Blog Post

Moscow to Cairo: Girls on Tanks or Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago in Moscow, especially at night, when the city's daytime roar turned to a steady rumble, I thought I could sense the earth's axis turning. Yes, yes, I know what was happening in Russia was not an isolated event. Solidarity had already triumphed in Poland, the Berlin Wall had been breached, and the US had won the cold war. Still, it was the fall of communism in Moscow—the capital of the country where the "real twentieth century" began back in 1917—that carried enough political and symbolic weight to tilt the world's axis towards the new century. And so they began to sway and tumble down—the entrenched authoritarian modernizing regimes, the "old regimes" of the waning century. Not all of them and certainly not all at once, but by now, the trend is palpable.

Notwithstanding the differences, there is, then, a kinship between what is going on in Cairo today and happened in Moscow in August 1991. With the hindsight of Russia's experience over the last two decades, we can expect more similarities in the future. But for the moment, one can rejoice at the fall, imminent, of Egypt's last Pharaoh.


Nothing suggests the deep similarity between the two revolutions better than the photos my daughter Anna emailed to me today, with the subject heading "When you know a regime has fallen..." One of the two, with little Anna on the tank, was taken by me on 21 August 1991 in Moscow, the other, of an Egyptian girl, by someone in Cairo today or yesterday. Guess which is which...

Do you sense the tilt, as the world keeps tumbling into the future?
 

Professor Emeritus, Stanford University

Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990.

Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.