It was embarrassing to his East German hosts: every time Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the Soviet Communist Party and guest of honour at the GDR’s 40th anniversary celebrations in East Berlin in early October 1989, set foot in public, GDR citizens would inevitably begin chanting his name: “Gorbi! Gorbi!” Particularly bold ones even cried out “Gorbi save us!” Add to this Gorbachev’s public chiding of his Socialist Unity Party (SED) allies for their reluctance to implement meaningful reform of their version of “real existing socialism” (“Danger only lies in wait for those who do not react to life!”) and its safe to say the party did not unfold as the Party had hoped.
In the months and years that followed the collapse of the GDR and Gorbachev’s decision not to roll Red Army tanks to prop up the unloved SED regime, it is no exaggeration to state that the head of the Soviet Union became the most loved Communist in the history of the Western world. From our vantage point, with his renunciation of violence to thwart the (mostly) peaceful demonstrators, both in the GDR and elsewhere in the East Bloc, Gorbachev had helped lay the cornerstone for a new, more peaceful world order in which several wings were to be added on to the European House.
I found the Gorbachev bust at the top of this post in the kitchen of my workplace, a school for global studies in Toronto, Canada, reserved for items which tenants deem surplus to requirements. One of the research centres here is home to a number of scholars who previously would’ve been labelled “Sovietologists”, so this bit of artwork likely had a home in one of their offices. It’s telling, I think, that I found this piece here as it speaks to the enthusiasm, even reverence, which surrounded, and to some extent still surrounds, Gorbachev here in the West.
Returning to the tumultuous scene in East Berlin during Gorbachev’s visit there in 1989, I remember how the news reports here in the West framed the welcome he received from East Berliners as being an indication of their hunger for political and social reform of the type the Soviet leader had introduced at home. While there were no doubt many Comrades in the SED, particularly amongst the generation behind the geriatric leadership cadre, who were keen to see the Party follow the Soviet path, history shows us that most East Germans had little confidence in, or appetite for as it would turn out, a reformed socialism.
So why the public displays of support for Gorbachev? To understand this tactic, we need to recall the situation in October 1989 where the country had been roiled by a month of tense, but peaceful, public protests in Leipzig and other towns. While East Berlin had not had any such public demonstrations, the 40th anniversary celebrations provided an excuse for crowds to gather and vent their frustrations. Their choice of the “Gorbi! Gorbi!” chant was an especially clever way of voicing their rejection of the SED for, as every East German had drilled into them since Kindergarten, the Soviet Union and its Communist Party were the infallible role models upon which the German Democratic Republic oriented itself. Public displays of support for the Soviet Union and its leadership were integral parts of virtually every public event of note in the country, so by invoking Gorbachev’s name, protestors were attempting to give themselves a degree of ideological cover while at the same time poking their SED overlords in the eye.