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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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HANSI KRAUSS/AP Lenin statue dismantled in Berlin, 1991

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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The end of the story was gruesome--a spray of bullets and a splattering of blood on a wall in central Romania. On Christmas Day 1989, after a hastily arranged trial before a kangaroo court, the deposed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by a firing squad. The assembled soldiers, eager to eliminate the despised dictator, were ordered not to aim higher than his chest. The faces of the condemned had to be recognizable after the fact. The country had to see that the communist era was over.

The fall of communism was as decisive a turning point in modern history as the French or Russian revolutions. In 1989 the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe collapsed; the division of Europe symbolized by the Berlin Wall crumbled; the cold war began to recede into historical memory; and more pluralistic, sometimes democratic, states emerged where one-party dictatorships had dominated for four decades. (It was also the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille.) Statist, ostensibly planned economies yielded to freewheeling capitalist markets; and hopes were raised, momentarily as it turned out, for a "new world order" without debilitating ideological conflicts.

Interpretations of the causes of the collapse of communism and the Soviet empire are becoming as numerous as books on the subject, especially in this, its twentieth-anniversary year. At one extreme are fatalistic accounts that trace the demise of a utopian system structurally flawed at its conception. At the other are highly voluntarist and contingent explanations that focus on the key players--the Polish pope, John Paul II; the determined but inconsistent reformer Mikhail Gorbachev; and an array of actors on both sides of the barricades, from Lech Walesa to Nicolae Ceausescu--who shaped a welter of dynamic and volatile events without ever being able to control them. But the events themselves were so consequential for our own times that few are content to stop with narration, analysis and explanation. Moral and political lessons are to be learned. Judgments about socialism, capitalism, democracy and the social engineering intrinsic to modernity are to be handed down.

The events of 1989 are most often depicted as the failure of socialism. It's a powerful interpretation that has served to discredit alternatives to the capitalist system, which is said to have triumphed, and to bestow upon capitalism an aura of legitimacy based not only on a reading of recent history but also on assumptions about the natural order, not least human nature. Capitalism, it is proposed, is the normal state of human traffic in what people make and value and need; socialism is the deviation. Capitalism responds to the nature of "man"--acquisitiveness, competition, egoism and the insatiable need for more. Socialism stands in the way of initiative, creativity and competition. Going by its nom de guerre, communism, it proposes radical equality in a world of unequals. Therefore, it can be maintained only by the coercive power of an entrenched elite and a repressive state. In the Eastern bloc, once that force was removed and party leaders lost confidence in their right to rule, communism naturally fell, and people's instinctual drives for material accumulation were liberated. Markets won out everywhere, even when democracy did not.

History, however, is always more complicated and messy than the moral and ideological tales it may be called to serve. The history of Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century can be told as the story of two series of revolutions: the communist-led revolutions of the post-World War II years that ousted the former ruling elites and transformed largely rural societies into urban industrial ones; and the anticommunist revolutions of 1989, mostly peaceful and in one case even "velvet," that overturned entrenched party regimes already weakened by political sclerosis. In Eastern Europe, one form of "actually existing socialism" was established at a particular historical moment--the beginning of the cold war struggle between an enormously wealthy, nuclear-armed United States and a significantly weaker Soviet Union. Forty years later, communism fell when political crises, economic stagnation (but not economic collapse) and a will to change the way the system worked coalesced at another historical moment. To the lasting dismay of democratic socialists in Europe and elsewhere, it was a moment of Thatcherite/Reaganite neoliberalism, vigorous anticommunism and muscular military and covert operations against the left and radical movements in all parts of the globe. As for socialism, what originated in the early nineteenth century as a noble political philosophy devoted to promoting the common good was reduced to an epithet hurled at anyone skeptical of the workings of laissez-faire or the idea that capitalism is intrinsic to the natural order. Socialism has a long history, but it has not been able to escape the crushing burden of its recent Leninist incarnation.

The end of the story was also confusing. How did two empires fall--one in Eastern Europe, the other the Soviet Union itself--with little effort by the imperial power to prevent their disintegration? The upheaval and downfall occurred so quickly, so unexpectedly, that journalists could barely keep up with it and scholars were left disoriented. Twenty years on, in Revolution 1989, journalist Victor Sebestyen offers an analysis that foregrounds human actors and avoids larger conclusions about the structural factors that contributed to communism's disintegration. Constantine Pleshakov, a historian at Mount Holyoke College, does not shy away from evoking the positive achievements of communist power in order to explain its durability, but most of the story he tells in There Is No Freedom Without Bread! is ultimately about the cascade of events, from Poland to Afghanistan, that overwhelmed the creaky "socialist" system and its creaky operators. In Uncivil Society, Stephen Kotkin and Jan Gross, historians at Princeton University, offer a deeply structuralist analysis of communism's collapse. Their narrative combines a certainty about the unreformability of state socialism, at least in Eastern Europe, with a preachy confidence in the inevitable triumph of capitalism. For all their differences in tone, perspective and scope, these three books are masterful and reliable accounts of a time when the world turned right side up (no pun intended).

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