Ringing in the Changes: New Year, New Decade, New Hope: 1-14 January 1990   Leave a comment

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On New Year’s Day 1990, the ancient bells of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square rang out for the first time in many years. The changes they rang reverberated throughout the Soviet Union – ringing out the old, ringing in the new. Ten days later, from 11 to 13 January, Mikhail Gorbachev was in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, where the previous month, the Communist Party had voted to declare the country independent from Moscow. The three Baltic republics; Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had been added to the Soviet Union only comparatively recently, as a result of the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which had ceded control of them to Stalin without their knowledge or consent, thereby clearing the way for Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the division of that country between the two powers. Stalin had been determined to establish a buffer zone of client states on his western border, including the three Baltic states.

However, the three states and their peoples had never willingly accepted the loss of their independence, which they had held since the defeat of Russia in the First World War. Neither had the United States ever recognised Soviet rule over the Baltics. Yet if Gorbachev gave in to Lithuania’s demand, he would be crossing a red line for many Soviet leaders and citizens, which they felt could only result in the disintegration of the USSR. Gorbachev began to look for a compromise strategy, while at the same time insisting on the preservation of the Union.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s wife Winnie visited him in Victor Verster Prison at Paarl, on 8 January, and said that she believed he would be free within weeks. Mandela told her to start making arrangements for his early release. A month later the news was confirmed with the release of the photograph below.

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