Next year will mark 30 years since the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe. Was the regime change a revolution, a ‘refolution’, a combination of reform and revolution (as proposed by British historian Timothy Garton Ash), or a failed revolution? Arguments can be made for and against. In my opinion, it was in almost all cases a matter of a negotiated systemic change and a mostly peaceful shift of power – but also the end of the socialist revolution.
In Marxist-Leninist ideas, as well as Stalinist ones, rather than perceiving the socialist revolution as an event, it is understood as a long process leading to communism. From this perspective, one can argue that Eastern Europe marked the failure of the socialist revolution, which led to the communists willingly giving up power even though they still would have had all the means to stop the movement.
In 1989, the media broadcasted images of crowds demanding democracy in Prague, Ceaușescu’s bewildered public appearance and people climbing over the wall in Berlin. This contributed to an image of the dramatic downfall of socialism, even though the events were preceded by a long crisis that now had reached its end point.
Almost all of the socialist countries in Eastern Europe had experienced shorter crises in connection with different reform aspirations. The comprehensive reform programme of the 1968 Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion in August of the same year demonstrated how it was not possible to change the system from above. As tanks rolled into Prague, a Czech bystander was correct in concluding: “This is the end of communism.”
Many lost their belief in the communist ideology; it was replaced by the cynical world of real socialism. The crumbling ideology, economic problems and finally Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika gnawed away at the legitimacy of the communist leaders’ power in Eastern Europe. The expanding ideological void was gradually filled with new ideas. Along with the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, the voice of dissidents grew louder throughout the Soviet bloc. They demanded that their leaders abide by signed agreements, pushed civic and human rights into the limelight, encouraged people to ‘live in truth’, as formulated by Václav Havel, and called for autonomy in civic society.
Another significant ideological stream was the ‘rediscovery’ of Central Europe and its cultural-historical identity. This discourse featured the voices of many eminent cultural influencers, such as Czesław Miłosz, György Konrád, Jenő Szűcs and Milan Kundera. Their texts recreated the narrative of Central European countries that had been ‘hijacked’ into Eastern Europe, but historically and culturally belonged to Western Europe. Debates bordering on chauvinism and even orientalism resonated with students and the intelligentsia, in particular. The ‘return to Europe’, loaded with identity political ideas, indeed became one of the most central slogans of 1989.
The roots of the year 1989 date back at least to the year 1968, when the socialist revolution reached its tipping point. From then on, it trudged along, weakened by a withering ideology, and was finally dissolved in the turmoil of 1989. Researchers were not able to predict the events of the Annus Mirabilis, nor did they suspect the surprising routes of the transition. As we observe the former socialist countries in Central Europe, it is apparent that something is changing – but what? Researchers are yet again facing important questions.
Jouni Järvinen is a Director of Educational Programmes: East Central European, Balkan and Baltic Studies and Ukrainian Studies