About this Book

It is the conceit of almost every generation to think that it is living in extraordinary times. For my parents’ generation, it was the trauma of the Second World War and the miracle of post-war reconstruction. For my older siblings, it was the protest movements of the late 1960s and the triumph of civil rights and women’s equality.

In the autumn of 1989, it was difficult not to believe that something monumental was occurring on the global landscape.

The stirrings in Eastern Europe were not isolated accidents, but seemed part of a larger process – whose trajectory was still uncertain. As graduate students at the University of Oxford plenty had stood witnesses to these historic events, and when the images of East Germans chipping away at the Berlin Wall flashed across the television screen on November 9, everyone jumped aboard a flight to Berlin with some a few of their classmates to witness, first hand, the deconstruction of an empire.

When everyone arrived the next day, the party atmosphere along the Wall had exploded. Lufthansa flight attendants with trays were handing out canapes to those gathered, and U.S. television anchormen, fresh from their overseas journey, were hoisted on makeshift platforms to report “live from the scene.” The most astute Western observer of those heady days, British journalist and writer Timothy Garton Ash, described that period in November as the “greatest street party in the history of the world”. And so it was.

It was estimated that close to two million East Germans crossed over into West Berlin the weekend after the Wall fell most of them to spend the welcome gift of 100 Deutschmarks they received from the West German government. The observers came home with their own piece of the Wall, painted with graffiti, as well as a euphoric sense of being at the centre of history. The collapse of communist regimes was so rapid that scholars and journalists scrambled to keep up.

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The revolutions that had begun in Poland and Hungary, and spread to Germany, sparked upheaval in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. The wave eventually spilled over into the Soviet Union itself, where suppressed nationalism in the Baltic region – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – and in republics such as Armenia and Georgia, exploded into calls for independence. The deteriorating Soviet economy only heightened these nationalist sentiments and led successive constituent republics of the Soviet Union to create their own economic and legal systems.

Though the genie was already out of the bottle, communist hard-liners in the Kremlin tried to reverse the changes by staging a coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev in the summer of 1991. The effort was thwarted by the president of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin – with the help of the army – but the communist regime in Moscow was mortally wounded.

Any remaining authority it had quickly evaporated. The Soviet Union was officially disbanded on December 26, 1991, ending its reign as the world’s largest and most influential communist state.

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