Empire Falls: The Revolutions of 1989 | The Nation


Empire Falls: The Revolutions of 1989

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Like the two world wars that preceded it, the cold war began in Eastern Europe, a fragmented frontier between developed industrial capitalism and its agrarian poor relation, still largely peasant, traditionally religious and fiercely nationalist. This was not a particularly hospitable place to launch a socialist revolution à la Marx--especially when that revolution was associated with Russia, the Great Power most resented by Poles, Germans, Hungarians and Romanians. Stalin's USSR was slowly recovering from its costly victory over fascism. It was suspicious of the intentions of its former allies and determined to retain the territorial spoils of the recently concluded war, stretching from its western borders to central Germany. The "East European Revolutions" of the 1940s and '50s were largely, though not entirely, imposed by the Kremlin, and the system eventually built was modeled after the most draconian variant of what has been called socialism, namely the Stalinist command economy and police state.

About the Author

Ronald Grigor Suny
Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History and the director of the...

Also by the Author

Two new books take a closer look at the "Soviet monster" in an age of lazy, anti-Communist rhetoric.

A courageous editor and fervent Turkish patriot is killed in the name of nationalists intent on burying the inconvenient realities of history.

Realists in the East and West understood that given military conditions and Soviet notions of security, the question of whether capitalism or communism would dominate Eastern Europe was moot. The true question was not if but how Stalin would control the "liberated" countries. Would they become allied but autonomous states, like Finland, or fully Stalinized and Soviet-manipulated police regimes? At first the Soviets promoted coalition governments and gradual social transitions. The pre-war elites had been discredited by their collaboration with the Nazis, and the politics of most of Eastern Europe gravitated leftward. In Hungary, Poland and Romania, hundreds of thousands of acres of private property were turned over to peasants. In Poland, industry owned by Germans was nationalized. Russians were popular in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, and the same social reforms easily gained support there. But four of the countries taken by the Soviet army--Germany, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria--had been part of the Axis, and they were drained of resources as reparations for the Soviet Union's staggering war losses.

As in the Soviet Union, communists in Eastern Europe were brutal modernizers. Kremlin leaders believed that the security of the USSR went hand in hand with the transformation of the countries on its western border from agrarian to industrial, peasant to proletarian. By the late 1940s any deviance from the strict Soviet form of "revolution from above" led to expulsion from the communist bloc (as in the case of Tito's Yugoslavia); the purging of dissenters; or even the execution of veteran party leaders, including László Rajk in Hungary, Traicho Kostov in Bulgaria and Rudolf Slánský in Czechoslovakia.

In There Is No Freedom Without Bread!, Pleshakov introduces the metaphor of civil war to revise conventional accounts of 1989 in Eastern Europe. He argues that if socialism was as fundamentally flawed, and its fall as preordained, as the fatalists say, it would not have lasted as long as it did. The regimes not only survived for forty years but were relatively stable and even enjoyed a degree of popular support, in large part because of what Pleshakov calls "social contracts between the rulers and the ruled": "No Communist state could have done without secret police--but people accepted the state not just because of terror and intimidation, but also because of free health care, free housing, and free education." Dissident Poles may have shouted in 1980, "There is no bread without freedom!" but Pleshakov claims that the reverse was also true. The communists not only expropriated land from the aristocracy and the church but secularized education, provided jobs in new industries and made life and livelihood more secure and predictable. Furthermore, they extended Poland territorially by annexing German lands to compensate for the loss of the eastern part of pre-war Poland that Stalin incorporated into the Soviet Union. They abetted the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia and guaranteed the new borders of the state, as well as the independent existence of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and Poles were not happy with the loss of territory ceded to the USSR and Romania; but the presence of the Soviet Army, along with the internationalist rhetoric of Marxism-Leninism, at least prevented the recurrence of the worst excesses of ethnic nationalism that had long plagued the region. Economies grew in the years after Stalin's death in 1953; energy was cheap, subsidized by Soviet exports; and in general Eastern Europeans lived better in the periphery of empire than most Russians did in its metropole.

For those existing, as we say, "under communism," Pleshakov argues, making a living came first and was for many years almost enough to make the socialist experiment seem gratifying. Even after the "Soviet Union and its version of communism had lost luster," he says, egalitarian Marxism, a more human form of communism without terror or Russians, continued to have broad appeal. But the Kremlin's decision to crush the anti-Stalinist uprisings of 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia left those hopeful for another kind of socialism feeling bewildered, if not betrayed. What they got was "vegetarian" communism or (for the omnivores) "goulash communism"--more goods, some travel abroad, less repression, but only the most muted voice in politics. By the early '70s the regimes looked stable, relatively prosperous and likely to endure. But the command economy by itself couldn't uphold the social contract: East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania borrowed heavily from the West to maintain an aging industrial base and a standard of living comfortable enough to keep populations relatively quiescent. The debt owed to foreign banks swelled, and a cycle of falling productivity and growing discontent accelerated.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size