Features An economic explanation of 1989. When debt-ridden elites left the scene

In the fall of 2009, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment by Stephen Kotkin was published. The book offers a new interpretation of the causes behind the Eastern European collapse of 1989, utilizing structural and economic explanations.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 22-23, Vol III:3-4, 2009
Published on balticworlds.com on February 19, 2010

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After twenty years, debate has finally arisen on how to interpret the events that took place in Eastern Europe in 1989. Until now, each country has tinkered with its particular picture of the events, based, in turn, primarily on descriptions of resistance, the people’s revolt against the Communist regimes. A popular folk-legend has complemen-ted this picture, according to which the revolution was at first pure of heart, but had hardly gotten started before it was appropriated by the old elite. (See interview with István Rév)
In the fall of 2009, a book was published which offers a new interpretation of the causes behind the Eastern European collapse of 1989. This interpretation utilizes structural and economic explanations. The work is based on a course for history students offered at Princeton University. The course was led by Stephen Kotkin and Jan T. Gross, both professors at Princeton, and Adam Michnik, a prominent member of the Polish opposition movement, now editor-in-chief of Poland’s leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. Gross and Kotkin presented their book at a well-attended lunch seminar at Stanford University in October.1

The book’s primary argument is that the Communist system collapsed because it had lost out in its race against the West. This competition was especially strong in Eastern Europe’s so-called people’s republics, and nowhere more obvious than in East Germany, which had no other justification for existing than its being different and better than West Germany. After World War II, there was economic growth in Eastern Europe — less consumer-friendly and more directed towards heavy industry, but nevertheless growth that could nourish the hope of one day catching up. It was not until the oil crisis of 1973 that it became clear that the planned economies did not have the capacity to renew themselves and adjust. When the West experienced a wave of growth during the 1980s and 1990s, the gap grew quickly. At the same time, more information was available about living conditions on each side, which further increased discontent in the East. The Eastern European governments started an uncontrolled merry-go-round of loans from Western banks. At the end of the 1980s, it was clear to the leaders of most Eastern European states that they would only be able to back their loans with new loans: their combined debt amounted to about 90 billion dollars. The regimes were broke. They had not been able to increase their exports and thereby obtain foreign currency. It seemed that all alternatives had been exhausted, and then it no longer made sense to turn loose the repressive apparatus that had been built up over the years.2
A fundamental precondition was, of course, that the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, would no longer deploy the military against opposition. (But this book is not about the Soviet Union; that is a somewhat different story.)
The description is not overly controversial. But controversy has arisen around the authors’ attack on a conception of the Eastern European revolutions as expressions of  nascent civil societies. Kotkin is dubious about the concept civil society per se. It is difficult to uphold the dichotomy between civil society and the state, he thinks, for civil society is dependent both on a state to maintain laws and regulations, and on a juridical apparatus to safeguard its independence. Neither functions in Communist societies. Furthermore, both authors claim that that the intelligentsia’s role in the dissolution of Communism has been exaggerated. In fact, only few and poorly organized individuals offered resistance — organized resistance cropped up very late. The exception is, of course, Solidarity in Poland, which had broad membership, a long history and strong social anchors.3
The authors focus, instead, on what they term “uncivil society”: an extensive, well-organized and wealthy elite with the resources needed for reaching decisions and making outside contacts. This elite was scarcely independent of the state. It made up between 5 and 10 percent of the population, and its own lack of legitimacy and credibility was in itself a problem. When members of this elite could no longer find solutions to everyday economic problems, and when the Soviet Union withdrew its support, the crisis became obvious even to them. It was the weakness of uncivil society, rather than the strength of the protestors, that led to the collapse. 4

The book devotes separate chapters to the GDR, Romania, and Poland, which illuminate differences within the region. Of all the Eastern European countries, the GDR was most exposed to comparisons to the West, embodied in the many people who fled to the West. Its per capita state debt was astro-nomical but was kept secret from the population. Investments in high technology had been unsuccessful, and the GDR was out-competed by Asian exporters in the area of cheap export goods. The country’s leadership even closed down the GDR’s smaller, relatively successful, but private-owned companies. When, in October 1989, Erich Honecker turned over the party and state leadership to Egon Krenz, there was not much to be done. In his polemic against more heroic narratives of battle and victory, Kotkin emphasizes the fact that the resistance that rallied around Neues Forum was both relatively new and relatively unorganized. 5
Romania was an example of a planned economy that had decided to pay back its Western debts. Romania’s per capita debt was lower than that of other countries; still, the population was forced to live with darkness, cold, and rationing. Meanwhile, the unrestrained luxury enjoyed by members of uncivil society constituted a glaring contrast; the misery of the average residential quarter was compared to palatial buildings and limousine corteges. The other Communist regimes were aware of this and understood that the Romanian solution could hardly be an option for them. In Romania, Kotkin stresses, the opposition was even weaker than elsewhere. In Timisoara, it was the resistance of a single clergyman that awakened the hidden frustration and led to the congregation of chanting protestors — not organizations — which, in turn, caused Ceausescus’s fall from power.6

Polish resistance is brought up   as a contrast to the weaker resistance in other parts of Eastern Europe. Jan T. Gross, the author of this section of the book, stresses that both Solidarity and the regime were willing to compromise and avoid bloodshed. This portrayal of Solidarity is not novel. On the other hand, Gross’s account of Wojciech Jaruzelski’s role does place the latter in an unusually agreeable light. In the spring of 1989, Jaruzelski and some of his closest coworkers threatened to resign if there was no round-table conference with the opposition. The actions of both opposition and regime had consequences that neither had expected. Solidarity did not wish to take on the responsibilities of government; it was forced to do so. Uncivil society tried to survive by compromising, but lost its position as a result of the compromises.7 Its choice of a peaceful solution made Poland an important role model. When freer elections were instituted, Poland’s foreign debts were forgiven. This was a one-time occurrence, the effects of which can be seen in Poland’s relative imperviousness to the present economic crisis.
When this book was presented at Stanford it met with no serious critique, despite the presence of several major figures in the history of the region. One question that was raised related to the role played by nationalism, which, according to Gross, was negligible in Eastern Europe. Was then not the regimes’ lack of legitimacy a determining factor? No. Their limited legitimacy had existed for years; it was the economic situation that deteriorated rapidly during the 1980s.
It took a little time before the great debate over the book started up. In the late fall, Timothy Garton Ash, who has described the uprising in Eastern Europe in more romantic terms, directed an acrimonious attack against Kotkin in a double-page spread in The New York Review of Books.8
We can, therefore, expect major clashes in the future that will enrich our understanding of 1989. ≈


  1. Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment by Stephen Kotkin, with a contribution by Jan T. Gross, New York 2009. — Stephen Kotkin is author of the hitherto unsurpassed description of the Stalin-era Soviet Union, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, Berkeley 1995. He has published an analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 in Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000, Oxford 2001. Jan T. Gross is best known for his descriptions of the persecution of the Jews in East Poland in the book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, Princeton 2001. He has also written a fantastic comparative analysis of the German and Russian occupation of Poland in 1939, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia, Princeton 1988.
  2. Uncivil Society, pp. 25–30.
  3. Ibid., pp. 7–11.
  4. Ibid., pp. 11–16.
  5. Ibid., pp. 58–61.
  6. Ibid., pp. 81–88.
  7. Ibid., pp. 127–129.
  8. New York Review of Books, Vol. LVI:17 — Garton Ash has written, among other things, We, the People: The Revolution of ‘89: Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague, London 1990.
  • by AnuMai Kõll

    Is legally responsible for the publication Baltic Worlds. Professor in Baltic History, Culture and Society, and director of CBEES at Södertörn University.

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