30 Years After The Fall Of The Berlin Wall, A Warning From Russia

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"We wanted it better, but it turned out like always," was one of the curious sayings which characterized the life of the former Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Chernomyrdin led the government for six years during the 1990s, Russia's turbulent decade following the end of the Soviet Union.

He was one of the political generation who lived, and led, through the era of change which resulted in the collapse of communism. Like many of them, Chernomyrdin is now dead.

Perhaps the most influential politician of that time, Mikhail Gorbachev, is still very much alive. Thirty years ago, as the Berlin wall came down, he took the crucial decision that the Soviet Union–of which he was to be the last leader–would not try to stop the uprisings against communist rule. "We declared we would not interfere," he said in an interview with the BBC broadcast November 4.

Gorbachev's warning

There was a warning, too.

One of Gorbachev's greatest achievements was the process of negotiations with President Ronald Reagan, and later with President George H. W. Bush, to reduce the nuclear arsenals which the United States and the Soviet Union had piled up against each other during the Cold War.

In a changed world, some of those achievements risk being reversed. The U.S. decision in February to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, was followed by Russia doing the same.

"As long as weapons of mass destruction exist, primarily nuclear weapons," Gorbachev told the BBC's Steve Rosenberg, "the danger is colossal."

Gorbachev's policies of "glasnost"–usually translated as "openness"–and "perestroika" ("rebuilding" or "restructuring") defined the era which was to be the Soviet Union's last. That was never Gorbachev's intention. He believed that Marxism-Leninism could be reformed, and was worth preserving.

Many in the Soviet sphere had come to disagree. But, crucially, in 1989, the Soviet Union was not willing to send in troops to save the socialist system. "There mustn't be bloodshed," Gorbachev said in the BBC interview. "We wouldn't allow that."

For the other countries which had been part of what was then known as the Eastern bloc, the end of communism also had an element of liberation from Russian influence.

1989: an influence on Putin's politics

Russia, of course, had no such sense. It has since been suggested that the events of 1989 were a key moment in the political development of Russia's current leader, President Vladimir Putin, who was then a KGB officer in Germany.

Returning to his home town of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg)–Soviet security officers were less welcome in the new Germany–Putin found that the system was close to collapse even there. His two decades at the top of Russian politics have been about building a strong state; one which, like the Soviet Union was, is respected–some might say feared–abroad.

A political generation that remembered World War II

Gorbachev is one of the last surviving political leaders of the world in which the wall came down. Reagan, Bush Snr, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, Britain's then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (who famously said she liked Gorbachev and could "do business" with him) have all passed on.

That political generation presided over the end of the Cold War, but also remembered another era: that of World War II. Today's leaders have no such memories.

In the BBC interview, Gorbachev characterized the current tension between Russia and the west as "Chilly, but still a war." As the world reflects on the changes of the three decades since the fall of the Berlin wall, the views of one who helped to end the Cold War are significant, especially when he warns, "This is not the kind of situation we want."

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"We wanted it better, but it turned out like always," was one of the curious sayings which characterized the life of the former Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Chernomyrdin led the government for six years during the 1990s, Russia's turbulent decade following the end of the Soviet Union.

He was one of the political generation who lived, and led, through the era of change which resulted in the collapse of communism. Like many of them, Chernomyrdin is now dead.

Perhaps the most influential politician of that time, Mikhail Gorbachev, is still very much alive. Thirty years ago, as the Berlin wall came down, he took the crucial decision that the Soviet Union–of which he was to be the last leader–would not try to stop the uprisings against communist rule. "We declared we would not interfere," he said in an interview with the BBC broadcast November 4.

Gorbachev's warning

There was a warning, too.

One of Gorbachev's greatest achievements was the process of negotiations with President Ronald Reagan, and later with President George H. W. Bush, to reduce the nuclear arsenals which the United States and the Soviet Union had piled up against each other during the Cold War.

In a changed world, some of those achievements risk being reversed. The U.S. decision in February to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, was followed by Russia doing the same.

"As long as weapons of mass destruction exist, primarily nuclear weapons," Gorbachev told the BBC's Steve Rosenberg, "the danger is colossal."

Gorbachev's policies of "glasnost"–usually translated as "openness"–and "perestroika" ("rebuilding" or "restructuring") defined the era which was to be the Soviet Union's last. That was never Gorbachev's intention. He believed that Marxism-Leninism could be reformed, and was worth preserving.

Many in the Soviet sphere had come to disagree. But, crucially, in 1989, the Soviet Union was not willing to send in troops to save the socialist system. "There mustn't be bloodshed," Gorbachev said in the BBC interview. "We wouldn't allow that."

For the other countries which had been part of what was then known as the Eastern bloc, the end of communism also had an element of liberation from Russian influence.

1989: an influence on Putin's politics

Russia, of course, had no such sense. It has since been suggested that the events of 1989 were a key moment in the political development of Russia's current leader, President Vladimir Putin, who was then a KGB officer in Germany.

Returning to his home town of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg)–Soviet security officers were less welcome in the new Germany–Putin found that the system was close to collapse even there. His two decades at the top of Russian politics have been about building a strong state; one which, like the Soviet Union was, is respected–some might say feared–abroad.

A political generation that remembered World War II

Gorbachev is one of the last surviving political leaders of the world in which the wall came down. Reagan, Bush Snr, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, Britain's then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (who famously said she liked Gorbachev and could "do business" with him) have all passed on.

That political generation presided over the end of the Cold War, but also remembered another era: that of World War II. Today's leaders have no such memories.

In the BBC interview, Gorbachev characterized the current tension between Russia and the west as "Chilly, but still a war." As the world reflects on the changes of the three decades since the fall of the Berlin wall, the views of one who helped to end the Cold War are significant, especially when he warns, "This is not the kind of situation we want."

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I have covered Russia and the former Soviet Union since the end of the Soviet period. Between 1991 and 2009, I completed three postings to Moscow: one for Reuters TV, an...