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November 01st 2009 print

Bernard Levin

The Most Accurate Prediction in History

Twenty years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and with it fell the Soviet Union and its empire of tyranny throughout Eastern Europe. In August 1977, the British journalist and broadcaster Bernard Levin had predicted what eventually happened. He was right about why it would happen, how it would happen, and he said when it would happen almost exactly to the day. This is the article he wrote for the Times, London.

Why do I believe that Brezhnev and his colleagues have seen the writing on the wall, and know that the message it conveys is exactly the same, word for word, as the original slogan that gave us the metaphor? Why do I believe that a new Russian Revolution is inevitable, and that it may come much sooner than anyone would now dare to hope?

It is because I do not believe it possible that the thirst for freedom and decency in the countries of the Soviet Empire can remain much longer unslaked, and that any attempt either to quench it by total repression or to satisfy it by real reforms, will be cataclysmically destructive of the eroded foundations of the entire State system. If it is to be repression, the economic consequences will be appalling, and even more appalling will be the resistance it will provoke. And if it is to be reform, there will be no stopping the tide once the first sluice has been opened. Memories of the Czech tragedy of 1968 will still be fresh … the most significant element of the Prague Spring was the way in which, once Mr Dubcek had shown that he supported the Czech desire for liberation, no attempt by him and his equally brave colleagues to go slowly proved availing—the scent of freedom in the nostrils of his people was too strong.

But, it will be objected, Czechoslovakia was an occupied and enslaved land; what the Czechs wanted was what the Dutch and the Belgians and the French wanted in 1943—liberation from their hated conquerors. How can that be said to apply to the Soviet Union herself?

In the first place, it applies to a considerable extent in exactly the same way. Perhaps the most powerful of all the dissident movements has been the one fuelled by nationalist feeling: Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Uzbeks, Estonians, and other national minorities there are struggling, their national pride all the stronger for decades of repression, for what they see as their birthright (though they should not expect the United Nations subcommittee on colonialism to sympathise). Released from its iron bottle, the force of this feeling could be devastating—indeed, could not be otherwise, which is why the Soviet authorities have for so long feared it most and treated it most cruelly. But although it is expressed only through the mouths of a few exceptionally brave individuals, the feeling lies dormant in millions, like an underground reservoir of oil, only waiting for the bore to come through from the surface to erupt in a roaring fountain.

But even apart from the latent pressure of nationalism there are latent pressures, similarly given form and a voice only by an exceptionally courageous few, which must similarly gush forth if the rock is ever struck. Is it seriously to be believed that the only Christians in Russia are the ones we know about? Will anyone maintain that the only seekers after elementary human rights there are the ones whose names are familiar here? Can anyone think that the only people who would like to get out of that vast prison are the ones who ask for permission to do so? What do you suppose Christianity is, what do you imagine freedom means, what do you think emigration represents, that it can be confined to a few? It is simply not credible that forces which have moved men and women in countless millions throughout the ages exist only in sketchy form in the Soviet Union, in the hearts of the few who speak openly of them. The charge is there, packed tight, tamped down and waiting. The fuse is laid. All that remains is the match.

Nor, as it happens, is it particularly difficult to see who will strike it and why. I do not know his name or what he looks like, but I know he is there. For do you seriously suppose—now we extend the same questions into another area—that Mr Dubcek and President Svoboda and Mr Pelikan and Mr Goldstuecker and Professsor Sik and the rest of the Czech liberationists who led the doomed revolt came up one night like mushrooms, or arrived in a rocket from Outer Space? They came up through the system, through the system installed and maintained in Czechoslovakia, and most carefully monitored, by the Soviet authorities. But no Soviet tracker-dog could pick up the scent of the contraband they carried, for they carried it in their souls, where no dog’s nose is sensitive enough to detect it.

And if you tell me that no such figures exist in the Soviet Union, even more completely unknown outside (or for that matter inside) than the Czech heroes were, I shall tell you in return that it simply cannot be so. The odds against such an extraordinary aberration of the human spirit are so preposterously high that the chances can be ignored with impunity. They are there, all right, at this very moment, obeying orders, doing their duty, taking the official line against dissidents, not only in public but in private. They do not conspire, they are not in touch with Western intelligence agencies, they commit no sabotage. They are in every respect model Soviet functionaries. Or rather, in every respect but one: they have admitted the truth about their country to themselves, and have vowed, also to themselves, to do something about it.

That is how it will be done. There will be no gunfire in the streets, no barricades, no general strikes, no hanging of oppressors from lamp-posts, no sacking and burning of government offices, no seizure of radio stations or mass defections among the military. But one day soon, some new faces will appear in the Politburo—I am sure they have already appeared in municipal and even regional administrative authorities—and gradually, very gradually, other, similarly new, faces will join them. Until one day they will look at each other and realise that there is no longer any need for concealment of the truth in their hearts. And the match will be lit.

There is nothing romantic or fantastic about this prognosis; it is the most sober extrapolation from known facts and tested evidence. That, or something like it, will happen. When it will happen is neither possible nor useful to guess; but I am sure it will be within the lifetime of people much older than I. And when it does happen—let us suppose, for neatness’ sake, on July 14, 1989—you must, in all civility, allow me to be the first to repeat Charles James Fox’s words on their two hundredth anniversary: How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world! And how much the best!

© Times Newspapers Ltd, 1977


This article was also published by Owen Harries, editor of the National Interest, in that journal’s celebrated Spring 1993 edition dedicated to the fall of communism.