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Empire Falls: The Revolutions of 1989 | The Nation

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Empire Falls: The Revolutions of 1989

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As the drama of 1989 moved toward a denouement in Eastern Europe, in the USSR reform was rapidly mutating into revolution. Gorbachev's promotion of elected bodies--the Congress of People's Deputies and, later, elected soviets--shifted power from the Communist Party to broad parliamentary institutions. Politics moved from the cloistered offices of high party officials into the spotlight of unscripted televised debates. The Soviet Union lasted two more years before disintegrating into fifteen separate states, but by 1989 the communist system of a single governing party and a command economy all operating under strict censorship had vanished. What had once been an ironclad freighter labeled "totalitarianism" was being replaced daily by a jerry-built ship at sea, hardly seaworthy and already foundering in the turbulent waters of economic crisis.

About the Author

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

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Gorbachev called his project of perestroika (rebuilding) a "revolution," even though he did not anticipate the loss of power by the party he headed. He probably intended to eliminate the communist system but wanted neither the end of socialism, which he defined as a politics dependent on and requiring democracy, nor of the USSR. And he certainly did not anticipate the precipitous rejection of party rule in Eastern Europe. (As Stephen F. Cohen has pointed out in an essay on the reformability of the Soviet system, the pessimists doubted the system could be reformed, because it would cease to be the Soviet system--a tautological statement. That, of course, was always the revolutionary potential of a radical reform from above.) But after Gorbachev had successfully reformed the system out of existence and set adrift the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, the example of decolonization became a powerful incentive, first to dissident nationalists in Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and later to communists in the non-Russian republics. Even the old communist Boris Yeltsin discovered the political advantages of nationalism: after repeatedly defending the integrity of the Soviet Union, in 1991 he conspired with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine to bring down the Soviet state, and Gorbachev with it.

In the last few years of Soviet power, Gorbachev was not only unwilling to use force to retain control of the Eastern European states but extremely reluctant to use coercion against recalcitrant and rebellious Soviet citizens to compel them to obey existing laws and to prevent separatism. Violent suppression of demonstrations and protests and even pogroms occurred in Georgia, the Baltic republics and Azerbaijan, but the use of the police or army was intermittent, hesitant and usually followed by concessions or apologies. Gorbachev, it turned out, did not have the "iron teeth" that Andrei Gromyko, in nominating him to the highest post in the land, had promised he possessed. Revolutions are almost always accompanied by violence and often followed by civil wars. Lenin unhesitatingly called for civil war when he was struggling for power and used terror as a tool for state-building. Unlike another state preserver, Abraham Lincoln, Gorbachev was reluctant to use the military and political instruments at hand to keep his union intact.

Kotkin and Gross argue against the cherished notion that an organized revolution from below occurred in Eastern Europe. They view Poland as an exception, but this caveat does not lead them to grant Poland the central role cast for it by Pleshakov and Sebestyen, who see the Polish workers' rebellion in 1980 as creating an existential dilemma for the Soviets. With the Soviet army engaged in Afghanistan, sending troops into Poland was unthinkable for Moscow. Since the Polish party could no longer rule in the old way, party chief General Jaruzelski was forced to declare a "state of war." Poland was certainly unique, and according to Kotkin and Gross, more common was the process of "nonorganized mobilization," most evident on those December days in Bucharest when a lone voice was sufficient to turn a crowd against Ceausescu.

Mobilization against the state in Eastern Europe, they go on to argue, did not happen in or because of civil society, that imagined community of anticommunist dissidents of the 1970s and '80s: "Needless to say, in 1989 'civil society' could not have shattered Soviet-style socialism for the simple reason that civil society in Eastern Europe did not then actually exist." Dissidents a civil society do not make. Instead, "it was the establishment--the 'uncivil society'--that brought down its own system." Totalitarianism, in Kotkin and Gross's view, made civil society impossible. That extra-state arena of "people taking responsibility for themselves" with "recourse to state institutions to defend associationism, civil liberties, and private property" was a mirage. Poland's Solidarity mesmerized Eastern Europe, but in no other Soviet bloc country were citizens able to repeat its successes. "Uncivil society" constituted a world of structural incompetence. The Soviet system itself, its practices of secrecy and coercion, its culture of suspicion, promoted the loyal rather than the capable, the submissive rather than the innovative, the risk-averse rather than the creative. Communist regimes in Eastern Europe fell because the elites were unable to change their ways; Gorbachev refused to support them and demanded that they reform. When the "uncivil society" of an illiberal state was no longer able to manipulate or even gauge the mood of its own people, it found itself bereft of the most basic instruments of government.

Kotkin and Gross provide an intriguing revision of the usual narrative of mobilized popular resistance to "actually existing socialism." Highlighting the failures at the top is key to understanding the collapse of communism, but that emphasis must be supplemented by attention to what went on below. Both organized popular resistance in Poland and more spontaneous mass mobilization in most of the other socialist states, as Pleshakov and Sebestyen extensively and persuasively demonstrate, contributed to the crises that made the communist regimes unsustainable.

Eastern European communists promised something besides social justice and equality; to their own detriment they also promised greater prosperity and productivity than was possible under capitalism. Khrushchev repeatedly spoke of "reaching and surpassing America!" This was yet another failure in the face of capitalism. The economies of Soviet bloc countries, themselves eager to incessantly increase output, were ultimately outperformed by the West. Nowhere was this contrast more evident than in Berlin, where the radiance of the western sector outshone the more subdued lights to the east. Not only were the Soviet-style economies unable to compete successfully but, by engaging with the bankers of the West, they became dependent on loans and saddled with onerous debt. The "social contract" trapped the socialist states; they could neither modify the subsidies that underwrote low consumer prices nor use the capitalist weapon of unemployment to restructure their economies. China's "market Leninism" showed one way out--a turn toward capitalism without democratization--but Eastern European communists hesitated to take that path. Even Hungary, the most market-oriented, would not permit labor or capital markets.

Communism, Kotkin and Gross conclude, was unredeemable. The execution, on Christmas Day, of the one remaining dictator in Eastern Europe was for them the salute that marked not only the collapse of the communist establishment but the triumph of capitalism and the failure of socialism. Stripped of the hopes and illusions of earlier years, by 1989 many on the streets agreed with the Polish opposition figure Adam Michnik: "There is no socialism with a human face, only totalitarianism with its teeth knocked out."

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