I was in Berlin in 1989 when the Wall came down. I wish I had thanked Mikhail Gorbachev for changing my life and letting me witness history.
The author perched on a Berlin underground station entrance in the fall of 1989 (Photo courtesy of Elaine Monaghan)
In June 1989, I was finishing up my second year at the University of Glasgow as a German and Russian major and preparing for a year of study abroad in Berlin. I imagined myself reading Akhmatova, Bulgakov and Goethe in smoky cafes filled with poets, musicians and well-read radicals.
“I’m going to Berlin,” I told the head of the Russian department, trying to impress him when I bumped into him in the corridor of the modern languages building shortly before my departure.
His response took me by surprise and made the future seem even more alluring. “Just watch that wall come tumbling down,” he said.
I probably said something inane about how excited I was, even though I was terrified as I had nearly no money, a shaky grasp of the language and nowhere to live. Professor Peter Henry was all white beard and brains, and I wouldn’t have wanted to appear too uninformed.
Professor Henry’s prediction was driven by the choices of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose death August 30 I helped cover for Reuters. When I heard of his death, like so many others, I wished I’d had the chance to tell him that he changed my life.
The month that Professor Henry and I crossed paths, Gorbachev was making a historic visit to West Germany to encourage reform in East Germany. As recently as that October, he had characterized German reunification as a dangerous idea.
But in Germany, he said: “The Wall could disappear once the conditions that created the need for it disappear.” He said what had so recently been unthinkable about the disappearance of the border that created two German states at the end of World War Two. “Everything is possible,” he said. “Time will decide.”
Mikhail Gorbachev’s choices opened the door for me.
Time did decide, and I had a front row seat.
I stood on the Wall with my German roommates and celebrated what felt like a coming together of humanity, thanks to Gorbachev and the things he did and didn’t do. I learned that strongmen may have their day, but one day, you may see them turn to dust.
I internalized the idea, having joined the throngs of people demanding freedom for their East German neighbors in the streets of my chosen city, that sometimes people power counts, and sometimes, even by accident, you get to choose your own destiny.
Gorbachev’s decision to embrace reforms opened the door to the lovely East Germans my friends and I welcomed tearfully into West Germany. And in 1994, Gorbachev’s choices opened the door for me to move to Moscow, the first Reuters London graduate trainee to work there in a decade.
Soon I was rattling out breaking new stories alongside brilliant Russian colleagues and forming lifelong friendships with people I would never have otherwise met.
If there’s a lesson, for me it’s the power of rolling the dice, of closing your eyes and jumping into turbulent waters. Even if you don’t always grasp everything that is happening around you, if you follow an unmarked, difficult path, opting not to resist the pull of history, walls can come tumbling down.
Three questions to consider:
- What does the author mean when she writes, “Professor Henry’s prediction was driven by the choices of Mikhail Gorbachev”?
- “I learned that strongmen may have their day, but one day, you may see them turn to dust.” Can you think of historical examples?
- What personal lesson did the author draw from her experiences in 1989?
Elaine Monaghan has worked for two decades in international journalism. For Reuters, she was a correspondent in Russia; chief correspondent in Ukraine and Belarus, and in Ireland and Northern Ireland; and U.S. State Department correspondent in Washington. She joined The Times in 2002 as Washington correspondent before moving to the Congressional Quarterly. Currently she is professor of practice at Indiana University’s Media School and serves as a freelance editor for Reuters.