Berlin Wall Memories: A Professor and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

November 9, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

Photo taken on Feb. 3, 1990 of Former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Though Gorbachev wanted reforms he didn't expect the Berlin wall, the symbol of the Iron curtain to fall so rapidly. (Alexander Memenov/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo taken on Feb. 3, 1990 of Former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Though Gorbachev wanted reforms he didn't expect the Berlin wall, the symbol of the Iron curtain to fall so rapidly. (Alexander Memenov/AFP/Getty Images)
The Berlin Wall, a symbol of division between Eastern and Western Europe for three decades, fell on Nov. 9, 1989. The winds of change in Eastern Europe shook the foundations of the wall. Images of Germans, relieved as they stood on the finally crumbling structure, capture the era. The wall’s collapse rippled back across Eastern Europe, and largely peaceful revolutions ended communist rule in one country after another. The Soviet Union fell just over two years later. Two decades on, we revisit the wall’s collapse and shed light on its significance.

MOSCOW, Russia—Yuri Afanasyev is a professor of history and was a founder and rector of the Russian State University for the Humanities.

After Gorbachev came to power in 1985, many reforms took place in the Soviet Union. “In 1986, the people for the first time heard the word ‘perestroika’ [meaning ‘reconstruction.’] Soon after that he implemented the policy of openness. Then, something happened that no one expected: the policy of openness resulted in not only criticism of the central government, but also disclosure of the truth about Stalin’s mass persecutions and covered up facts of Soviet history, and eventually led to the collapse of the USSR, the Communist Party, and socialism.

“Together with the policy of openness, there appeared new newspapers and magazines. Through these newspapers people learned the truth about the gulags. It became possible to write about Alexander Solzhenitsyn [a renowned author who spent eight years in a gulag] and to read his book The Gulag Archipelago.

“In itself, this was a very eventful epoch, which brought a new vision of the world, the country, and the opening of the truth about the past, about the crimes of Stalin’s regime, and of the mass persecutions.”

Mass demonstrations were held in the very center of Moscow and many other places, he said. “The basic demands were for cancellation of the supervising role of the Communist Party. It was essential for that time. Other slogans included freedom, market economy, a free society, and moral values.

“For the first time during 70 years of the communist rule, communists themselves criticised party highest level of leadership. This was unprecedented!”

The world perceived the Berlin Wall as a symbol of the division of the world’s two ideological camps. “Therefore, when the Berlin Wall fell, we, as well the rest of the world, perceived it as the end of the Cold War and world opposition,” he said.

“In this sense, the fall of the Wall was a grandiose event.

“Russia still resists everything that is contemporary, and especially the Western world.

“But now Russia presents itself not as the ‘Soviet empire,’ but as the ‘Russian empire.’”

Yuri Afanasyev was interviewed by Juliana Kim, Epoch Times staff in Russia.