20 years after the Berlin Wall’s fall: An East European looks back

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BURGAS, Bulgaria | The evening news bulletin on Bulgarian National Radio began with a familiar item: Another meeting of the Politburo of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

Then the announcer uttered a sentence that left Bulgarians stunned: The country’s dictator of more than 35 years, Todor Zhivkov, had just been “relieved of his duties.”

It was Nov. 10, 1989. I was only 15, but understood that what had happened was not just a simple personnel change in the Soviet Union’s most trusted satellite. Within minutes — though a day late — I learned of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Last month, as I sat in the same room in my parents’ apartment where I heard the news, I realized that those events had changed my life more fundamentally than anything else I have experienced before or since.

Had communism not collapsed, I would never have been allowed to go to the United States. I would not have a Harvard degree. I would not be working for The Washington Times. And I would most certainly not have covered four U.S. secretaries of state.

Looking back, it seems I quickly accepted the new realities. I was old enough to remember what life under communism was like, but young enough to adapt to the new circumstances more easily than older folks.

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Until 1989, I had no desire to be a journalist, because there was no free press and not much happened that seemed worth writing news stories about. Instead, I wanted to be a theater director.

In 1989, however, the theater was in the streets — demonstrations and processions in which hundreds of thousands of people expressed themselves freely for the first time in their lives. Not everything was joyful, however: Empty store shelves and snaking lines became a daily occurrence in the first months after communism’s fall.

Hoping to help others understand these momentous events, I became a journalist and published my first news story at 18. A year later, I became a reporter for the Bulgaria National Television evening news in the capital, Sofia, where I had moved to go to college.

Back to high school

Returning last month to Burgas, the city on the Black Sea where I grew up, I went to my high school to find out what, if anything, today’s teenagers know about the Cold War and how they have been affected by its consequences.

The first thing that struck me upon returning was the deplorable condition of the building which had not been renovated since it was built in the 1970s.

In these classrooms, students and teachers learned the new rules of democracy together. Almost overnight, the students had to switch from “comrade” to “sir” or “madam” when addressing teachers — though the teachers didn’t mind if students slipped and used the old word for a while. Teaching the right values was the biggest challenge, since society’s entire values system had been turned upside down.

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About the Author
Nicholas  Kralev

Nicholas Kralev

Nicholas Kralev is The Washington Times’ diplomatic correspondent. His travels around the world with four secretaries of state — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright — as well as his other reporting overseas trips inspired his new weekly column, “On the Fly.” He is a former writer for the weekend edition of the Financial Times and ...

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