20 years has passed since the November of 1989. Then, my final year at university was underway, well underway, so much so that I was starting to feel the heat. Having spent a summer that had me wandering around the eastern seaboard of the US, some of Canada, and also Italy, settling back into a daily routine of lectures, coursework, and books was quite a tough ask. Already behind in my final year project, there was also coursework due before the mid-term, and a group project that was far behind – it being difficult to get the group members together outside the setting of the campus pub, to contend with.
A lot happening around us as well, serving as a distraction from what we should have really been focused on. We had our eyes were fixed on the telly, not only for our Blind Dates with Cilla Black on Saturday evenings, but also due to the drama that was unfolding before our eyes in Europe, as presented by the correspondents with the BBC and ITV.
Growing up during the era in which the Cold War served as a backdrop to politics, we had been constantly reminded of the vice like grip exerted by the authorities behind the Iron Curtain on their so called Comrades. The secret police and organisations such as the KGB and the Stasi came to mind – responsible for maintaining the obedience of the masses. We had constant reminders of the brutal nature in which some of these organisations acted, as well as stories of daring escapes by dissenters from behind the Iron Curtain – more often than not ending tragically.
What we were witnessing in 1989 seemed at that time, surreal. It was the beginning of the end – the beginning of a very swift end to the wave that that engulfed much of eastern Europe that started with the Bolshevik revolution in the early part of the century, and hastened by the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. For close to half a century, Europe was divided into the communist East and the free West. The Berlin Wall, built to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin, stood for 28 years as a potent symbol of this divide, sticking out like a sore thumb over a Berlin rebuilt from the ashes of the Second World War.
With the Soviet Union in transition, distracted by Glasnost and Perestroika, the Soviets had stood by and watched, as Poland and then Hungary abandoned communism, unlike the brutal manner in which Soviet troops imposed their authority in the attempted revolutions of the 1960s. There was little then to stem the tide, as one by one, their communist allies fell around them. The opening of borders between Hungary and Austria rendered the control over the border between East and West Germany ineffective and against this backdrop, the border controls between East and West Gerrmany were relaxed on 9 November, leading to a frenzy of movement of East Germans to the West over the days that followed. Over the course of the next few days, history was about to be made, as television footage showed masses, armed with sledgehammers attempting to physically bring the much hated Berlin Wall down. With the Wall tumbling down, and inaction by the mighty Soviet army, the emboldened oppressed masses of the other eastern bloc states started to come out on the streets. We were also to witness the beginning of the end in Czechoslovakia that November, with riot police cracking down on peaceful demonstrations by students, leading to mass protests on the streets.
A trip to Ballachulish, near Glencoe, was also a welcome distraction in mid November. During the trip with several college mates from Singapore and Malaysia, some of us had somehow ended up taking a drive up what seemed to be an eerie moonlit Loch Ness and getting spooked, teeth chattering (it wasn’t that cold that November evening) in what we were certain was a haunted Urquhart Castle!