Fifty years ago last week the Cold War reached a startling peak with the construction of the Berlin Wall. The wall, built on 13 August 1961, came to symbolise the lack of freedom and civil rights suffered by those living under Soviet communist suzerainty, and the division of the world into two hostile camps.
The system that the wall represented began to collapse just over 30 years later, on 19 August 1991, with the coup launched by Communist Party conservatives against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.
Last week the European press was full of commemoration — and some commiseration — about the rise and the ultimate fall of the Soviet Union. After all, the latter presaged the epoch of globalisation and the world market we’re still living through today.
First to the anniversary of the wall’s construction, a birthday that many Germans didn’t want to celebrate.
Some had bright memories of the 167-kilometre-long "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart," as the wall was referred to under official German Socialist Unity Party rhetoric. The wall stayed standing until 1989, when thousands of East Germans tore it down with picks and their bare hands.
In a headline that will be remembered as one of tabloid journalism’s most notorious, the Junge Welt — set up in the Soviet zone of Berlin after World War II — offered a simple, 72 point "Thank You" to the wall builders. Below the headline, the paper printed an image of East German soldiers protecting the wall’s builders.
The paper expressed thanks for "28 years of peace in Europe … 28 years of free day care and preschools … 28 years of cheerful sex," all of which were apparently prompted by the Berlin Wall.
The Junge Welt made few friends elsewhere in the German media for that headline. Die Welt quoted German historian Hubertus Knabe calling for the outlawing of "the denial of communist crimes." Knabe is director of the memorial set up at Höhenschönhausen, the central Stasi political prison during the DDR.
The German Left party has often advertised in the Junge Welt in the past, says Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. There have been calls this week for the party located on the far left in the German parliament to disown the paper and discontinue advertisements in the communist daily.
But the anti-capitalist wing of the Left Party wants "discussion and dialogue" on the issue, rather than for the party to pull its ad funding of the Junge Welt, continues the Süddeutsche Zeitung report. That anti-capitalist wing of the party is regarded by some in Germany as a successor to the official East German communists.
The Junge Welt, however, insists that its pro-wall issue sold out. If that is true, it proves nostalgia continues for even the most repressive features of the German Democratic Republic. It’s a nostalgia shared by Russians, many of whom still miss the USSR 20 years after its collapse, says France’s Le Figaro.
The conservative Parisian daily says according to a study carried out by the Levanda Centre, only 8 per cent of Russians see the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union as a "victory for democracy," while 36 per cent believe they were "tragic events with disastrous consequences" for Russia.
Mikhail Gorbachev — the head of state that the Communist hardliners targeted in 1991 — shares Russians’ longing for the USSR, says Barcelona’s La Vanguardia. Gorbachev, in interviews and press conferences conducted last week complained that Russia had gone "backward" since the end of the Soviet Union. His diagnosis: "the people aren’t consulted, and the parties are mere marionettes of the regime".
To solve this, Gorbachev wants the direct election of governors and Duma deputies, abolished during Vladimir Putin’s presidency, continues La Vanguardia.
Yet Russian democracy was long discredited before Putin’s constitutional reforms, argues an editorial in Sweden’s Dagbladet: "Russia’s misfortune was that its democracy was quickly taken over by democrats of an extreme liberal type. The economic reforms recommended by the West brought about an inflation rate similar to the one that ruined Germany [after World War One]."
Those reforms had to be introduced so that Russia could pay its debts, claims French financial specialist Finance et Investissement, quoting HSBC chief economist Stephen King.
While King thinks it would be "mad" to compare the deficits being run by certain EU nations to that of the Soviet states, he goes on to do exactly that. The economist recalls one attempt to create a post Soviet common market, which ended after Russia abolished Soviet currency and introduced a post-Soviet rouble. The other member nations of the common market then had to mass-borrow to service their deficits, leading to hyperinflation and the eventual collapse of the common market bloc.
Meanwhile, many of the men who led the 1991 coup against Gorbachev were able to quietly resume a business career in post-Soviet Russia, according to France’s La Croix. Vladimir Kryuchkov, the final director of the KGB, died in 2007 after having spent his retirement working as a consultant. Dmitry Yazov, the last Marshal of the Soviet army, continued to work as a military consultant until his death.
And Valentin Pavlov, Gorbachev’s rebellious prime minister, was able to convince a bank that his experience as the architect of the perestroika financial reforms qualified him for a job as a bank director.
The coup organisers’ ability to quietly take up new positions in the post-Soviet elite is typical of the general return of the communist ruling elite to power in Russia, reports Columbia’s El País: "Instead of driving around in Volga cars, they travel in Mercedes … meanwhile middle Russia languishes".
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
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