Maybe it is the cold weather here in Warsaw and the fact I was walking from a modern warm coffee shop in Centrum to the area of the US Embassy to view yet another statue of former US President Ronald Reagan unveiled on November 22nd (I was at unveiling of another in Budapest in June). As I walked I started to think back 20+ years to a time when Poland was still behind a wall (of Iron) and the idea of sitting in a coffee shop reading western papers while drinking coffee from Costa Rica was maybe a very distant dream for Poles. Weather and smell are two things that remind me of time and places. The first time I remember being really cold (being from California) was when I arrived in W. Germany (FRG) as a young US Army PFC in November 1987 to begin my Germany assignment. Ronald Reagan was a president embattled both with Iran-Contra and engaging Gorbachev in summits while the mujahedeen in Afghanistan were shooting down Soviet helicopters with American missiles. Books like Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy along with movies like Red Dawn were popular. My memories of Poland from that time are of Solidarity constantly in the news. I know Pres. Reagan gave a famous Christmas speech in 1981 but I don’t remember it amongst all the other TV news of that period.
In 1987 the Iron Curtain was strong and the idea of anything different was hard to contemplate. As soldiers, we trained for WARSAW PACT tanks coming through the Fulda Gap and to survive NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) warfare. From my perspective listening in on the Soviets and her allies every day was an electronic war of cat and mouse, looking from light into darkness. Then suddenly it was over. I remember seeing trains coming through German train stations at the end of 1989 and/or early 1990 full of cheering Germans (west and east)… the wall was down…. the Iron Curtain that divided nations and peoples was no more.
Even so, the idea of me someday visiting Poland or other Eastern Block countries was still very much an unattainable dream (I made my first visit on a weekend trip to Czechoslovakia in 1992 as a college student). This year, 2011, is being celebrated in many places as the Centennial (100 years since his birth) of President Ronald Reagan. Many people credit President Reagan’s leadership and tough stance toward the Soviet Union as ultimately bringing about the collapse of the USSR and helping to free Poland (I do know Pope JP II played a big role too).
I invite you as readers of Polandian to comment on 21 years since the crack appeared in the Iron Curtain in Berlin (I do know Poland played a big role going back even further). All these years later does the memory or Pres. Reagan mean anything to you? What was your life (or your parents) like back then? Do other public figures such as the Pope or your politicians at the time hold more prominence in your memories? Do you feel you life is better now than if events of 1989 had not occurred the way they did?
I have asked some of my students and local friends about Reagan, the fall of the wall, and what memories they have. Surprisingly the comments have ranged from life is to busy apathy to hostility towards my question and the United States. I get the impression in today’s younger generation no one really thinks much about back then and the events that unfolded and how things were. I do apologize in advance if my Americanized perspective offends anyone, that is not my intention.
(Guest writer Mochafueled, after many visits to Poland is currently in Warsaw and trying to make Poland home for a while. Mostly he is exploring all the best locations for eating potato pancakes and goulash while sharing a few words of American English with students).