In November 1989, South Africa was only a few months away from Nelson Mandela walking free from prison. The many walls of the apartheid state – border fences, bureaucratic barriers, discriminatory laws – were eroding and would, within half a decade, all come tumbling down. For Mandela, they already had through literature – he remarked of the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe: “The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
Possibility, change and turmoil also characterised the world at large in that month. On 9 November, the unthinkable happened when the Berlin Wall in Germany was first breached and then hammered, kicked and pulled down. The destruction of the physical barrier between Eastern and Western Europe, the most visible manifestation of the metaphorical Iron Curtain that then British prime minister Winston Churchill had described descending between East and West at the end of World War II, heralded a new world for the old world.
What happened on that winter’s day in Berlin would have been impossible without the processes of “new thinking” that brought about glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring, or political and economic reform) in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Arguably, one person was responsible for the opening up of Soviet society, economy and politics: then-president Mikhail Gorbachev. Recognising the teetering economic situation of the sprawling Soviet empire, its parlous hold on satellite communist states in Eastern Europe, and its decline in military strength relative to the Ronald Reagan-fuelled United States, Gorbachev slowly and carefully brought about the dissolution of the USSR.
It’s not too speculative to say that in South Africa the last apartheid president, FW de Klerk, drew inspiration from Gorbachev. South Africa was mired in imperial adventures beyond its borders, trying to hold on to its protectorate, South West Africa (now Namibia). Its economy was collapsing, starved of foreign investment and liquidity. Angolan and Cuban forces had inflicted a crushing military defeat on the South African army at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola.
While Gorbachev licensed not only thinking but also saying the previously unthinkable and unsayable, De Klerk nudged conservative Afrikanerdom towards the reality of giving up power and agreeing to a universal franchise and the “black majority government” to which that would inevitably lead. Both men were to win Nobel Peace Prizes (De Klerk in conjunction with Mandela) and to remain contested, ambivalent figures in history.
The changed Europe
In the case of Gorbachev, it is reasonable to argue that his seismic decision should have been better appreciated then and now. A sense of the feel of that time, November 1989, is recorded in Granta Issue 30, subtitled New Europe! The publication’s then editor, Bill Buford, seized the chance and “On 1 December 1989, Granta asked a number of writers how they understood the events in Central and Eastern Europe … Was it possible to record this particular moment, poised, as we felt we were at the beginning of December, between two histories: the one that existed before 9 December, and that other one, still to be defined, already being debated, which we knew we were entering?”
The 15 respondents were eminent, including Josef Skvorecký, Isaiah Berlin, Czeslaw Milosz, Ivan Klíma, Mircea Dinescu, Andrei Sinyavsky, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Jurek Becker and George Steiner. But, astonishingly, there were no women – surely an indictment of Granta’s editorial practice. The hopes of the men were, in general, quite high.
Klíma wrote, “Will those who were robbed, harassed and humiliated continue to be so magnanimous? As long as they can have in their power to realise the idea of a democratic Europe, a Europe for the next millennium, a Europe of nations living in domestic peace.”
He was thinking the European Union into being, the same entity the integrity and harmony of which Brexiters are imperilling.
Milosz expressed a fervent wish: “I hope that the turmoil in these countries has not been a temporary phase, a passage to an ordinary society of earners and consumers, but rather the birth of a new form of human interaction, of a non-utopian style and vision.”
Steiner looked to the future more accurately than his fellows. “What will step into the turbulent vacuum? Fundamentalist religion is clawing at our doors. And money shouts at us … And we lay waste the natural world. Only an autistic mandarin would deny to the mass of his fellow men and women the improved living standards, the bread and circuses they are now fighting, emigrating or dreaming towards. But if one is possessed of the cancer of thought, the shadows at the heart of the carnival are equally present.”
Enzensberger granted at the time what it has taken and will take yet more time for history to endow: the epic status of Gorbachev. The Soviet leader, wrote Enzensberger, was “a hero of a new kind, representing not victory, conquest or triumph, but renunciation, reduction and dismantling. We have every reason to concern ourselves with these specialists in denial, for our continent depends on them if it is to survive.”
Later in the essay, he notes of Gorbachev, “His is – of this we can probably now be certain – a timeless figure.” But what a tragic fate for that timeless figure, as he surveys the wreck of a union of Europe, its eastern states pulling ever further to the conservative right, its western democracies ever less liberal in practice.
As the author of Europe, Europe, Enzensberger had the authority and foresight in that distant Soviet thaw to write Gorbachev’s epitaph even as he was eulogising him: “As befits the hero, Mikhail Gorbachev is a very lonely man.”