Living in Moscow as a reporter over the years of the end of the Soviet Union and the first years of the Russian government under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, was a stretching time, but one made glad by the ending of socialism. I had spent the years before that reporting on its ending in Central Europe, and that was similarly uplifting. I had been at the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, 30 years ago this week, as young West Germans began to clamber over, and drop down: the East German soldiers, who would have shot them days before, kept their rifles cradled.
It was being explained, in real time, for the West. As I had walked down the avenue of Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate and the Wall, already being scaled by rejoicing Westerners, a young American man came up to me and asked 'Sprechen sie Englisch?' I said I was British. He grimaced with disappointment and dashed away to others. Behind him was a brightly lit platform, on which stood Tom Brokaw, the main news presenter of NBC news: the channel had managed to get him and his crew into East Berlin a couple of days earlier.
When, that afternoon, Gunter Schabowski the Politbureau spokesman, read out a message he had been handed as he gave a press conference which said that East Germans could move freely to and back from the West, we journalists grasped, after much questioning of each other (Schabowski walked off stage after delivering this line) that history was accelerating. Brokaw's team set up the live broadcast and was able to photograph the chaos, unbelief and fear of the moment.
I took pictures too, if more modestly. The one I keep still is that of an East German woman who looked to be in her 60s, one of a small group surrounding an army officer, a few metres from the Wall: it captured a moment in which she was staring up at the officer's face, with a look of expectation mixed with bewilderment. What was happening? He looked down at her, not unkindly: but with nothing to say. He had had no briefing – except, perhaps, not to shoot.
I interpreted that to myself, and to others to whom I showed it, as the beginnings of the realisation of a liberation – on the part of the woman, and by extension, the others around her and next to the Wall. In the made-up biography I gave her (which may have been quite false) she looked of the age to have been born a few years before the war: to have been a teenager during it; had survived – only to spend nearly 30 years (the wall was built in late 1961) in a state in which spying on fellow citizens was the most efficiently and densely organised of any of the Communist regimes; in which speech, publication and even private conversations were punished by imprisonment if they veered into the forbidden zones; in which education and culture were tightly organised to serve the regime and in which history followed ideology – about which there could be no public debate – not facts. What was not to rejoice?
A young KGB officer some 200 kms south in the city of Dresden was not rejoicing. Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin was, a little after that night, doing his duty: burning KGB files, while hoping that the elated crowds thronging the streets would not break into the KGB residency. Later – 14 years later in 2005, when as Russian President he was the object of Western criticism for his jailing of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky – he told the critics in his annual state of the nation to mind their own business, that Russia would adopt democracy in its own pace, and that the collapse of the Soviet Union had been 'the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century'.
Democracy building has been, at best, a very partial and controlled business in Putin's Russia – in which he, and the presidential party, United Russia, always win. But he meant it about the Soviet Union. And so did millions of his fellow Russians – as I, and most of my fellows, were slow to grasp.
Russia was quite different from the Communist states in which I had worked. It was their imperial master, one which committed or encouraged mass murder on their territories in the Stalin period (ending in 1953), and even after, in 1956, when people revolted in Hungary – an estimated 2,500 Hungarians killed, along with 700 Soviet troops. It was the second super power: both during, and after being released from Stalinist terror, Russians could, and did, take pride from that.
Where every one of the Central European states saw, and still see, their future as enfolded in the West, Russians have for centuries been half-in, half-out of Europe – with a larger destiny, a Eurasian leaning, a faith, whether Orthodox Christianity or Communism, which stressed authority, and a transcendent vision.
The elation is long over. As Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes write in their soon-to-be-published The Light that Failed
, the Central European states, while wishing to remain in Europe and to receive the large subsidies membership brings, are in differing degrees of intensity out of step with European Union liberalism: this especially true of Poland and Hungary. None of the states allow any but a very few immigrants to take up residency: many of them show extensive corrupt practices at leadership, business and bureaucratic levels; while the leaders of, in particular, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are strongly pro-Russian.
Even as they reject new citizens, they haemorrhage old ones. Bulgaria has lost a fifth of its population since 1990: it's now under seven million. Romania lost 3.5 million citizens between 2007 and 2015: it's now a little over 19 million. And the decline is accelerating: forecasts say it will be a little over 18 million in 2030.
Krastev and Holmes see the last few years in the former Communist world as the end of a period of 'imitation'. After the Wall fell, and with it, state communism in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, the only way was West. Imitation was everything. The Western societies were 'normal', and thus democracy and capitalism were normality. The progress towards normality was overseen – monitored – by the Western governments, the world financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the international NGOs. These would produce (and still do produce) commentaries on how far the former Communist states are succeeding, or backsliding from, embedding democratic practice, civil society and a market system.
But the West is no longer the victor in the ideological and economic wars, which Francis Fukuyama saw it as being in 1989. Under President Donald Trump, the United States no longer presents itself as the nation of democratic example, a city on the hill, a template for the world's developing states. It is, as Krastev put it in a recent talk in Vienna, ready to be as nasty as everyone else – since its president believes that being a shining example has meant being taken for a sucker.
And while the European Union remains the club to remain a member of, and to join where possible (as Ukraine and Georgia both wish to do), it is losing momentum, struggling with a growth of national populism and nearing recession. The Euro remains fragile: walls and fences have gone up to stop immigrants; and Britain, among its largest members, now looks certain to leave. The rulers of China and Russia, by contrast, have themselves become role models: China, for retaining a Communist structure of governance which encourages a rapid growth of capitalism; Russia, with a semblance of democracy and capitalism which enfolds a state-run society.
The anniversary of the fall of the Wall has seen very limited rejoicing. I still believe that the woman whose picture I took on that night was liberated. But I am no longer confident that she – if she lives still – thinks the same.