see damage allegedly caused by German bombardment. We barely tolerated the pat official narratives we were fed by our schoolmarmish guides, but they helped us trace the startling contradictions between the official myths and our immediate experiences. It was not only the queues that snaked for up to a hundred yards in front of the entrances to shops, or the decrepit state of Leningrad State University, with water streaming down classroom walls, a graveyard of old trucks and buses occupying the courtyard, and bathrooms consisting, literally, of a hole in the floor. The first Soviets we met were shady young men around our Palace of Youth dormitory who offered us marijuana, much like the ones I’d encountered in Washington Square Park. But were these KGB provocateurs seeking to get some Western kids into trouble? We all met purveyors of black-market goods, who offered to exchange our dollars at several times the official rate. As we got to know the place we saw that, for all our paranoia, they were probably just normal young men trying to hustle their way ahead, into capital.
Already in 1989 one could see that, like the local currencies, the Eastern values had long lost their worth and were eagerly being converted into those of the West, often in their most tawdry form. I frequently encountered faded, outdated Western calendars with pinups or racing cars, such as I would rarely if ever see at home. A friend of mine collected Western beer cans, brought to him from the hard-currency shops by Western guests, which (after emptying) he arrayed in his kitchen in a pathetic shrine to consumerism. On several occasions I encountered impromptu public gatherings, crowds formed around political debates or musical performances, which still seemed fearful and fragile; my Soviet friends were as likely to view it all as KGB provocation as they were to dismiss it out of hand as meaningless chatter. The fundamental opposition was between people who crowded—in shop queues, official meetings, unofficial demonstrations or mobs—and those who remained as much as possible in private spaces with a close circle of friends, bound only by absolute loyalty to each other.
Life, or at least anything worthy of the name, took place indoors. I was lucky enough to have the numbers of friends of previous student travelers, and these young people—many of them students or engaged in creative professions—took me in as one of their own. From the gray streets I stepped into a life filled with color. I took to staying out late, returning home amid the glorious white nights, the sun hovering precariously at the horizon.
It was from within these warm, if claustrophobic, domestic spaces that I viewed the events of 1989. In Czechoslovakia, the protests that had begun in January continued without police repression. In Poland, Solidarity was suddenly legalized as an opposition force and elected into power with almost unanimous support. In Hungary, the Communist Party itself seemed intent on turning its country into a democratic and capitalist one. Gradually an atmosphere of permissiveness was turning into a state of active change.
I returned to Moscow that September, flying on Yugoslav airlines, via Zagreb and Belgrade, in whose airports I was somewhat bemused to see traces of an alternative socialism, full of abundant beer and pornography, a socialism that seemed perhaps more resilient for being more cynical. The plan was for me to contribute to a new rock music magazine, which would provide me a front-row seat at the anti-establishment revolution. But the Moscow winter disabused me of any remaining illusion of quick change. The magazine was a debacle. I ended up living in one of the more depressing areas of Moscow, beyond a smog-spewing car factory, filled with identically drab eighteen-story buildings. As winter set in the shortages of goods became dire. Unwilling to spend my days queuing for fresh food, I was mostly limited to buckwheat porridge and Bulgarian vegetable paste. The shops’ attitude was summed up neatly by a sign that appeared in the empty local supermarket advertising “our new line of services: do it yourself.” But I was absorbed into a new circle of friends, one that consisted mostly of musicians and record collectors, which included even one young KGB officer with a taste for rock music and a remarkable ability to knock back huge beakers of vodka. I was told that he was a trusted friend, though everyone assumed he was reporting on all his private activities; one got used to the ambiguities. As damp autumn turned to frigid, hungry winter, and as the USSR lurched toward its own reform, I followed the incredible events taking place throughout Eastern Europe.
First East Germans used their recently expanded ability to travel in Eastern Europe and gathered in the increasingly liberal Hungary, which quickly decided to open its border to the West, allowing the Easterners to emigrate for good. The protests in Czechoslovakia took on mass scale and brought down the government. All eyes turned to East Germany, where the aging Erich Honecker was pushed aside by the reformist Egon Krenz, a kind of Gorbachev clone, who opened the Berlin Wall on November 9th but proved to be incapable of stanching the flow of events and was shoved aside himself on December 3rd. The close interaction between the eight socialist countries had been designed for mutual protection, but now it only accelerated their collective tumble.
Throughout this period reliable, timely information was hard to come by. The Soviet newspapers reported some of the events in Eastern Europe but only in brief blurbs that lacked context and were therefore highly enigmatic. Luckily I had a shortwave radio and could follow events on the BBC World Service, but I still puzzled over their obscure presentation in the Soviet press. I distinctly remember reading an article in Pravda on December 14th informing Soviet readers that presidential elections were impending in the Czechoslovak Soviet Socialist Republic. The first candidate was Ladislav Adamec, whose CV included many laudable accomplishments in the ranks of the Communist Party. A second was Čestmír Císař, a prominent communist from the Prague Spring who was running as an independent. A third was Alexander Dubček, hero of the Prague Spring, now nominated by the Slovaks. Almost as an afterthought, the article mentioned the playwright Václav Havel, running for the Civil Forum, which the article portrayed as a reactionary force arguing against popular elections. I knew from the BBC that Havel was the clear favorite, the leader of the popular opposition; the weak attempt at obfuscation, on page six of the newspaper, seemed only self-defeating.
That same December 14th Pravda was still writing about Nicolae Ceausescu as the forward-thinking leader of Romania, but on December 26th it printed two photographs: “[On the left] the site of battles between army detachments and the terrorists in the city of Timisoara. [On the right] Rebels on an armored personnel carrier of one of the detachments that went over to the side of the people.” The paper was obviously confused: Is the army standing against terrorists or the people? The populist rhetoric of Soviet ideology ended up tying the leadership’s hands and preventing them from opposing outright what were clearly democratic choices being made throughout Europe; their attention became focused on averting the same outcome in the USSR.
None of this was entirely evident as I left the Soviet Union in May 1990. I traveled by train, in part because Westerners could buy tickets at the same rate as Soviets, which under the by then more realistic exchange rate put the passage from Moscow to London at about six dollars. I stopped in Berlin and caught the final days of the border between West and East Berlin, and the last remnants of the Wall. I visited the shrine to those who had died crossing the Wall; I was struck by the most recent cross, dated February 1989. I took the train across the barren no-man’s-land, past the shell of the Reichstag and walked to Alexanderplatz, which struck me with its similarity to Moscow. Today it is increasingly difficult to tell where the Wall passed through Berlin. The entire socialist period has disappeared from public view, no less from public minds. The universities are now filled with young people born long after the demise of their parents’ world. For those of us who witnessed this world, if only its very last gasps, there is, inevitably, a sadness about this loss.
In retrospect, Gorbachev and his allies had a point when they reacted ambivalently to the changes in Eastern Europe, acknowledging the popular acclaim for them, but viewing this unsentimentally as the victory of American imperialism. The Warsaw Pact dissolved silently—not to give rise to a new “all-European” security system as Gorbachev meekly proposed, but simply to move the frontier between NATO and Russia further east. Even Havel seemed in the end to become a vassal of the West, most notoriously when he supported the invasion of Iraq. The only place this did not occur is in Yugoslavia, where the fall of the binary system allowed for the reemergence of atavistic nationalism. Communism deserved a more dignified end.
The exuberant carnival of revolutions may have upturned the established hierarchies but it did not, to the disappointment of many, abolish hierarchy. In many cases the old elites quickly adapted to the new rules and reinvented themselves as populist demagogues, crooked businessmen or, in many cases, both. The frenetic pace of social transformation exceeded what many individuals could handle. People miss many things in the lost civilization known as developed socialism, and this ostalgie (in German ost means “east”) still spawns fads and fashions. One of the things that has been lost most irrevocably is that warm, impoverished but colorful domestic space of trust, the closest one can get to lived communism. Another is the sense less of moral clarity than of moral seriousness, a sense that there are things worth living for beyond one’s immediate comfort. Was this too an illusion?
The time was touted as the end of history; but for me it was the end of something else. In recent years—years dominated for us by Brexit, Trump, Xi Jinping, etc.—1989 has come to denote the end of ideology. The atavistic nationalism that first manifested itself in the former Yugoslavia has spread beyond the region, even to the U.K. and the U.S. It seems, increasingly, to be the only way established elites can preserve their power, no matter their stated principles. I used to wonder when Putin would awaken and catch up to Western standards; it has turned out that Putin represented a model that politicians across the West would come to emulate.
By commemorating 1989, perhaps we can reclaim something of what was lost so silently and so irrevocably. Like the World Wars for previous generations, for my generation the fall of communism integrated our young lives, if only fleetingly, into what one might call history. The fall of communism was the event in which I found myself at the mercy and in the grace of history, when I understood that my inscrutably individual interests and desires were actually symptoms of an historical condition, common to many others but endlessly more massive than I could ever imagine. I was powerless to act—even to take decent photographs—and was left to reflect long after that I had been drawn to Eastern Europe as to the funeral of what had previously passed for the future. Thirty years later we have yet to work out a new shape for our future, a new revolutionary imaginary. When it arises this future will look nothing like the crumbling Eastern bloc I witnessed, but it will have 1989 as one of its beginnings.