Recent weeks have marked various anniversary milestones in the reverse domino effect of 1989. I have posted on Polish elections, Hungary cutting the barbed-wire fence with Austria, and the exodus of East Germans through Czechoslovakia. I've also reflected on my own travels as related to the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the beginning of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. As regards Czechoslovakia, while November 17 is the date typically cited, the revolution was an arduous process of negotiations with the old Communist cabinet, the party’s reluctant and partial concessions, followed by more demands, strikes, and demonstrations. And of course, Havel’s eventual election.
I heard a Deutsche Welle radio story about Romanians recalling the 30th anniversary of their revolution. It began in mid-December when an ethnic Hungarian pastor was holed up in his parsonage in Timisoara, after the government tried to have him removed from the provincial town to a country parish. He’d become “dangerous” after giving a TV interview in the summer in which he complained of Romania’s dismal human rights situation. Protests spread rapidly to Bucarest, where General Secretary Ceausescu gave a speech condemning the demonstrations on 21 December. The scene became a fiasco when, on live television, many members of a crowd of nearly 100,000 turned against the dictator, who then ducked back inside the building from the balcony. Violent repressions soon followed, but when the military and factory workers joined the resistance, the game was up.
I remember the day, 25 December (not Christmas in Orthodox Romania), when CNN announced that Ceausescu and his wife had been executed by firing squad following a speedy trial. I felt in the pit of my stomach that something was wrong – a show trial, even for a brutal tyrant, didn’t bode well for democratic development. (This intuition proved largely right when, a year later, the new regime bussed in workers from the countryside to bully students calling for real reform.)
So, as I suggested at the beginning, it is good to remember Havel’s election as the crowning achievement of 1989.
Ironically, as all these breathtaking developments were happening in East-Central Europe, the Russian/Soviet human rights activist Andrei Sakharov died. 14 December was the 30th anniversary of his passing. This face came to attention when I received a request to translate a passage of a tribute to him. I was honored to contribute to the memory of this Russian Havel. You can read it here.