The Specter Still Haunts: Revisiting 1989

In January 2010, I met a Bulgarian friend for dinner in a Georgetown pizza parlor. This friend, whom I will call Svetozara, had recently immigrated to the United States and was looking for a job in D.C. Recently divorced after twenty-six years of marriage, she had been a lawyer in Bulgaria, and one of a core of pro-democracy activists who had been politically influential during Bulgaria’s transition from communism.

With her liberal colleagues, Svetozara had fought hard to banish communist influences from the Bulgarian government and economy. She believed that democracy and the institution of free markets would improve the lives of her compatriots after more than four decades of totalitarian rule and had worked to make sure that post–1989 elections were free and fair. She had helped reorganize local governments to make them more responsive to citizens’ needs and had supported legislation to make the Bulgarian government less bureaucratic and more open and transparent. She had been a darling of liberal reformers come from the West to dismantle the centralized state and the command economy.

During the first glass of wine, we caught up on each other’s personal lives; after the second glass, the conversation turned to politics. I remarked that nothing had been done in Bulgaria to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall. She nodded.

“That is because there is nothing to celebrate.”

“What do you mean?”

Svetozara lowered her glass, and gently pinched the stem. She stared down at the table.

“I can’t tell you how disgusted I am, Kristen. I feel like such an idiot. I thought we were fighting on the right side. I thought we were fighting for freedom, for democracy, for principles that I believed in. But it was all a lie. What we have now is worse than what we had before. I used to think that maybe we did something wrong, but now I realize that the whole thing was rotten from the start; 1989 was not about bringing liberty to the people of Eastern Europe; it was about expanding markets for Western companies. They used the language of freedom and democracy, but it was all about money. I was so stupid.”

“You were idealistic. That’s different.”

“No, it’s worse, from my point of view. I never understood how people could have supported a terrible system like communism, but now I see that they made the same mistake that I made. They believed in something that they thought was good, but that turned out to be very bad. I did the exact same thing. Only the system I helped to build is maybe worse than the system that they did.”

There was a long silence before the bouncy college-student server came to ask if we wanted dessert. Svetozara ordered another glass of wine. I wanted to press her for details, because I knew that she knew a lot about the inner workings of the transition, but that night, I, too, ordered another glass of wine, and changed the subject. She was starting a new life. Better not to dwell on the past.

A few months after that conversation, the East German writer Daniela Dahn gave a lecture at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore titled, “Twenty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Legacy of Democratic Awakening.” Dahn had been a political activist in the German Democratic Republic in the years leading up to 1989 and was instrumental in drafting new laws to eradicate state censorship and guarantee a free press. With her fellow dissidents, Dahn had participated in the process of imagining a new future for East Germany, a new democratic socialist future. She explained, “As I grew up in the GDR, I always longed to live in a democracy. But not in capitalism. I had no illusions about its tendency to economic and financial crises, its power to create a social divide between the rich and poor, and its inclination to military solutions.”

Dahn cited an opinion poll taken at the end of November 1989 that showed that 89 percent of East Germans preferred to take “the path to better, reformed socialism,” with only 5 percent supporting the “capitalist path.” Dahn and other East Germans longed for greater political rights and Western prosperity, but they also wanted to keep some of the social supports of socialism in place: guaranteed employment, free education and health care, state-supported maternity leave, and kindergartens that allowed women to better combine work and family life. New East German constitutions were drafted, but it soon became clear that their efforts would be in vain. With lightning speed, the West German Constitution would become the new constitution of a unified Germany. Dahn reflected, “Many in the oppositional civil movements would have been grateful for more time to consider how the advantages of both sides could be retained. How the dictatorship could be overcome without subjecting the defenseless population to the rough climate of the market economy. How a humane balance between the market and the planned economies could be achieved. How the GDR’s defects could be corrected by the strength of its own grassroots democracy.”

In the end, German reunification was not the union of two equal parts to make a new whole; for many East Germans, reunification felt more like a territorial grab by the West, an “Anschluss” (annexation) in the words of the Social Democratic politician Matthias Platzeck. In 2010, 67 percent of East Germans said that they did not feel like they were a part of a unified country. Although the privatization of previously state-owned enterprises and the liberalization of capital markets took different paths in different places, economic shock therapy had destabilizing effects in almost all of Eastern Europe. In the fire sale of public assets that followed 1989, oligarchs, organized-crime bosses, and foreign investors snatched up national infrastructure at bargain prices.

Across the region, German, American, French, or British investors purchased entire industries with the sole intention of shutting them down in order to create new markets for their own goods. In other cases, factories, airlines, or entire resorts were purchased, broken up, and sold off for parts. In Bulgaria, Greek investors stripped hotels of furniture, toilets, sinks, windows, and pipes, leaving behind the hollow shells of buildings and scores of unemployed workers. In almost all cases, privatization contracts had stipulated that enterprises should continue operation for at least two years. But with renationalization as the only punitive measure, it was politically impossible to prevent the abrogation of these contracts. Any government attempts to regulate the market, even in cases of blatant fraud, were coded as “communist.” At the same time, social safety nets were rapidly dismantled. The wild, unregulated form of capitalism that was bundled with democratic ideals and exported to Eastern Europe after 1989 benefitted some new elites. The majority of East European citizens saw their living standards decline.

IT SHOULD come as no surprise, then, that over the past decade, a wide variety of national surveys detect growing nostalgia for the communist past. Using the 2001 New Europe Barometer, Swedish political scientists Joakim Ekman and Jonas Linde found increasing nostalgia for the material security of communism across Eastern Europe, with a majority of postcommunist citizens evaluating the command economic system in positive terms. These political scientists argued that the desire for a return to the previous system was symptomatic of a “dissatisfaction” with the present system’s ability to deliver the goods—“material or non-material”—meaning that people felt not only materially poorer, but ideologically poorer as well.

Citizens of postsocialist states also perceived a large gap between the abstract principles of democracy and the political systems under which they currently live. In a 2009 Pew Research Center study, a majority of respondents in eight of the postsocialist states surveyed agreed that a strong economy is more important than a “good democracy.” East Europeans were also somewhat more likely to answer that it is more important “that the state play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need” than “that everyone be free to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state,” with responses in favor of needs over freedom ranging from 51 percent in the Czech Republic to 72 percent in Bulgaria. This means that in Bulgaria only slightly more than a quarter of the population preferred freedom over state intervention to prevent need (in contrast, in the United States, 55 percent of respondents favored freedom over 36 percent who preferred state intervention to prevent need.

Perhaps the most poignant expression of the frustration that has followed the end of communism was one forty-year-old man’s dramatic seven-meter leap from a balcony onto the floor of the Romanian Parliament two days before Christmas 2010. Adrian Sobaru, an electrician working for the national television station, had an autistic son. The Romanian government had decided to cut the public subsidies that helped him care for his child. Frustrated and desperate, Sobaru, by his jump, reflected the mood of his compatriots across the country. A September 2010 poll found that about 49 percent of Romanians believed that their lives under communism were better than they are now.

All of these stories and surveys complicate the narrative that most of us know about the events of 1989. For most ordinary people in the West, communism was peacefully vanquished by spontaneous outbursts of civil society from within, by East European citizens long tired of consumer shortages, police surveillance, and travel restrictions. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the so-called “end of history,” when totalitarian regimes imploded, and East Germans, Bulgarians, and Romanians gleefully embraced a democratic, free-market future. But what if it was more complicated than that? What if some of them, like Dahn, wanted the democracy without the capitalism? What if others (like the current communist leaders in China) wanted the capitalism without the democracy? What if there were some who wished for a different way, a democratic socialism similar to the Scandinavian model? Was there another path that could have been taken when the Wall fell, and if so, how was it so quickly foreclosed?


SINCE 1997, I have been doing ethnographic research and have written three books on how non-elite Bulgarian men and women experienced the economic transition from communism, and how the massive social and political changes affected the rhythms of everyday life. By living among ordinary Bulgarians, I have come to understand that, despite its oppressive and inefficient aspects, the communist system felt comfortable and familiar to many men and women who came of age after the Second World War. Although people lived under totalitarian conditions, daily life for most people was not a life-and-death struggle. People vote every four years, but they eat three times a day. The everyday rhythms of work, family, and leisure were largely impervious to the disciplining structures of authoritarian states. Even under communism, people fell in love, got married, had babies, got educations, built careers, took holidays, and grew old. Certainly, people’s choices were constrained by travel restrictions and by the government’s stranglehold on free speech, free association, and economic production. Central planning made it difficult for individuals to pursue their desired career paths, and consumer shortages meant that the comforts of daily life were not always readily available. The secret police and their informants were everywhere.

But today, after more than twenty years of democracy and capitalism, people are acutely aware that their choices are still constrained, albeit no longer by the state, but rather by the unpredictability of the free-market system. Whereas most East Europeans could not travel abroad without exit visas in the era before 1989, today many of them are free to leave but no longer have the financial resources to do so. Now career choices are limited by faltering economies, high unemployment rates, and the rising cost of postsecondary education across the region. Digital surveillance cameras are more ubiquitous than state security forces once were. For many outside of the urban centers, the ill-managed transition from communism to capitalism has brought only growing poverty, depopulation, and hopelessness.

Writing for the Guardian on November 9, 2009, Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova reflected, “Lamenting the losses that came with the collapse of state socialism does not imply wishing it back. Not all aspects are missed. Mainstream ideological treatment, however, would like us to believe that it was all one package, that one cannot have full employment without shortages, inter-ethnic peace without forced homogenisation, or free healthcare without totalitarianism.”

The conflation of social solidarity and economic security with totalitarianism is a legacy of cold warrior ideology, according to which any state interference in the market on behalf of the common good is coded as “communist.” It has been difficult for scholars to trouble this hegemonic notion of “communism” or to examine critically the ways that all of the various experiments with state socialism around the world are equated with the worst excesses of Stalinism. Equating everything socialist with Stalin prevents many scholars from being able to think of 1989 as anything but a world-historic defeat of communism and the triumphant ascendance of human rights, freedom, and democracy. Perhaps the events of 1989 were the product of a confluence of historical contingencies and might have produced a new antitotalitarian political system where democratic state regulation of markets produced a more humane economic system. Perhaps it is time to rethink why Eastern Europe imported this one particular brand of neoliberal, unregulated capitalism over all of the other models available in the West.

IF I may be permitted a computing analogy, we can imagine that the people of the Eastern bloc were stuck with typewriters before 1989. While they pecked out their prose on these rickety little machines, Westerners had word processing programs on sleek, new, personal computers that allowed for editing on the page before printing. The Easterners wanted personal computers, too; no one questioned that personal computers were better than typewriters. The year 1989 marked the decisive triumph of the personal computer over the typewriter.

But the computers that were rushed into the East were pre-installed with the Windows operating system. East Europeans who wanted personal computers had no choice but to accept Windows, even though there were other options for operating systems in the West. And they could not remove Windows, because if they tried, the Westerners would say that they were not worthy of the computers and take them away. Some people did just fine with Windows, but others hated it, with its bugs and constant security updates and its frustrating propensity to crash all the time. These people became so fed up with the Windows operating system that they began to reject personal computers altogether, and to long for their old manual typewriters.

Perhaps as with the Windows operating system pre-installed on a PC, elites in the West and East who stood the most to gain from software sales strategically bundled capitalism with democracy in 1989. But just as you can have personal computers without Windows, Eastern Europe could have had democracy without capitalism. Mac OS (social democracy?) and Linux (democratic socialism?) are perfectly viable operating systems. What the opinion polls on nostalgia seem to be telling us is that as long as people identify democracy with the Windows equivalent of free-market capitalism, they will look back with fondness on the authoritarian, planned economic past.

Kristen Ghodsee is the director and John S. Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. The most recent of her four books is Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life After Communism, a collection of essays and short stories examining socialist nostalgia.

First photo: a Bulgarian pensioner begs for medicine for her son in a Sofia park. Second photo: graffiti in Sofia, summer 2010, that reads, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and is accompanied by a red star and a hammer and sickle. Someone else has crossed it out in black. Third photo: pensioners gather in front of Alexander Nevsky Catherdral in July 2011 to call for greater “social solidarity” in Bulgaria. All photos by Kristen Ghodsee.