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Niall Ferguson: 1979 Trumps 1989 in Significance

[Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard and William Ziegler professor at Harvard Business School. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.]

What exactly was the historical significance of Nov. 9, 1989? Having spent much of the summer of that year in Berlin, I have long bitterly regretted that I was not there to join in the party the night the wall came down. I mean, what kind of an aspirant historian misses history being made?

But two Berlin friends recently made me feel better by confessing that, despite being in the right city on the right date, they too missed the fall of the wall. One simply slept through the tumultuous events that unfolded after an East German official casually stated that the border was open. Her brother tried to rouse her, but she assumed he was joking when he shouted through her bedroom door: "The wall's coming down!" My other friend deliberately went to bed early to be fresh for a morning yoga class. It took her a while the next morning to work out why she was the only one to show up.

Embarrassing, no? A bit like being in Petrograd in late 1917 and catnapping while the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. Or perhaps not. For it is only with the benefit of hindsight that the Bolshevik coup proved to be a major historical turning point; at the time, the Russian press represented it as just another extremist stunt.

That set me thinking. Could it be that my friends and I didn't in fact miss an event of world-historical importance? Was the fall of the Berlin Wall not really History with a capital H, but just news with a lower-case n—a wonderful story for journalists but, 20 years on, actually not that big a deal? Could it be that what happened 10 years earlier, in the annus mirabilis 1979, was the real historical turning point?

Sure, it was nice for East Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles—not to mention the peoples of the Baltics, the Balkans, Ukraine, and the Caucasus—that they got rid of dreary communism and discovered the pleasures (and occasional pains) of free markets and free elections. What the British historian and eye-witness Timothy Garton Ash has called the "refolution" (reform plus revolution) that swept Central and Eastern Europe was a splendid thing, not least because the communist regimes were toppled with amazingly little bloodshed. Only in Yugoslavia, where the communists clung to power in the guise of Serbian nationalists, was there the kind of carnage that usually accompanies the end of empire—and Yugoslavia, paradoxically, was the Eastern European country that had been the first to break free of Moscow, and the first to introduce market reforms.

It may seem perverse to question the historical significance of the collapse of the Soviet empire in Mitteleuropa, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. I suspect most Americans today share the Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis's view that 1989 saw the triumphant end of the Cold War, a victory achieved above all by President Ronald Reagan, though nobly assisted by Margaret Thatcher—despite her deep reservations about the unintended consequences of German reunification—and the Polish Pope John Paul II.

Yet for Princeton revisionist -Stephen Kotkin, the real story of 1989 is that of a cynical pseudo-revolution from above. Only high oil prices had kept the bankrupt Soviet empire alive during the 1970s, Kotkin argued in his 2001 book, Armageddon Averted. Now, in his iconoclastic follow-up, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, Kotkin dismisses the role of Eastern European dissidents, much less Western leaders, in the Soviet collapse. No, Mikhail Gorbachev and other communist reformers wrecked their own system, partly out of naiveté, partly out of a cynical desire to grab the system's few valuable assets in what became the scam of the century: the privatization of the Russian energy industry. For the wilier members of the nomenklatura, the road from KGB apparatchiki to Gazprom biznesmen was a remarkably short, though crooked one.

Not only did the same kind of people end up running Russia as had run it before 1989—step forward, Vladimir Putin—but they managed to avert a complete breakdown of the vast Russian Federation itself. The Soviet empire had gone, but to a large extent the Russian empire remained, extending all the way from Volgograd to Vladivostok: still the last European empire in Asia, with a territorial extent that would have delighted Peter the Great.

Viewed this way, 1989 was a moment of revelation, not revolution: it revealed the true nature of Russian power by stripping away the deceptive trappings of superpower status...
Read entire article at Newsweek