The Walls of August

MOSCOW – History’s milestones are rarely so neatly arrayed as they are this summer. Fifty years ago this month, the Berlin Wall was born. After some hesitation, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union’s leader, allowed his East German counterpart, Walter Ulbricht, to erect a barrier between East and West Berlin in order to ensure the survival of communism in the entire Soviet bloc. By that point, East Germany had hemorrhaged three million people – including many of its most talented – as hundreds each day peacefully walked into the zones of Berlin that were controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

And 20 years ago this month, hardliners in the Soviet government attempted to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev, who, two years after US President Ronald Reagan memorably called on him to “tear down this wall,” had done just that. Somewhat miraculously, a reformer who wanted Russians to be part of the democratic West had come to power in the Kremlin.

Gorbachev’s hard-line Politburo adversaries, like those who had hemmed in Khrushchev at the time of the Berlin Wall’s construction, were determined to preserve the decrepit system that the Wall symbolized. But, in August 1991, ordinary Muscovites stood their ground. They defied the coup makers, and in the end carried with them much of the Russian Army. With their defiance, the coup was doomed.

Berliners never stood a similar chance in the face of Soviet power. Khrushchev had assented to Ulbricht’s plea that only a physical barrier would maintain the viability of the East German state. Khrushchev’s response was reminiscent of how he dealt with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a time when he was just consolidating his rule and needed to keep Kremlin hardliners at bay.