In Russia one of the biggest hits on YouTube is the dramatic scene in November when Vladimir Putin was booed at a martial arts contest. As he entered the ring at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow to congratulate the Russian winner of a bout against an American, cheers turned to catcalls.
Russian officials today, much like the Soviet authorities of a past generation, encourage a cult of the Great Patriotic War. In the national narrative, this was their Finest Hour, still invoked on significant anniversary days as an example of heroism and sacrifice by politicians such as Vladimir Putin.
Nobody saw it coming — this superb account re-creates in vivid detail the passing of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. So many moments are instantly identified as “the day the world changed” that it is easy to forget the relevant date — or indeed the event the label is supposed to describe. But it is no hyperbole to tag Christmas Day 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the last leader of the Soviet Union and the Red Flag was lowered from the Kremlin, as one of those dates. Very likely, future historians will judge it to be far more significant than 9/11.
THE plot was hatched at a bathhouse in downtown Moscow. At midmorning on Saturday, Aug. 17, 1991, the head of the K.G.B., Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, summoned five senior Soviet officials for a highly secretive meeting that he told them would be vital for the future of the U.S.S.R.
In his Cabinet room, the leader was exasperated by the latest reports of casualties in Afghanistan. “We’re in ... but how to get out racks one’s brains,” he told his generals and political colleagues. “We’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for years now and if we don’t change our approach we’ll be there another 20 or 30 years. We have not learnt how to wage war there. We had a clearly defined goal: to get a friendly regime in Afghanistan.
No one here (I mean in Britain, not perhaps in the columns of The Spectator) likes to read anything nice about the Germans. So I shall warn you that there will be some praise for Germany in this review, mixed with the usual level of bashing. If the very thought of this shocks or appals you, I’ll do that rare thing for any journalist and suggest you turn the page and move on to something more comforting.
There’s one sound I shall never forget about the revolution that bustled the Communists out of power in Czechoslovakia 20 years ago: the jangling of door keys. Every night for a week, crowds gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. At regular intervals, thousands of people in unison waved their keyrings above their heads. The noise echoed throughout the city, signifying to their hated communist masters: “Go home, here’s your key. It’s time to leave.”
The heady events in Berlin in 1989 had far more impact than the rise of Islamism. Today is the real 9/11. This is not meant as a quibble about dates. Future historians will remember 9 November 1989 as far more significant than that terrifying day in September eight years ago. Countless long-forgotten events have been marked in headlines as the day we shall all remember. But nobody can doubt that the world changed on that wonderful night in Berlin.