Post-communist Eastern Europe in Historical Perspective
  • Thomas W. SimonsJr.


Looking back over Eastern Europe’s experience during the three years since the revolutions of 1989, the first question to ask is why anyone would still wish to read a history of the region’s Communist era?


Historical Perspective Economic Reform Liberal Democracy Democratic Politics Communist Rule 
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  1. 1.
    Vojtech Mastny, “The Historical East Central Europe after Communism,” in Andrew A. Michta and Ilya Prizel, eds., Postcommunist Eastern Europe. Crisis and Reform (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 1–2.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a valuable review of the nationalities background to Soviet breakup, see Gail Lapidus and Victor Zaslavsky, From Union to Commonwealth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ralf Dahrendorf, “Roads to Freedom: Democratization and Its Problems in East Central Europe,” in Peter Volten, ed., Uncertain Futures: Eastern Europe and Democracy (New York: Institute for East-West Security Studies, 1990), 10–13.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    1991 commentary that focussed on elections was still relatively upbeat: Ivo Banac, “Introduction,” in Banac, ed., Eastern Europe in Revolution (Ithaca, N.Y. and London: Cornell University Press, 1992), 7–10;Google Scholar
  5. and Larry Garber and Eric Bjornlund, eds., The New Democratic Frontier. A Country-by-Country Report on Elections in Central and Eastern Europe (Washington, D.C.: the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, 1991).Google Scholar
  6. Economic reform in its first year also got passing marks: Olivier Blanchard, Rudiger Dornbusch, Paul Krugman, Richard Layard and Lawrence Summers, Reform in Eastern Europe (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1991). But the mood darkened as the year went on and the economic focus sharpened, until by year’s end it was positively bleak: for example, see Mark Kramer, “Eastern Europe goes to Market,” Foreign Policy, no. 86 (Spring 1992): 134–157, and Lawrence Weschler, “Deficit” (on Poland), The New Yorker, 11 May 1992: 41–77. It was overlaid with mixed feelings about the disappearance of Cold War certainties, e.g. “The End of the Cold War: A Symposium,” Diplomatic History, 16, no. 2 (Spring 1992)Google Scholar
  7. and Michael J. Hogan, ed., The End of the Cold War. Its Meaning and Implications (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). As the American presidential election ground forward the next year, this naturally surfaced as polemic over who deserved the political credit: George F. Kennan, “Who Won the Cold War? Ask Instead What was Lost,” International Herald Tribune, 29 October 1992, and Stephen S. Rosenfeld, “The Cold War’s Winners Were in Different Camps,” ibid., 3 November 1992.Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    Quoted in Gore Vidal, Lincoln (New York: Random House, 1984), 620.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    On the Czecho-Slovak agony, see Paul Wilson, “The End of the Velvet Revolution,” New York Review of Books, 13 August 1992: 57–63, and “Czechoslovakia: The Pain of Divorce,” ibid., 17 December 1992: 69–75, but also, for 1991, Mark Sommer, Living in Freedom. The Exhilaration and Anguish of Prague’s Second Spring (New York: Mercury House, 1992).Google Scholar
  10. On former Yugoslavia, Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia. The Third Balkan War (New York: Penguin, 1992) carries the awful story through mid-1992.Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    For a late example, see “Poland’s Economic Reforms. If It Works, It’s Fixed,” The Economist, 326, no. 7795 (23–29 January 1993): 23–25, but also the previous flowers peeping through the snow in Andrew Berg and Jeffrey Sachs, “Structural Adjustment and International Trade in Eastern Europe: The Case of Poland,” Economic Policy (April 1992): 118–173, and in the essays by Sachs, Paul Marer, Richard Portes, and Robert W. Campbell in Shafiqul Islam and Michael Mandelbaum, eds., Making Markets. Economic Transformation in Eastern Europe and the Post-Soviet States (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    The West’s approach was sharply criticized for its tentativeness by Zbigniew Brzezinski, “The West Adrift: Vision in Search of a Strategy,” Washington Post, 1 March 1992, but meanwhile both constructive work and constructive thinking continued: see the essays by J.F. Brown, Robert D. Hormats and William H. Luers in Ivo J. Lederer, ed., Western Approaches to Eastern Europe (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1992),Google Scholar
  13. and by François Heisbourg and F. Stephen Larrabee in Gregory F. Treverton, ed., The Shape of the New Europe (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  14. 9.
    Ken Jowitt, New World Disorder. The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford: University of California Press, 1992), 249–283.Google Scholar
  15. 10.
    Charles Gati argues (in The Bloc that Failed [Bloomington, IN.: Indiana University Press, 1990], 162–164) that the gamble on Communist-led reform in Eastern Europe was lost before it began because Gorbachev deluded himself and failed to discern the depth of “the region’s anticommunist, prerevolutionary condition.” But it was sincerely played: reform Communists in the area really thought they could survive if only (and only if) they reformed. So did their counterparts in the Soviet Union, till very late in the game: see Stephen E. Hanson, “Gorbachev: The Last True Leninist Believer?,” in Daniel Chirot, ed., The Crisis of Leninism and the Decline of the Left. The Revolutions of 1989 (Seattle and London: University of London Press, 1991), 33–59.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    Scholarly description of the region’s ethnic and national woes is starting to fill bookshelves and is also provoking its own scholarly antidotes: for Eastern Europe see Judy Batt, East Central Europe from Reform to Transformation (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1991), 50–51;Google Scholar
  17. and Vojtech Mastny’s magisterial review cited in note 1 above, 1–20; and for the Soviet Union see Victor Zaslavsky, “Nationalism and Democratic Transition in Postcommunist Societies,” Daedalus, 121, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 97–121.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    Martin Malia, “Leninist Endgame,” Daedalus, 121, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 70.Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    There is a good capsule description of Marxism’s ideological problem with nationalism in Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. Chapters in the History of Ideas ([1972] New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 249ff. The Romanian attempt to wed them is noted at 253–254n.Google Scholar
  20. 23.
    “The system had become thoroughly corrupt. The indigenous communist leadership in most of Eastern Europe had degenerated into a venal, arrogant oligarchy, living like oriental potentates while their own people were desperate. To be sure, Stalin’s generation in Eastern Europe (Tito, Dimitrov, Ulbricht, Bierut) were his obedient puppets, but there were also the true believers portrayed by Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon. By the 1980s, the East European communists had become unprincipled cynics and hypocrites. They believed in little”: William Hyland, The Cold War Is Over (New York: Times Books, 1990), 195. In a judicious retrospective, Daniel Chirot also focuses on moral rot as a factor forcing the regimes back onto economic performance, at which they failed: “What Happened in Eastern Europe in 1989?” in Daniel Chirot, ed., The Crisis in Leninism, 3–32.Google Scholar
  21. For insights into what it was like to live there in the 1980s, see also, despite the overwriting, John Clark and Aaron Wildavsky, The Moral Collapse of Communism. Poland as a Cautionary Tale (San Francisco, CA.: ICS Press, 1990)Google Scholar
  22. and Janine Wedel, ed., The Unplanned Society. Poland during and after Communism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  23. As so often, however, the spirit of the age can best be captured in literature, some of which is now translated, in particular three works by the Pole, Tadeusz Konwicki: A Minor Apocalypse ([1979] New York: Vintage Aventura, 1984); Moonrise, Moonset ([1982] New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), the best literary treatment of the Solidarity years, 1980–81; and, for the dry mid-decade, Bohin Manor ([1987] New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990). Just as the Hungarian George Konrád was the bard of the “small stabilization” of the 1960s with The Case Worker ([1969] New York: Viking Penguin, 1987), for the 1980s we now have his A Feast in the Garden (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992).Google Scholar
  24. 26.
    On the looming perils of the privatization process, see Mark Kramer, “Eastern Europe goes to Market”; the special edition on “Transforming Economies in East Central Europe,” East European Politics and Societies, 6, no. 1 (Winter 1992), and Jan Winiecki, “Privatization in East-Central Europe: Avoiding Major Mistakes,” in Christopher Clague and Gordon C. Rausser, eds., The Emergence of Market Economies in Eastern Europe (Cambridge, MA. and Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 271–277.Google Scholar
  25. 40.
    See Dirk Philipsen, We Were The People. Voices from East Germany’s Revolutionary Autumn 1989 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 41.
    For examples of such reportage, see Daniel Singer, “Poland’s New Men of Property,” The Nation, 11 November 1991: 574, 590–593, and at greater length, John Feffer, Shock Waves. Eastern Europe after the Revolution (Boston, MA.: South End Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  27. 50.
    Henry Roberts, Rumania. Political Problems of an Agrarian State (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1951), 351.Google Scholar
  28. 51.
    Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern (New York: Random House, 1990), 154–156.Google Scholar

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© Thomas W. Simons, Jr. 1993

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