It was a privilege to be a BBC news correspondent reporting from Moscow at that time, a moment of global history in the making.
The 1960s brought new dramas in Europe with another uprising brutally suppressed by Moscow – in Czechoslovakia in 1968 – but the global ramifications of the Cold War continued. The two major Communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, fell out, and the United States found itself embroiled in an unwinnable war against Communists in Vietnam.
By the 1970s, the division of Europe had become a fact of life, codified into a ‘new normal’ by the process of détente and an ‘Eastern Policy’ – ‘Ostpolitik’ – to foster better links between the two sides of a divided Germany. But if the old battleground of Europe adjusted to a ‘cold peace’ and both superpowers agreed that any conflict involving nuclear weapons had to be off limits, this did not mean that the era of confrontation was over. Far from it. In Europe, the Cold War remained a conflict of nerves, but in Asia, Africa and Latin America it erupted into bloodstained battles, as the big powers fuelled and engineered a series of coups and civil wars, acting out their rivalry in distant proxy conflicts.
The denouement of this four-decade-long drama came unexpectedly in the mid-1980s, largely as the result of a change of leadership in the Soviet Union. Few people anticipated that the challenge that would overturn Soviet Communism and destroy its empire would come from within. But within six short years, the reformist Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev overturned preconceptions and overhauled the Soviet Union’s internal and global relations, leading to the abrupt collapse of Soviet rule, first in Eastern Europe and client states elsewhere, and then also inside the Soviet Union in December 1991.
The story of the Cold War did not end there. For many Soviet citizens, especially those in Russia, the overnight erasure of their country from the map was a terrifying cataclysm and a source of trauma from which it would take years to recover. Many of them agreed with their subsequent President, Vladimir Putin, that the end of the Soviet Union was a great tragedy and a terrible loss. And geopolitical tensions between East and West did not entirely disappear. In later years, they would re-emerge in disagreements and even conflicts, like the long-lasting, simmering war in eastern Ukraine, caused in part by unfinished business left over from the Cold War years and the Soviet Union’s hasty disintegration.
But what happened in December 1991 did at least confirm that the confrontation that had dominated the globe since the end of the Second World War was over. And the extraordinary ideological battle between two very different philosophies, Communism and capitalism, which split Europe and the world in two for most of the second half of the twentieth century, was finally at an end.
As for those who were participants, on one level the story of the Cold War must be seen as a strategic fight for territory and power, the responsibility of those involved in warfare and diplomacy, the preoccupations of soldiers, spies, diplomats and members of political elites. But in almost every country its impact was also felt by ordinary citizens. This was a battle between two opposing systems, waged on a global stage, disrupting the lives of millions of people. Many of them found themselves with ringside seats and pivotal roles as key episodes unfolded, and sometimes with heart-rending personal experiences to relate.
In this book, it is their stories that we want to bring you: the personal perspectives of people who happened to be present at key events, sometimes as spectators, sometimes as actors, sometimes as unwitting chroniclers. These are the unsung foot soldiers of the Cold War. And their powerful accounts of what they saw with their own eyes offer a vivid taste of what this multifaceted and long-lasting conflict really felt like when experienced close up.
Some of our testimonies come from people who were small children at the time: the eight-year-old Greek boy, sent out on the streets by his father to experience what was happening, as the Battle of Athens unfolded in December 1944; the six-year-old girl in East Berlin whose main worry during the East German uprising of 1953 was whether her birthday party would go ahead as planned.
Some of our eyewitnesses were young adults whose experiences scarred them for life: the young North Korean researcher who fled south during the Korean War but then found himself unable to go back, and never saw his mother again; the young Japanese fisherman who happened to be on the edge of the blast zone when the first hydrogen bomb was detonated on a Pacific atoll; the two brothers who were forced to stand helplessly by while their father was hounded to his death by their classmates during China’s Cultural Revolution; and the young US soldier who discovered to his horror that what he thought would be America’s fight for South Vietnamese freedom had degenerated into the indiscriminate murder of Vietnamese civilians.
Some of our stories come from people who happened to find themselves at the heart of events: a British soldier who saw a sniper’s bullet whistle past him and nearly kill Winston Churchill; the young son of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, watching his father react to the fact that the volatile tyrant Joseph Stalin was dead; the student standing next to Chile’s first ever Socialist President, Salvador Allende, as he made his final speech before being bombed by his own armed forces, under the direction of his chief of staff, General Pinochet; and the Russian tank commander who resolved to ignore orders to use violence against protestors during that fateful attempted coup in Moscow in August 1991.
And some of the testimony comes from people who had no intention of being caught up in the heat of the action but who found the Cold War drew them in anyway: the Hungarian student who joined a peaceful demonstration and within 24 hours found himself armed and amid a revolution; the Gdańsk shipyard worker who described how Lech Wałęsa’s late arrival for a strike protest lit the spark that ignited the Polish Solidarity movement; and the young British mother, appalled at the thought of nuclear armed cruise missiles being installed at an American airbase near her village, who scaled the perimeter fence in protest.
Through this book and the BBC Radio 4 series, Cold War: Stories from the Big Freeze, which it accompanies, many of these stories are being shared with a wider public for the first time, and we give those who spoke to us our heartfelt thanks for agreeing to take part. It is a kaleidoscope of richly varied reports, wide-reaching, sometimes distressing, sometimes even joyful, and always intensely personal. In gathering and processing the material, we were all profoundly affected by these accounts. We hope you will be too.