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Fall of the Berlin Wall Eyewitness: An Accidental Explosion of Freedom

•, By Patrick Cockburn

I went to Moscow as a correspondent in 1984, just as the Brezhnev generation of leaders was beginning to die off or be replaced. There was nothing to suggest that Soviet control of Eastern Europe had only another five years to run and that the Soviet Union itself would disintegrate a few years later.

In retrospect, it might seem self-evident that by seeking to reform the centralised, militarised and authoritarian Soviet state, the General Secretary of the Communist Party (CPSU), Mikhail Gorbachev, was sawing through the branch on which he and the party were sitting. But it was not obvious at the time when the most striking feature of the Soviet Union was its political and military strength and not its sclerotic leadership. In a sense, the Soviet Union had been too successful for its own good. Lenin, Stalin and their successors had built a powerful military and industrial state machine in a beleaguered peasant country. Through a mixture of ideological fanaticism and physical coercion, they had achieved their aim, defeating the Nazis and rivalling the US as a super-power.

But the Soviet Union paid a price for creating a system that was geared for concentrating all resources for coping with emergencies, but not for providing for day-to-day needs. Victory in the Second World War left Moscow in control of Eastern Europe, but its rule could continue only through the use or threat of military force. Once this threat disappeared, it was highly probable that Communist governments would disappear, from Berlin to Bucharest. Once Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985, subsequent events such as the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union three years later have a feeling of inevitability about them, which this is surely a misreading of what actually happened.

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