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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

A Wall Collapses, the World Changes

Saturday 26 December 2009, by T J S George

Our press and patriots made quite a splash to mark the 25th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s tragic death. As it happened, it was also, to significant sections among us, the 25th anniversary of the tragic massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. So the controversies will go on, the accusations not blunting the justifications. The violations of the time were as heinous as the loyalties were blind.

In the hurly-burly of the Indira Gandhi emotions, we barely noticed the 20th anniversary of an event that changed the course of history—the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. It was, of course, much more than the pulling down of a wall that separated communist territory from Western Europe. It was the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and, in effect, two years later, the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

Those epochal developments were interpreted narrowly in America. Many gave the credit to Ronald Regan’s manoeuvres. Some talked about the end of communism. Others went so far as to see the end of history. Europe was more mature in its interpretations. Some analysts argued that the US did not win the Cold War as much as the Soviet Union lost it. Most welcomed the newfound freedom of Eastern European countries while regretting the “political arrogance” among prosperous Western Europeans towards the poorer Easterners.

Twenty years later Eastern Europe is still relatively poor. In the great, beautiful city of Berlin itself, where the wall stood in grotesque defiance of both history and geography, the merger of the drab East with the vibrant West is still incomplete. Even attitudes are taking time to readjust. But these are transitional problems that should not distract attention from the revolutionary nature of what has happened after the Berlin Wall came down.

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To believe that Mikhail Gorbachev was responsible for the Soviet Empire’s fall would be to fall into a trap. Powerful as the Soviet Union was—no one can deny Stalin’s profound achievements in building the country into a military powerhouse that could withstand both Hitler’s onslaughts and subsequent American strategies of containment—the country had begun haemorrhaging from within long before Gorbachev ascended the hot seat.

Militarisation was at the expense of everything else. Factories had no time to produce essentials and therefore shortages made the lives of people miserable. In time such harsh realities produced tensions and the widespread, if un-expressed, feeling that they were suffering when others (in the West) were living well. At the same time, the financial resources of the country were drained by what were seen as unavoidable overseas exercises of superpowers in the Cold war era—supporting guerilla movements in various developing countries and sustaining economic ties (which meant huge subsidies) with “friendly” regimes like Mongolia, Cuba and East European satellites. Gorbachev’s contribution was merely his refusal to use violence to suppress the local self-assertion movements.

When the mighty Soviet colossus fell, two after-shocks rocked the world. The first was the recognition that rigid socialism that denied basic comforts to citizens was unsustainable, that aspects of capitalism that allowed individual freedoms had a natural appeal to human nature. The second was the acceptance of these realities by China’s Deng Xiaoping. The internal party reforms that Deng introduced became a backbone of China’s advancement—from limiting the President’s term to two to allowing the profit motive to work its magic.

The progress China has made after the Soviet Union’s collapse is extraordinary by any standard. Capitalism’s evils like corruption and crime have also spread in China, but the country has achieved an international status that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. The hammer strokes that reverberated from Berlin in 1989 have re-ordered the world in the most unexpected ways—and mostly for the better.

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