National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 22

The Revolutions of 1989:
New Documents from Soviet/East Europe
Archives Reveal Why There Was No Crackdown

Edited by Thomas S. Blanton
November 5, 1999
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the National Security Archive and its research partners in East and Central Europe today released previously secret documents from behind the Iron Curtain detailing the ultimately futile scramble by the Communist parties of the region to stay in power in 1989 -- evidence which explains in the actual words of Communist leaders now for the first time in English how the system imposed by Stalin’s armies gave way in the face of popular protest, largely without violent repression.

The documents include verbatim transcripts of such historic meetings as the Polish Communist party’s leadership on the day after Solidarity swept the June 1989 elections, Solidarity leader Walesa’s talk in Warsaw with German chancellor Kohl on the day the Berlin Wall was to fall, Soviet leader Gorbachev’s meetings with Hungarian communist reformers, and the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s central committee’s rationale for not calling in the troops in the face of mass protests in November 1989.

The documents are the product of a five-year multinational research project organized by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, in collaboration with scholars, journalists and activists in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Russia, Germany, Romania and Bulgaria, focused on the collapse of Communism in 1989. The project organized four landmark "critical oral history" conferences in which former adversaries, divided by ideology and the struggle for power, sat at the same tables and discussed the end of the Cold War, face to face with each other and their own documents. (Similar gatherings co-organized by the Archive in recent years focused on the crisis years of 1953, 1956, 1968, and 1980-81 in Eastern Europe.) The 1989 conferences began last year with a May 1998 meeting on St. Simons Island, Georgia, and continued this year in Budapest on June 9-11, in Prague on October 14-16, and in Warsaw on October 21-23. Participants included Czech president Vaclav Havel, former Polish prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, current Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek, Gorbachev aide Gyorgy Shakhnazarov, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock, and top communist party officials and dissidents.

Research partners of the National Security Archive include:

Cold War History Research Center, Budapest

Institute for the Study of the 1956 Revolution

Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Cold War International History Project, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.

The Czechoslovak Documentation Center, Prague (Dobrichovice)

The Institute of Contemporary History, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences

Gorbachev Foundation, Moscow

Institute of Universal History, Moscow

Memorial, Moscow

Cold War Research Group, Sofia

Civic Academy Foundation, Bucharest


Click on a document number to view the transcription.

Document 1. Memorandum of Conversation between M.S. Gorbachev and Karoly Grosz, General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, Moscow, March 23-24, 1989. This document from Hungarian Archives reveals Gorbachev’s contradictions, as the Soviet leader proclaims again that the Brezhnev doctrine is dead and military interventions should be "precluded in the future, yet at the same time, tries to set "boundaries" for the changes in Eastern Europe as "the safekeeping of socialism and assurance of stability." As it turned out, the boundaries crumbled along with the Wall.

Document 2. Transcript of the Central Committee secretariat meeting of the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR), Warsaw, June 5, 1989. On the day after Solidarity had swept Poland’s first open elections, ultimately winning 99 of 100 Senate seats, the Polish Communists vent their shock and dismay ("a bitter lesson," "the party are not connected with the masses," "We trusted the Church and they turned out to be Jesuits" were typical comments). Comrade Kwasniewski (who now serves as the elected President of Poland) remarks that "It’s well known that also party members were crossing out our candidates" (only two out of 35 Party candidates survived the epidemic of X’s). But they see no choice but to negotiate a coalition government, and specifically "[w]arn against attempts at destabilization, pointing at the situation in China" -- since the Tienanmien massacre occurred the same day as the Polish elections, the road not taken.

Document 3. Transcript of the Opening Full Session of the National Roundtable Negotiations, June 13, 1989. This remarkable document (transcribed from previously unpublished video recordings) points to the unwritten "rules" of mutual civility that arose in the nonviolent dissident movements and found an echo among the Communist reformers during the negotiated revolutions of 1989. For example, Dr. Istvan Kukorelli from the Patriotic People’s Front proposes to "refrain from questioning the legitimacy of each other, since the legitimacy of all of us is debatable. It is a question which belongs to the future - who will be given credit by history and who will be forgotten."

Document 4. Report of the President of People’s Republic of Hungary Rezso Nyers and Karoly Grosz, General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party on their talks with Gorbachev in Moscow, 24-25 July, 1989. The excerpt translated into English contains economic reformer Nyers’ assessment of the political situation in Hungary, and first among the factors that "can defeat the party," he lists "the past, if we let ourselves [be] smeared with it." The memory of the revolution of 1956 and its bloody repression by the Soviets was Banquo’s ghost, destroying the legitimacy of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, just as 1968 in Prague and 1981’s martial law in Poland and all the other Communist "blank spots" of history came back in 1989 to crumble Communist ideology. For their part, the Communist reformers (including Gorbachev) did not quite know how to respond as events accelerated in 1989, except not to repeat 1956.

Document 5. Record of conversation between West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the leader of Polish Solidarity Lech Walesa, Warsaw, November 9, 1989. In this extraordinary conversation (available previously only in German), Solidarity’s leader fears the collapse of the Wall would distract West Germany’s attention - and money - to the GDR, at the time when Poland, the trail-blazer to the post-communist era in Eastern Europe, desperately needed both. "Events are moving too fast," Walesa said, and only hours later, the Wall fell, and Kohl had to cut his Poland visit short to scramble back to Berlin, thus proving Walesa’s fear correct.

Document 6. Entry from the Diary of Gorbachev’s Foreign Policy Assistant Anatoly Chernyaev, 10 November 1989. This extraordinary diary entry from inside the Kremlin, the day after the Wall fell, documents in the form of a "snapshot" reaction the revolutionary mood of one of the closest and most loyal of Gorbachev’s assistants. Chernyaev realized that this event meant "the end of Yalta" and of "the Stalinist legacy" in Europe, and in a striking statement, he welcomed this change, saying the key was Gorbachev’s decision not to stand in the way.

Document 7. Speech by Premier Ladislav Adamec at the extraordinary session of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee, 24 November 1989. This remarkable previously secret transcript shows the party elites choosing against violent repression of the mass protests in Wenceslas Square. More clearly than in almost any other Party document, the reasons for nonviolence are spelled out: such a solution would only temporarily "return calm," it would radicalize the youth, "the international support of the socialist countries can no longer be counted on," and "the capitalist states" might react with a "political and economic boycott."

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