November 09, 2009

Freedom Fries

[Commentary Aired on Vermont Public Radio, November 9, 2009]

French fries. I will forever associate the fall of the Berlin Wall with french fries.

In 1989, my wife and I were living and working in Moscow. Our friend Bob was apartment-sitting in the American embassy complex; and on November 9 he invited us over for dinner. The meal included what was, in that time and place, a gourmet treat: a cookie sheet full of freshly-baked french fries. They tasted just like home. Better still, the apartment had a live feed of CNN, which was only available in a few places in Moscow back then. We dipped french fries in real Heinz ketchup and watched the amazing events unfold in Berlin, astounded at what we were witnessing.

Just a year earlier, Bob and I had been in graduate school together, studying the long and tortuous history of reforms in Russia and its East European vassal states. We huddled around seminar room tables, cranked up on coffee, postulating various futures for East Germany, Hungary and the rest of the Soviet Empire. But, like the rest of the world, none of us foresaw that this Empire would suddenly and unexpectedly collapse.

We were brought up in a bipolar world populated by John le Carré spy novels, the Red Menace, megaton warheads and strategies of containment. We could not see that our world was less one of concrete and steel than one of tissue paper and balsa wood. We knew that there were things wrong with the world, and we expected cosmetic reforms, implemented slowly. But history had other plans.

When things did collapse, we were in the thick of it in Moscow. It was exciting, exhilarating. But, of course, as expats, we were insulated from the worst aftershocks. The collapse of the Soviet Empire and economy brought more than a decade of human suffering to Eastern Europe and the former USSR, on a scale that dwarfs the current U.S. economic crisis. Russia has witnessed terrible things over the last 20 years, including strikes, Chechnya, devaluation, terrorism, privatization, oligarchs and coups. But it is amazing that we have not witnessed worse, and that, with the notably horrific exception of Yugoslavia, the 1989 revolutions were essentially peaceful.

Yet I also can't help wondering what it would be like to travel back in time to one of those seminar rooms in 1988 and calmly inform the students that, over the next two decades, the Soviet Union would cast off its communist husk and evolve into 15 mostly democratic, vigorously capitalist states; that Russia would become a member of the group of leading industrialized states; that Russians would travel the world freely; that Russian literature and art would be unshackled; that U.S. and Russian nuclear arms would be cut by two-thirds; and that the Berlin Wall would turn out to be more like a structure of tissue paper and balsa wood than one of concrete and steel.

Not a single one of those students, myself included, would believe me.

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