My View with Denise Dunbar: When Ukraine last became free

My View with Denise Dunbar: When Ukraine last became free
Denise Dunbar. (Courtesy photo)

Part I of a series

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought back a flood of memories from my six years as a Soviet leadership analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency from 1986 to 1992, the years during which Ukraine and the other Soviet republics regained their independence. What follows below, and in subsequent columns, is a look at how events from those years as I experienced them relate to what is happening now.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union established the Iron Curtain – a series of countries that they occupied militarily, then controlled through puppet communist governments – in Eastern Europe as a sphere of influence and protection against a future invasion like that of Adolf Hitler during the war.

In the subsequent decades, many factors built up that ultimately caused the Iron Curtain to tear and enabled those countries, along with the 14 non-Russian Soviet republics, to break away and gain independence. For me, two key events stand out that impacted the timing and swiftness of this implosion: President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech at the Brandenburg gate in West Berlin and the 1985 ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of the Politburo, to general secretary of the Soviet Union.

June 12 marks the 35th anniversary of Reagan’s famous speech, in which he implored Gorbachev to free East Germany and the rest of the subjugated nations behind the Iron Curtain. Reagan told Gorbachev to start by tearing down the Berlin Wall. Reagan’s speech from that day* still gives me goosebumps because it is a timeless example of the power that brave words of moral clarity can have. However, Reagan’s speech was not well-received by many of my colleagues within the Agency. At the time, I also viewed those words as mostly wishful thinking, for the Soviet Union was too firmly entrenched to cede control of its empire anytime soon – or so we thought. The speech was viewed, even by some of Reagan’s own advisors, as too provocative toward Gorbachev and not worth the risk.

The wall was toppled a little more than two years after Reagan’s speech.

In addition to the puppet governments in Eastern Europe that buffered the Soviet Union from the West, the 14 non-Russian republics formed a protective ring around Russia itself: five in Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan; the Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia; the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania; plus Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine.

At the time, I was a young Soviet analyst whose job was to study the political leadership of those 14 Soviet republics plus the Russian Republic and write papers and briefing materials for policymakers about those leaders and the organizations they headed.

It was a remarkable time to hold this job.

I had started at the Agency in mid 1986. Gorbachev, who turned 91 yesterday, had become general secretary the prior year and had just instituted the policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika” – which loosely translate to “openness” and “reform.”

Gorbachev thought he could reform the Soviet Union and its satellites to be more efficient and tolerant one-party states. Instead, he unleashed a stunning, pent-up desire for freedom that had been simmering, but repressed, for decades.

This freedom tsunami roared throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with amazing force. By 1989, it had crashed against and destroyed the Berlin Wall and by 1993 had extinguished all of the communist governments of Eastern Europe. Poland in 1989 formed the first non-communist government in that region since the end of World War II. East and West Germany reunified on Oct. 3, 1990, less than a year after the Berlin Wall fell.

The Soviet Union itself dissolved in 1991 following a failed coup attempt by hardline communists that resulted in Gorbachev being replaced by Boris Yel’tsin, who was then a much more radical reformer.

On Aug. 18, 1991, I was awakened to news of the coup attempt and rushed into work. I wound up being placed on a 24/7 task force; it was the most fascinating and exciting few days of my time at the CIA. On Aug. 19, Yel’tsin rode into Moscow on top of a tank in defiance of the plotters – and both the coup attempt and Soviet Union were finished.

Each former Soviet republic subsequently gained some measure of independence, particularly the Baltic states, which all established true democracies and eventually became members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Ukraine’s path to democracy has been turbulent, but it was the first non-Baltic former Soviet republic to hold democratic elections.

At the CIA, we were euphoric at these events. The mood was best captured in the song “Right Here, Right Now” by the British band Jesus Jones in 1991:

“I was alive and I waited, waited

I was alive and I waited for this

Right here, right now

There is no other place I want to be

Right here, right now

Watching the world wake up from history”

The writer is publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times. She worked at the Central Intelligence Agency from 1986 to 1992.

  • Abridged Brandenburg Gate Speech:
  • We come to Berlin, we American Presidents, because it’s our duty to speak in this place of freedom. But I must confess, we’re drawn here by other things as well; by the feeling of history in this city – more than 500 years older than our own nation; by the beauty of the Grunewald and the Tiergarten; most of all, by your courage and determination. … Our gathering today is being broadcast throughout Western Europe and North America. I understand that it is being seen and heard as well in the East. To those listening throughout Eastern Europe, I extend my warmest greetings and the good will of the American people. To those listening in East Berlin, a special word: Although I cannot be with you, I address my remarks to you just as surely as to those standing here before me. For I join you, as I join your fellow countrymen in the West, in this firm, this unalterable belief: Es gibt nur ein Berlin. [There is only one Berlin.]Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. From the Baltic South, those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers. Farther south, there may be no visible, no obvious wall. But there remain armed guards and checkpoints all the same – still a restriction on the right to travel, still an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state.

    Yet, it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world. 

    Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German separated from his fellow men.

    Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar.

    President Von Weizsäcker has said, “The German question is open as long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed.” Well, today – today I say: As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.

    Yet, I do not come here to lament. For I find in Berlin a message of hope, even in the shadow of this wall, a message of triumph. …

    Where four decades ago there was rubble, today in West Berlin there is the greatest industrial output of any city in Germany: busy office blocks, fine homes and apartments, proud avenues, and the spreading lawns of parkland. Where a city’s culture seemed to have been destroyed, today there are two great universities, orchestras and an opera, countless theaters, and museums. Where there was want, today there’s abundance. … From devastation, from utter ruin, you Berliners have, in freedom, rebuilt a city that once again ranks as one of the greatest on earth. …

    In the 1950s Khrushchev predicted: “We will bury you.” 

    But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind – too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

    And now – now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control.

    Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty – the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.

    There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. 

    General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate. 

    Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. 

    Mr. Gorbachev – Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!