TWO DECADES have passed since the extraordinary tumult called by many “the upheaval in the East”—the chain of dramatic events that led to the accomplishment of what most of us thought to be unthinkable: the collapse of communist regimes and the end of a system that seemed destined to last forever. In spite of many critical retrospective assessments, the revolutions of 1989 fulfilled our most important aspirations: they irretrievably shattered Leninism and opened the path to the self-empowerment of the citizens of Eastern Europe. But the most important result—the new idea brought about by the year 1989—was the re-thinking of the notion of citizenship.
The struggles that followed during post-communism were fundamentally centered on the concepts of civility and accountability. Politics, culture, social relations all were connected in one way or another to definitions of what it means to be a citizen. The immediate aftermath of 1989 showed us two possible paths to follow: the one where the revolutions succeeded in instilling a sustainable sense of civic belonging, and those cases where the revolutions themselves were temporarily sidetracked and even negated, aborted, or abducted. All in all, it seems that Ralf Dahrendorf’s synthetic formula remains brilliantly enduring: “citizens in search of meaning.” The crucial challenge after 1989 was that of successfully (or at least satisfactorily) building a moral and political consensus based on shared trust in accountable institutions and predictable procedures.
Post-communist societies are by no means perfect. But, to paraphrase Adam Michnik, they are made of average, regular people and are defined by “normal” conflicts. In order to survive, as Ken Jowitt once said, “democracy needs ordinary heroes.” Democracy has a contradiction and paradox built into it: “Without heroism,” Jowitt wrote, “public virtues cannot be sustained; they gradually deteriorate into egoistical calculi of social, economic, and political self-interest. The individual is replaced by the self.” At the same time, though, “a charismatic hero abhors, in fact is incapable of, democratically appreciating the deficiencies of average people.”
The 1989 revolutions destroyed the old regime, but they also made room for the painful construction of the extremely strange and often perplexing world of liberal democracy. This Damascus Road of transition led Eastern Europeans to be disenchanted with the “extravagant hopes for a new world of unconstrained discourse, equality, and fundamental democracy.” But this does not mean that the revolutions failed. They opened the path to democratic normalcy—to the revitalization of a society that still bears the stigma of the communist totalitarian experience. Democratic institutions, not apocalyptic forms of radicalism, prevailed. The “moral revolution” championed by the Kaczynski twins in Poland, for example, has not led to a national catharsis. On the contrary, people have expressed fatigue, exasperation, and irritation with self-righteous populist maneuvering.
After 1989, the region’s reality was inevitably eclectic. The Leninist decline produced a void that has been gradually filled with both pre-communist and communist traditions: from nationalism (either civic or ethnic) to conservatism, from neo-Leninism to quasi-fascism. In the past twenty years, we have witnessed a fluidity of beliefs, partisanships, and political engagements. In a sense, one could say that the former Soviet bloc is an ongoing experiment in democratic politics.
One issue that stands out in most of the region is the problem of their unmastered totalitarian past. It proved to be a formidable obstacle against establishing a lasting connection between democracy, memory, and civic activism. But I think that one can refashion both individual and collective identity on the basis of the negative lessons and exempla that national history can provide. Besides the trauma of the early Stalinist days, all the countries in question had and still have to deal with what Tony Judt called “the grey veil of moral ambiguity” that was the defining feature of actually existing socialism. These societies and most of their members have a bad conscience in relation to the past. A new solidarity based upon the duty of remembrance is still in situ, but its nourishment would require advancing political goals that lay beyond the priorities of the presently murky and seemingly never-ending transitional period.
Nevertheless, the negative effects that accompany entrenched societal amnesia must not be underestimated. The lack of real public debates and sober analyses about the past (including the acknowledgment by the highest state authorities of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by communist dictatorships) fuel silent dissatisfaction and facilitates the accession to state power of new demagogues. A case in point is Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. One essential ingredient to the legitimacy of his “controlled democracy” is institutionalized amnesia, the falsification of the twentieth century history, of the Soviet past, and, in particular, of the Stalinist genocide(s).
Post-communism did bring with it “a new wooden language of public policy with very little meaning or concern to many citizens” as Judt wrote in his history of postwar Europe. At the same time, one ought not to forget that the illusions of 1989 were vital for the defeat of Leninism. That was the year when most Eastern Europeans stopped being afraid, when their moral frustration and political impotence vanished, and they regained a central role in the political sphere. The basic proof for this statement is that most of the nightmarish scenarios for the region, sprung with the Yugoslav wars in the background, turned out to be wrong. Instead, the lessons of the 1989 upheaval serve as unquestionable evidence for the values that we currently consider to define democracy.
Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland and author of numerous books including Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel (Free Press, 1992, paperback with a new epilogue, 1993)and Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism, and Myth in Post-communist Europe (Princeton UP, 1988, paperback 2009), and the editor, most recently, of Stalinism Revisited: The Establishment of Communist Regimes in East-Central Europe (Central European University Press, 2009).