1989

1989

November 9, the day the Berlin Wall came down. I was watching CNN with my friends in Ann Arbor. It must have been early evening, as there was live video of young people on the wall—singing, crying, drinking champagne. I remember thinking at the time that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, that I should scrape together enough money to fly to Berlin and see it in person.

On display in College Station, TX

Would that I had. Thirty years later, I have shown that footage in class more times than I can remember. It never fails to brings tears to my eyes: I sit in the front row with my back turned to the students so that they can’t see my face. But why? I don’t think I cried in 1989. The emotional resonance arrived later, as I came to know people who had lived on both sides of that momentous year, and a few who had been in the streets during their own countries’ revolutions.

Let’s back up. In 1989, the most likely outcome for me was to return home to the family business (a large livestock farm) after business school, which I entered immediately after receiving my undergraduate degree in agricultural economics. Instead, I took what I thought was a short detour to work on Capitol Hill for the member of Congress from my home district in Illinois. Employment in a GOP office during the Gingrich revolution made me a Democrat, and by the time I realized I wasn’t going home I also knew that I wasn’t staying in Washington. (You dance with the one that brung ya, or you don’t dance at all.) A chance meeting with a constituent recently returned from Ukraine reawakened my interest in a region I had first encountered during a brief family trip to Leningrad and Moscow in 1987.1 And so in 1994 I landed in Prague to take a position helping Czech entrepreneurs to write business plans and get bank loans—my only qualifications for the job being that unused MBA and a capitalist childhood.

Thus began the three most consequential years of my adult life. Partway through a year working in this small consulting shop, I met John Earle—an economist at the Central European University, which at the time had campuses in Prague and Warsaw as well as Budapest.2 As my original employer lost its grant funding, John took me on as a research assistant. When he moved to Budapest with the rest of the Economics Department, I stayed behind to run an enterprise survey, traveling periodically to Hungary and joining John for a quarter in Stanford. Then followed a year working out of the Budapest campus, another quarter in Stanford, and two trips to Mongolia to help advise on enterprise privatization. My intellectual trajectory was set.

Meanwhile, I was living in Prague and Budapest: two of the great European cities, each now emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. I had many Czech friends from my first job, and through them I saw a slice of Czech society (and also the Czech countryside). I learned some Czech, and in the process internalized Milorad Pavić’s argument that personality changes when language does.3 In Budapest I worked with a group of young economists from throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; lunchtime everyday was a journey through the postcommunist region. Finally, three months before leaving for graduate school at Berkeley, I met a young woman from St. Petersburg with a passion for film and a shared interest in architecture. And my personal trajectory was set.

Revolutions inevitably disappoint, and 1989 is no exception. The reforms of the 1990s produced losers as well as winners, and the winners were sometimes undeserving. Disappointment, in turn, has led to backsliding that one can only hope will be reversed. Still, when I think of 1989, I think of my friends and my wife, all of whom would have faced different and more limited choices had state socialism not been reconciled to the dustbin of history. If choice is freedom, then millions gained their freedom in 1989, with only a few shots fired. Tonight, I raise a glass to that annus mirabilis.

———

  1. No, my parents weren’t communists: pay attention to the personal details. But they were interested in the world, and this tour of Scandinavia had a side trip to the Soviet Union.
  2. And now Vienna.
  3. In Landscape Painted in Tea.