Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tore down the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, but what really changed?

Jogger running past the remains of the Berlin Wall. Fresco depicting the "brotherly kiss" between Leonid Brejnev and Erich Honecker, East Side Gallery, work by Dmitri Vrubel. Photo: Photoshot / Vostockphoto

Twenty-five years ago, the world witnessed one of the most momentous events in modern history: the fall of the Berlin Wall. Twenty-five years is a long time, and much has changed in international relations since then. One might even talk about a paradigm shift, although during the various anniversary celebrations of German reunification, or some other event marking the glorious “Velvet Revolutions,” the oratorical tendency is to stress the timeless significance of the changes that took place at the end of the 1980s.

Unfortunately, history has once again demonstrated its cyclical nature, which manifests itself not only in the form of periodic ups and downs in the economy, but in the vicissitudes of political cooperation and confrontation. We now see that the demolition of the wall, however final it may have seemed, merely marked the start of construction of a new one, in which the only appropriate question is the following: Where exactly will the next wall rise up and in what connection?

We live in a world today in which many ideas and notions — including many that appeared immutable a quarter-century ago — are being turned inside out. Instead of unity of nations and transparency of borders, separatism and struggles for greater national sovereignty are in vogue. Confrontational rhetoric is on the rise, and the public applauds world leaders vying to get their revenge in first. Peace and friendship are off the table, replaced by the protection and promotion of self-interest.

Despite the concerted efforts of theorists in the field of international relations, the question of why and how the transition from the phase of conflict to that of cooperation will play out remains open. In the 1980s the “new thinking” of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev kick-started the process of erasing the Cold War dividing lines in Europe. But was it the assumptions of one man’s will that did it? Or were other, deeper forces at work?

In October 1989, when Gorbachev and his German counterpart Eric Honecker attended a parade on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), German demonstrators, already at war with the police, cried out to the Soviet leader: “Gorby, help us!” And Gorby did. Realizing that Moscow was not going to quash the uprising as it had in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, respectively, the East German authorities were forced to accept the demands of the street protesters and open the border to West Berlin.

Fall of the Berlin Wall: protesters at the wall at Brandenburg Gatecelebrating. Photo: Ullstein bild / Vostockphoto

If one uses the classic animal metaphors so often used to describe how great powers behave and interact, one might say that in 1989 the Russian bear came out of the taiga and — to everyone's amazement — started speaking with a human voice. It caused a commotion in the animal kingdom. Predators became best mates with herbivores, and everyone set about building a new wonderful life together.

However, many questions remained. Chief among them was what would happen if the bear resumed its ursine ways and returned to its lair. Maybe the den should be sealed with barbed wire just in case?

Twenty-five years on, the Russian bear is offended and wary, and has indeed returned to the forest. However, this does not mean that it has lost the power of speech. Rather that no one wants to talk to it. This, no doubt, is what Russian president Vladimir Putin had in mind when, during a recent speech at a meeting of the Valdai Club, he likened Russia to a bear — the “master of the taiga,” which “is not about to move into other climatic zones,” but “will not give up its territory all the same.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent unification of Germany became the most important national holiday for the country, but the more time goes by, the clearer it becomes that the date is no less seminal in Russian history. National consciousness is shaped by victories and defeats, whereupon the victories are more often remembered, unsurprisingly.

Few people in modern Russia view Gorbachev’s time in office, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a victory. But if one recalls that under Gorbachev the country’s international prestige reached a zenith, and it was Moscow’s position that brought a period of fierce international confrontation to a close, the situation appears far more nuanced.

At issue here is not the personality of Gorbachev, who in Germany has had monuments put up to him in his lifetime (deservedly so), yet in Russia, remains a pariah for many. The point is that at the historic turning point of the late 1980s, Russia essentially committed an act of self-sacrifice, reaching out to its antagonists to end the long-standing and senseless confrontation.

Such events in history are worth their weight in gold. Today the world is once again descending into the darkness of war and conflict, which can only mean that over the coming years, perhaps decades, another sacrificial lamb will be needed. Whom is fate grooming for this role? The eagle, the lion, the dragon, or the Russian bear once again? None is particularly lamb-like. No one knows, but one thing for sure is that the bear cannot keep coming out of its den to save the world. Better to act together, in which case the result will be more permanent, too.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.