The Changing of the Seasons, part four: Nuclear Winter
One of the things I remember most from my childhood was watching the news. In 1981, from my privileged vantage point as an eight-year old observer, I got to watch history unfold live on TV.
I never saw coverage of Pope John Paul II's 1979 trip to his native Poland, but being barely six years old at the time, I wouldn't have understood its later significance.
Two years later, however, I got to see the first signs of the fall of Communism. I got to watch millions of Polish workers organize to form the first non-Communist trade union, the Solidarność trade union, and the government's subsequent declaration (and eventual failure) of Martial Law to stamp it out.
At eight years old, I was just past the Age of Reason. I began to question. I asked my parents what was going on, and they did their best to explain it to a mind ordinarily preoccupied with Star Wars toys. Much like Star Wars, it all came down to good guys against the bad guys. Only I wasn't quite sure which one was which. Aren't the army the good guys? If it's "happening all the way over there, a long ways away in Poland", why is there a Solidarity flag by that big church? (At the Polish club on Main St. at Mountain Ave, kitty-corner to the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox church)
I watched day after day. I learned words your average eight-year old shouldn't need to know if he isn't affected by the events: Solidarity, martial law, repression, communist, hunger strike, Lech Walesa, and later, Mehmet Ali Agca...
This was my first conscious experience of the Power of We.
I saw a lot as a kid. The Iran hostage crisis; the wars in Afghanistan, Central America, and Iran/Iraq; turmoil in Lebanon; assassinations; assassination attempts on the Pope and Ronald Reagan; car bombs killing yankees in Rome; the rise of groups like Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad; the worsening of US/Soviet relations; the bombing of Libya; Korean airliners being shot down; everything. My favourite homework assignments were the ones involving current events. But even as a bright elementary school kid, I knew deep down that things were very, very wrong in the world, and had a sense that things might come to a head.
Looking back at the 80s, it wasn't hard to see why the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. It didn't help when our own (Western) governments and media engaged in a new Nuclear Red Scare. We were treated to nuclear holocaust movies such as the UK's Threads, and the US film The Day After.
Thankfully, in 1985, it all started to come to an end.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the head of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Ushering in systemwide reforms like Glasnost and Perestroika had unintended consequences which (while I won't get into them now as it's getting late) led to political liberalization and a weakening of Soviet control over its republics and constituent states.
In 1989, with the stranglehold of Soviet rule loosening ever more, the people in the Soviet states began to rise up. Poland was first, the workers reconstituting Solidarity, holding elections, and ultimately voting the Communists out.
On the other side of the world, public demonstrations took place in China in Tiananmen Square. The bloody crackdown that followed made headlines around the world, and gave us some of the most iconic photos of the 20th century.
Hungary followed suit with reform and elections, voting the Communists out. East Germany came next after a bit of resistance at the top, but ultimately lead to the symbolically important Fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent German Reunification (and more competition in the Bundesliga).
After peaceful protests and a largely nonviolent revolution, the Communists in Czechoslovakia realized what was happening in other Soviet states and saw the writing on the wall. A new non-Communist government was formed, and one of the figures of the Prague Spring, writer/playwright Vaclav Havel later became president. The people celebrated in Wenceslas Square, named for St. Wenceslas, the patron Saint of Bohemia (and coincidentally, the saint whose name I took as my Patron upon confirmation).
Bulgaria came next. The Communist government attempted to suppress popular dissent, but soon relented...announcing it had abandoned power after a brief period attempting reforms.
Things in Romania weren't easy. Leader Nicolae Ceausescu was determined to ride it all out, having recently been reelected. The people rose up, Ceausescu ordered his Securitate forces to shoot to kill. The army turned coat and joined the people, and the regime toppled. I still remember seeing news footage of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu's bodies being strung up...
Other republics (Estonia, Latvia, etc) soon followed suit, and the Soviet Union was ultimately dissolved. The Nuclear Threat was eliminated, and we were a couple of years away from the current terrorist threat.
But you get the idea.
The people took their destiny into their own hands.
This is the Power of We.
(to be continued)