For the ten years beginning in 1982, I had the privilege of serving on the Board of Radio Free Europe (for East-Central Europe) and Radio Liberty (for the vast Soviet Union). President Reagan had declared it the goal of the United States to win the Cold War, not just accept it as our long-term fate, and our job was to report the realities on the ground as accurately as we could. Our listeners loved getting these tastes of reality and they increasingly helped us with every bit of information they could.
By late 1988, we had free dial-in capacities from most parts of our two regions. And the telephone calls poured in: calls of increasing daily frustration, anger at local injustices, descriptions of the conditions of loved ones in named local hospitals, fresh examples of local official lies, accounts of local outbreaks of protest. Almost half of all hospitals had no hot water; patients were frequently assigned two to a bed; relatives had to bring food to sustain them.
At our springboard meeting in Munich in 1989, our key people reported that all signs pointed to the lid blowing off the Soviet Empire before the end of the year. The huge volume of incoming calls and their despairing tone, plus detailed reports from our growing number of stringers in the whole dispersed broadcast area made even our most hardened and jaundiced editors believe that something new was up. One story our people reported was the appearance of a novelty among street vendors in Moscow: a market in burned-out light bulbs. Why buy burned-out bulbs? To take to the office, unscrew good bulbs to take home, and screw in the useless ones for the office.
As soon as I came home, I wrote up a short magazine article conveying this prediction, and warning readers that, whatever they were hearing from most of the media and university Russia experts, the end was nigh. My pieces usually got into print quickly in the religious journals I chose. This time, no editor would believe me. At least five times the piece came back.
Thus I turned to Steve Forbes at Forbes magazine—he was chairman of the RFE/RL Board, so he understood. I worked my longer piece into three one-page articles, using new information as it unfolded. My intention was to help readers anticipate the coming events and to place each in the unfolding larger narrative. I started off the series on July 24.
By the spring of 1989 it had begun to be said openly—even Gorbachev said it—that the USSR might have a first-world military, but much of the rest of the economy was third-world. This could no longer be disguised. Even the manufacture of soap was unreliable. Food shortages were being reported, with worse to come (Russian experts said) during the 1989 winter months. Some experts even predicted famine.
President Reagan had called the Soviet Empire “an evil empire” in 1983. He did so with express forethought, against the advice of nearly all his important advisors, and to immense hand wringing by Western journalists. Reagan knew it was inevitable that some day a journalist would ask Gorbachev if he agreed. When the time finally came, Gorbachev admitted that some of the things done in the 1930s were wrong. From then on, everything the Soviets did was subject to the one thing Communists hated: moral evaluation. Until that time, Communists had disdained “bourgeois morality” and insisted that the only moral good was to advance the progress of Communism, and evil was to resist it. Now everything they did could be scrutinized morally, in language legitimated by Gorbachev himself. “Openness, Glasnost,” was daily becoming a sharper pin in the regime.
The first gigantic explosion against the empire was struck—where else?—in Poland. Lech Walesa, the electrifying electrician of the labor union Solidarity inspired a massive outbreak of public protests throughout the nation, and General Jaruzelski was obliged to bow to the parliamentary elections, which this time could not be rigged. In August, democracy once again worked its peaceful magic in a stunning transition of power.
The real magic had arrived ten years before, when the new Polish pope, the young and vigorous John Paul II, had (through his own unrelenting insistence) been invited by an unwilling Polish Communist government to make a pilgrimage to his native land. When the crowds, sometimes in the millions, gathered round him, a stunning awareness came over them: There are more of us than there are of them. “Be not afraid!” was the pope’s repeated theme. During the next ten years and more, the Polish people were not afraid.
It turned out that the pope had a great many more divisions than Stalin. And that the arms of the spirit are more empowering than military weapons. Alas, many in the West still could not believe that the whole Soviet empire was falling down.
And then the center of the action shifted to Czechoslovakia, where more than 200 courageous writers and priests and physicists had signed a 1977 charter of human rights that landed many of them in jail or got them booted out of their jobs. One physicist with a highly promising future was sentenced to shoveling coal in the basement of an apartment building—he discovered that during most of the day he could read (and pray) and years later told of his punishment’s paradoxical benefit. The future cardinal of Prague, Cardinal Vlk, was sentenced to wash windows on apartments and office buildings—and many later recognized his face on television after his elevation.
By the summer of 1989, under the charismatic leadership of the former prison inmate and dramatist Vaclav Havel, protests in the old part of Prague in Wenceslaus Square, increased in numbers and intensity. If Poland could win a change of regime, why not the Czechoslovak Republic?
Finally, on a day that will live in history, November 9, 1989, the demonstrations reached a climactic point. A young worker in a brewery near the Square stood on a box and urged his fellows to join the protests, and was reported to have declaimed in a dramatic flourish, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!” Students and poets protesting is one thing, but when workers join the demonstrations, all pretenses of Communism collapse. The government resigned, Havel was acclaimed interim president, and in a matter of days, if not hours, the great ugly wall that had separated Christian Europe into two branches (as the pope put it) came pounding down, hammer blow by hammer blow.
The roots of Christian Europe were again nourishing a single tree.
Michael Novak, a member of First Things’ editorial and advisory board, holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is No One Sees God.