It’s been said so many times (particularly in conservative circles) that it has ceased to lose its sense of moral outrage, but the most “underreported” story of the twentieth century was the misery, economic destruction and mass death caused by Communism - both as an idea, and certainly far more so in practice. Underreported, you ask? I’d say so. It’s not difficult to find books, articles and speeches decrying 20th-century communism’s crimes, from Stalin and Mao to famines and entire generations lost to mind-numbing conformity and repression. Yet the thumbnail view of the century is usually reduced to the two World Wars, or to some general struggle between East and West, rather than to the murderous idea that helped beget so much of that struggle to begin with. Forgotten, at some level, is just how much of the world’s people were made to suffer and stagnate for decades in the name of idea that promised a “worker’s paradise” and instead provided anything but.
Stephen Kotkin’s “UNCIVIL SOCIETY – 1989 AND THE IMPLOSION OF THE COMMUNIST ESTABLISHMENT” helps us remember a bit. Its thesis is fairly straightforward. Remember in 1989, when Communist governments were collapsing across Eastern Europe, how there was loads of talk about well-organized “civil society” movements that were bringing them down? Rubbish, says Kotkin. The sclerotic Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, propped up for decades by Moscow, were never in danger of real democratic revolution from within, and no matter how much hindsight allows us to inflate the power of nascent democratic movements, their abilities to affect true change were years away. No, it was “uncivil society” – the corrupt regimes of delusional, state-plundering Communist bureaucrats that led these countries – that paved the way to their own demise. When they fell, they didn’t all fall the same way – but they fell quickly, and in rapid succession to each other.
The book chooses to focus its lens on how the regimes unraveled in three countries – East Germany, Romania and Poland. Kotkin rightly makes the widely-shared point that the kindling for 1989 was certainly set by Mikael Gorbachev’s perestroika policies in the Soviet Union, and in his tacit guarantees that countries within Easter Europe those chose to accelerate the process of opening up their economies and societies would not be invaded, the way Hungary was in 1956 and Czechoslovakia was in 1968. Yet the three countries all had different paths to the surrender by uncivil society. In East Germany’s case, a stealthy “peace” movement, which had been marching under a vague banner of non-regime-provoking solidarity since 1982, snowballed and culminated after years of frustration in small demonstrations in the city of Leipzig during 1989. The regime fought back, and beat the protestors badly for weeks, but East German society at large was relatively unmoved and unprovoked until events began to quickly spiral, and as residents began fleeing into Austria through Hungary’s now-open borders. Once the “run on the bank” started, powerless, cornered and widely-hated East German leaders chose to not crack down, and within weeks, the Berlin Wall was being dismantled on worldwide television.
Romanian events moved even more quickly, and shocked the world when the dictator Nikolai Ceausescu was executed in extra-legal fashion toward the end of 1989. Only two weeks before, there had been zero stirrings of democratic activity, and the state was fully in the hands of Ceausescu and the Securitate, the KGB of the Romanian police state. This is the most fascinating part of Kotkin’s book, and would be inspiring to the end if not for the civil war-like ethnic killings and religious reprisals that followed the 1989 turmoil that gave Romania democracy for the first time in decades. Finally, Poland’s example seems to refute Kotkin’s premise a bit. If the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa since 1980, which won democratic elections in 1989 without bloodshed, did not comprise the triumph of “civil society” over the uncivil, then what did? Kotkin feels that because the Communist establishment had no idea it would lose these elections, and because in calling Solidarity’s bluff, they were certain of continued power by co-opting them, it was just as much of a “collapse” as the other examples. Not buying it.
Regardless, they all imploded in 1989 and within weeks and months of each other, and it was a head-spinning set of simultaneous events. I’d have liked a little more focus on Czechoslovakia in this book, as this is the country I most associate with the whole “civil society” trope, but the point remains. It wasn’t spontaneous uprisings of the people that brought down Soviet Communism across Eastern Europe. It was Soviet Communism’s toxicity itself. It’s important to revisit this period, recent as it is, because we are seeing it happen all over again in the Middle East this year, and it’s thrilling and more than a little painful to watch. I’m coupling my reading of this with an excellent, albeit massive, book by Orlando Figes about the birth of the Bolsheviks called “A PEOPLE’S TRAGEDY" , giving me two nice bookends to understand the ideology & deluded players that caused the world so much pain over the 1900s.