Berlin Rock

This is my piece of the Berlin Wall. It normally sits on the windowsill of my study. I would like to have been in Berlin yesterday, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the crumbling of the wall, but had carelessly allowed my passport to expire and was in London getting a new one. Still…

One thing really pleased me, though — that Mikhail Gorbachev was there, and was properly honoured by Angela Merkel. If the story of the disintegration of the original ‘Evil Empire’ has a single hero, then it’s Gorby. “His achievement”, commented the Economist last week,

“was not in making great intellectual discoveries, but in spelling out publicly what people had said and thought in their Moscow kitchens for years: that people in the West lived better than in the Soviet Union, that the Soviet economy was inadequate and that ‘we can’t go on living like this any more.’ This was common sense. Saying it openly, however, was a breakthrough.”

This triggers a rueful thought: Gorbachev was a lot more perceptive than yours truly. In 1977-78 I was a Research Fellow at a Dutch university. One of my fellow academic visitors was a Soviet scientist. He was a Vice-President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, which meant that in those days he was a Very Big Cheese indeed. (Once, with a single telephone call, he had several seats cleared from an overbooked Aeroflot flight to make space for a friend of mine who was visiting Georgia.) Before he returned to Moscow, he and I had a coffee together. I asked him whether there was anything he would miss from his Dutch sojourn when he returned home. “Oh yes”, he said, “the photocopier”.

“Eh?” I replied, baffled.

He went on to explain that he regularly spent two days a week in periodical libraries back home copying out extracts from scientific papers in longhand. “You see”, he went on, “in my country photocopiers are regarded as devices that need to be strictly controlled. They can be publishing machines for samizdat.”

At that point I ought to have twigged that the Soviet system was doomed. If it couldn’t handle routine information technology like photocopying (and FAX) then it would be unable to modernise. So it was only a matter of time before it crumbled.

As I say, I ought to have spotted that. But it was only years later that the significance of the conversation really dawned on me. Gorbachev’s genius was that he saw the problem, understood what it meant — and had the courage to state the obvious. That, and his refusal to use force to save Honecker in East Germany, were the critical factors in the remaking of European history that took place twenty years ago. But he’s been effectively written out of the story. Which, I suppose, was predictable. History, after all, is usually written by the victors.