Book review: Victor Sebestyen's Revolution 1989

This article on the 1989 revolution was published in Tribune
"Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire" by Victor Sebestyen (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25)
16 October 2009

The 1989 revolution lays claim to be the world’s greatest revolution precisely because it was peaceful. Perhaps it would command more attention if blood had been shed as in all previous revolutions – think the English Civil War, the Terror and the guillotines of France after 1789, the deaths in America between 1776 and 1865 when American politics finally turned away from violence, or the ghastly revolutions of the 20th century from the Bolsheviks in 1917 to the Ayatollahs in Iran in 1979. But Victor Sebestyen’s book is worth a dozen rehashes of World War II by Andrew Roberts and his clones.

Because 1989 was different. An empire overthrown. People able to speak, travel, write and have sex as they pleased. The camp of democracy massively enlarged with only the killing of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu blotting what was a victory for non-violent politics. Similar movement was taking place in Latin America, in South Korea and, above all, in South Africa. Their success also lay in turning away from violence. The Latin American and Irish terrorists of the 1970s only made matters worse as did the pin-prick attacks of the exiled ANC Marxist militia.

Sebestyen’s record of the 1980s is a compelling, page-turning read. Finely edited by his publisher, his book is a precise step-by-step account of the high politics and the big-name political players in the years between the August 1980 strikes in Gdansk and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall nine years later.

There are absences – the people of the Baltic states who actually had to escape from being fully incorporated into the USSR in 1940 strangely do not get a mention. Sebestyen has all the virtues of a traditional Fleet Street journalist – a brisk style, revealing tales of personalities, and a steady narrative pace – and all the faults of London journalism with its comprehensive indifference to ideology, as well as social and economic currents.
He says no one saw the changes coming. Eh? I was in Prague meeting Charter 77 leaders in 1978 and was in Poland regularly in 1980-1981 and even wrote the first book on the Polish union, Solidarity, which ended on an optimistic note. Others who examined the rejection by the masses of "real existing socialism" noted that change was coming. Stalinism could only preside with terror tactics over a largely peasant society. The urbanisation and industrialisation of Russia and Eastern Europe, which accelerated from the 1960s onwards, brought into being a working class which had its own needs and its own form of extra-party organisation – the trade union.
Most of the organisers, writers and theoreticians of the different movements that toppled communism were trained in dialectic and thus were able to guide their different movements away from an excessive religious nationalism. Sadly, this is back in business as we see in the Tory alliance with right-wing Polish nationalist politicians with unpleasant views on Jews, gays and Barack Obama.
Sebestyen repeats the tired old neo-conservative arguments that the CIA financed the democratic opposition via the Vatican. He fails to mentions the entire European and world democratic trade union movement that offered support, money and a platform to Solidarity both during its early period of legal existence and then as it led a half-life in the 1980s. Norman Willis, the TUC general secretary, deserves a mention and it is bizarre that Sebestyen seems to know nothing of the role of the ILO where Solidarity and other democratic unions in the communist world had a platform and support.
Nor does he acknowledge the role of the exiled Poles, Czechs and others like Jan Kavan and his Palach Press in London or the Smolar brothers in London and Paris who channelled books, money, printing equipment and people into communist Europe. The 1980s saw the rise of the strength of the European Community. The West was no longer defined by NATO but by European integration to which all the nations of Europe could aspire. But Sebestyen ignores the magnetic pull of the EU. Europe could no longer be painted as plagued by capitalism and clerics and cartels as in the old communist propaganda lines of the 1950s and 1960s.
He is honest in describing the massive errors of judgement of the CIA. The role of Conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in creating, financing, and arming jihadi terrorism in the 1980s – which culminated in 9/11 and in today’s death tolls in Afghanistan – needs much harsher examination and judgement.
This is a book in the big men school of contemporary history. It is none the worse for that but we are still waiting for a definitive account of a revolution that was glorious and, in a short period, brought more freedom and democracy to more people than ever previously achieved.