WASHINGTON—Historical moments are best judged from a distance, when the eye is able to focus on the whole canvas. Given the misconceptions that seem to surround the fall of the Berlin Wall, what is striking about the 20th anniversary of the events of Nov. 9, 1989, is not how much, but how little time has passed for countries still living under totalitarian conditions.

Many people, young and old, believe the collapse of communism in Europe was bound to happen. “Crushed by its own weight,” “implosion” and “untenable” are usually attached to the disintegration of the Soviet empire, symbolized in the announcement given by East German propaganda minister Gunter Schabowski on the fateful day that East Berliners were free to cross to the other side. If much of the world’s intelligentsia thought that socialism’s triumph was unstoppable before it was stopped, their peers today conveniently dismiss the importance of those events as “predictable” in order to concentrate the mind on the true enemy—capitalism.

But there was nothing inevitable about the opening of the Berlin Wall. At the time, hard-liners still held sway in Czechoslovakia, Romania and, of course, East Germany itself, where Egon Krenz, who had deposed Erich Honecker, had assumed power in order to bring civil unrest under control. Yes, Mikhail Gorbachev had sent ripples through the empire with his “perestroika” and “glasnost,” and signaled that the various communist governments could no longer depend on Moscow’s intervention. But the reactionary forces were powerful even inside the Soviet Union, as the coup against Gorbachev proved two years later—an uprising that would probably have succeeded if Boris Yeltsin had not defied it so effectively.

It is true that the Soviet empire was an economic failure. But it had always been a failure. It had survived thanks to a near perfect police state and a military machine that absorbed a quarter of the nation’s output. Those structures could have continued to suppress any form of popular discontent were it not for key actors who refused to act in such a way in certain defining moments. Furthermore, East Germany was much less backward than the Soviet Union. As a recent book by Michael Meyer—“The Year That Changed the World”—suggests, what eventually sprung many East Germans into action was not so much their economic condition but the bewitching images of capitalism’s cornucopia beamed by West German TV every night.

People who made conscious decisions and leaders who seized favorable circumstances that they themselves had helped shape were responsible for opening the wall. History did not make them; they made history. Incidentally, the fact that Margaret Thatcher, who inspired so many behind the Iron Curtain, was hardly mentioned at a recent celebratory conference in Berlin featuring Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl in Berlin tells us how much the world takes for granted what happened 20 years ago.

The anniversary reminds us that the lessons of 1989 have been lost on Russia. In an eye blink, that country went from totalitarianism to an autocracy reminiscent of the Romanovs. As Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow, recently wrote in The Times of London, the failure of Russia’s transition to the rule of law and the market economy was due to the fact that “there were no rules, institutions or habits to prevent the ruthless and unscrupulous from taking all they could.” One could add that a series of foreign policy humiliations—seeing NATO expanded and Kosovo taken away from Serbian control, among others—added to the national frustration that opened the doors to Vladimir Putin and his cronies.

How has the world reacted? Ironically, Germany, whose reunification was so feared by Thatcher and France’s Francois Mitterrand (the latter belatedly accepted it, the former never did), has not only avoided throwing its weight around on the international stage, it has supported Russia’s new “assertiveness” even as the Kremlin used state terror against Chechnya, crushed Georgia, and blackmailed Ukraine by turning off gas supplies in order to extract political concessions.

The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall finds millions of human beings still under recalcitrant communist tyrannies that have defied the historical “inevitability” of totalitarianism’s demise. We owe it to the inhabitants of Cuba, North Korea, Laos and Cambodia—not to speak of China and Vietnam, where the ruling party continues to be communist but the beast is of a very different nature—to take a fresh look at what happened on Nov. 9, 1989.