Thirty years ago this week, on November 9, the world was stunned to see ordinary Germans tear down the Berlin Wall, the dreaded symbol of totalitarianism. Seemingly overnight, Communist regimes across Eastern Europe dissolved; two years later, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist.
Today, those images of men and women chiseling away the wall seem bittersweet, given the rapid erosion of freedom across the region. In 1989, many assumed that with Communism out of the way Western democracy could be seamlessly grafted onto Eastern Europe. Now, with millions enthusiastically electing autocrats from Russia to Hungary, the tacit conclusion is that the graft didn’t take. They had freedom and now they write pop songs to Putin—clearly, Eastern Europe and democracy don’t mix.
But we shouldn’t downplay the enormous victory of 1989, just as we shouldn’t lose faith in Eastern Europe. Democracy didn’t “fail” in post-Communist states for the simple reason that what many experienced after the wall fell wasn’t exactly democracy. Whatever heady expectations Westerners had for post-Communist Europe were nothing compared to the expectations of those of us behind the Iron Curtain. Democracy and capitalism were the antithesis of Communism, the Politburo told us. To the millions yearning to be free of Moscow and its puppet states, nothing sounded sweeter. Not-Communism was not standing in lines. Not-Communism was not fearing for your daily safety. Not-Communism was Technicolor for drab, gray lives. Not-Communism was everything.
Ronald Reagan often referred to America as the Shining City on a Hill. It was a metaphor, but hope, especially hope under a dictatorship, can make metaphors come alive. Many of us could practically see the glow. Meeting such astronomic expectations would’ve been impossible even under optimal circumstances. Unfortunately, for millions in Eastern Europe, life after Communism didn’t come close to the best-case scenario.
Communism’s implosion left a landmass larger than North America exposed to exploitation. Economic, governmental, and social structures vanished overnight, leaving a continent’s worth of weapons, resources, technology, energy, and industrial assets for the taking. It didn’t take long for ruthless and enterprising individuals to gobble up entire industrial sectors, turning themselves into billionaires, while impoverishing the newly independent nations. Today, we call them oligarchs; some of their names are trending in American news as we speak.
Across the former Communist lands, social safety nets were being ripped apart at the same time Western bagmen like Paul Manafort were importing every scam, scheme, and shenanigan known to man, teaching their oligarch clients more refined ways to steal. Greed and violence ruled the day. Billions were looted and funneled to offshore accounts and economic shock therapy destroyed social services, sending millions of ordinary people to early graves. Meanwhile, the oligarchs swam in caviar and had private armies wage gun battles in the streets.
What millions experienced after the Berlin Wall fell wasn’t the freedom of blue jeans and barbeques but freedom as defined by Janis Joplin—just another word for nothing left to lose. It’s also known as utter poverty. Soon enough, Russian speakers began calling their new reality dermokratiya, a bitter pun that changed the word for democracy into one meaning “shit-ocracy.” Mordant humor like this helped ordinary people cope during the depredations of Soviet times; now this cynicism was aimed at surviving post-Communism.
As a recent Guardian essay points out, Eastern Europe’s disillusionment was made doubly bitter because it followed decades of disillusionment with the false promises of Communism. For many in the region, liberal democracy became yet another “god that failed.”
It’s a sentiment Americans should empathize with. The shocking election of Donald Trump laid bare the disenchantment felt by large swaths of America devastated by financial crises and manufacturing job losses. Imagine then, the sheer trauma and betrayal felt by people who watched the Berlin Wall collapse with such intoxicating hopes—and were then left with misery, all without the democratic safeguards and traditions enjoyed by Western nations.
The poisonous mix of chaos and economic austerity measures transformed the notion of democracy into a curse word for an entire generation in Eastern Europe. And much like in 2016 America, it didn’t take long for demagogues to take advantage of their disappointment.
Just like Trump, the Putins and Orbans across the Atlantic rose by promising a return to a mythical golden past. It’s no coincidence that belligerent glorification of past greatness is a key feature of regimes in Moscow, Budapest, and Warsaw. Just like Trump, the region’s autocrats present themselves as alternatives to liberal democracy, which they claim abandoned the masses. And just like in America, this rhetoric has been successful precisely because it’s based on genuine resentment and genuine pain.
As frightening as it is to see the regression of liberty and human rights in today’s Eastern Europe, we shouldn’t allow the spirit of 1989 to be defined by the Kremlin. The triumph of ordinary people facing down totalitarian brutality; the hope of a better, more fair life; the courage of citizens willing to go into the streets because they believe there’s a better way than scraping by in a nation ruled by walls and tanks—those are all good things, wonderful things. We should acknowledge this, at the same time as we acknowledge the victims (which in the cases of Yugoslavia, Moldova, and Tajikistan extends to actual war victims) of looting and greed masquerading as democracy in wake of the wall’s collapse.