The Long Shadow of 1989

Thirty years after 1989 one might argue that rather than empowering liberalism in Eastern Europe it has proved to weaken liberalism and make societies vulnerable to populist agitation.

The collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989 stunned the world. The dominant interpretation of what came to be known as the Autumn of Nations or the Year of Truth proved to be as swift and overwhelming as the events themselves. We immediately began to hear about the triumph of capitalism over socialism, and liberal democracy over dictatorships. All this was cloaked in the rhetoric of inevitability and the incompatibility of socialism with human nature. The historian Martin Malia had argued for the “genetic code” of Marxism that almost naturally doomed that the system would yield to the redeeming qualities of the free market while Francis Fukuyama famously declared “the end of history.”1 Indeed, a new utopia emerged: not the one about a classless society of communism but about a post-ideological world and universal prosperity to be delivered by the neoliberal global economy.

To say that few experts on the region within and outside Eastern Europe had predicted the collapse of communism prior to 1989 is by now a cliché. In 2019, we can paraphrase that statement by noting that few experts anticipated that the demise of communist regimes in Eastern Europe would eventually help generate a global retreat from democracy. Already in the early 1990s, the Bulgarian intellectual Ivaylo Ditchev warned us against embracing the myth of post-ideological harmony, which in his mind was a way to repress reality. He wrote: “The repressed never does disappear; at one time or another it reemerges in an irrational form; similarly, repressed misery and suffering shall certainly be back one day, the whole problem is under what monstrous shape they will manifest themselves.”2

The recent rise of right-wing authoritarian populism calls for a critical reassessment of the dominant narrative of capitalism’s triumph and inevitable “democratization” generated by the collapse of communism.

The recent rise of right-wing authoritarian populism in East/Central Europe and around the globe calls for a critical re-assessment of the dominant narrative of capitalism’s triumph and inevitable “democratization” generated by the collapse of communism. What are the stories that have been lost, marginalized, or “repressed” in the euphoria of communism’s demise? How should we interpret 1989 so we can de-mythologize the narrative of “natural” progress towards democracy and begin to understand the collapse of communism on its own terms and in multi-dimensional ways? And finally, what is the best way to recover and use 1989 as the repository of human hopes and desires to live in a better society?

Living through the End of History: A View from Below

How did it feel to live through “the end of history”? Scholars and journalists have produced volumes on the collapse of communism often looking for causes in the complex terrain of foreign policy, American military might, domestic discontent, economic crisis, and the Gorbachev factor. Stephen Kotkin and Jan Tomasz Gross even concluded that it was the Eastern European ruling elites, “the uncivil society,” who was the most instrumental in the collapse as they lost the support of the Kremlin and were unable to address the most pressing economic and political problems facing their societies.3 These views are instructive, but they place political developments in the realm of impersonal processes or the supposedly all-powerful elites. To understand what happened in 1989, we first need to restore the agency to the diverse social actors. Padraic Kenney was right when he questioned the totalitarian paradigm in the late 1990s by suggesting that the communist system in Eastern Europe was better understood as a process of negotiation between state and society. “Ultimately,” he wrote, “the fall of communism itself was the result of the breakdown of state-society-relations.”4

A view from below unmasks the myths of capitalism’s triumph as a system allegedly more compatible with human nature than socialism. Few people in Eastern Europe fought for the free market during the communist era. None of the Eastern European revolts such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, or the Solidarity movements in Poland in 1980–81, entailed demands for the return to capitalism. On the contrary, the struggle was primarily for political democratization, material betterment, and more effective state protections for the working people. Few people in Eastern Europe knew much about the workings of the free market. Most of the popular knowledge remained within the idealized realm of the imagined West. Even for political elites, the turn to a full-fledged free-market economy was not pre-ordained, but rather a late decision based on economic calculations and international pressure.

Was 1989 truly a major and unexpected break for individuals in Eastern Europe the way it was for Timothy Garton Ash and other Western audiences who watched the Polish elections of 4 June 1989, or the mass demonstrations against the communist regime in Prague in November and December of that year? Rather, 1989 was primarily a deeply humane moment exemplified in such events as a human chain formed by close to two million people and covering a distance of approximately 420 miles across the Soviet Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in August 1989. And then in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall a few months later.

A Transnational Moment of Inspirations and Hopes

For most people on the ground, 1989 was a turning point in an emotional rather than a strictly political or economic sense. The historian Alicja Kusiak-Brownstein, who conducted interviews with a group of Polish Generation X, captured the mood of many young people at the time by describing the experience of 1989 as “a flow of life” with political events in the background. “1989 was the year of high spirits,” she wrote. “The level of activism among young people was very high. It seemed like we were all involved in something—amateur theater, amateur press, music, politics, religious and self-education groups, free travel without money, fraternization, ‘the first joint and getting high!’”5

It was also a transnational moment of humanist bonds, inspirations and hopes. As a teenager in Poland, I remember the smiles in the street and the feelings of solidarity among people from different Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union as they crossed borders more freely and more widely than before, often with the purpose of engaging in the boom of consumer tourism. But the “magic of the moment” went further, beyond Europe.6 In July 1989, I found myself together with my mother on a sight-seeing trip to Cairo and Alexandria (since “they” had now eased travel restrictions, we figured, why not see the pyramids?) The Egyptian merchants on every fruit market in Cairo and elsewhere greeted our tour group with a raised thumb, a radiant smile, and an enthusiastic pronouncement: “Lech Wałęsa!” It felt good to be Polish in 1989!

It was not until after 1989 that the impact of the collapse of communism began to take effect on personal lives, often in ways that rarely resembled the exhilarating atmosphere of the Year of Truth.7 In January 1990, the Solidarity government in Poland began implementing the program designed by the Minister of Finance, Leszek Balcerowicz, to make a quick and radical transition from central planning to a market economy. The reforms indeed shed state control over the economy and boosted market activity, but they also resulted in the rapid collapse of industrial plans and agricultural collectives leading to skyrocketing unemployment rates and growing poverty. For many, it was the encounter with de-industrialization in the early 1990s that was the turning point to remember and to reinterpret 1989 in a different light. For millions of people who lost their jobs, 1989 acquired an ambivalent meaning. What was democracy worth if it caused one to lose one’s livelihood?

The implementation of free-market reforms and the dismantling of the communist economy based on industrial production shocked the population everywhere in Eastern Europe, now affected by unemployment and a lack of social security mechanisms that were the norm under communism.

At the same time, corruption among new political classes and fraudulent investment schemes contributed to the growing gap between the new political elites and ordinary citizens. 1989 cast a long shadow over people’s lives.

A Feeling of Powerlessness Towards the New Economic Conditions

When I conducted interviews for my dissertation on female workers in Poland in 2002, the memory of the economic transition was still fresh. I was interested in women’s experiences of their work in the late 1940s and 1950s, but the women’s responses tended to circle back to the present. “There was injustice and hardship then as there is now,” one former female textile worker, Teresa, told me. “But in the old days, if one had a problem one went to the Party chapter to complain. The Party helped. If a single mother could not make her ends meet, the Party would help her. Now, no one knows where to go. The only difference is that nowadays one can openly speak one’s mind about all this. But who knows for how long…”

For millions of people who lost their jobs, 1989 acquired an ambivalent meaning. What was democracy worth if it caused one to lose one’s livelihood?

The statement revealed a feeling of powerlessness towards the new economic conditions that seemed beyond the control of ordinary individuals. At the same time, Teresa appreciated political freedoms such as the right to free expression. Yet, it is clear that Teresa did not share the belief in inevitable democratization that many scholars were writing about at the time. In 2002, after all, Poland was only two years away from joining the EU. For my interviewees, however, neither economic security nor political freedoms were a given. The experience of 1989 taught Teresa that they can be taken away at any time. It is such perspectives from below, including the diverse understandings of democracy, that need to be explored to fully understand the legacy of 1989.

Contested Languages of 1989

The meaning of 1989 was also shaped by the battles over rhetorical control and the desire to win potential citizen-voters like Teresa on the part of the new political elites. These battles entailed contested memories of communism and its demise. In 2014, Michael Bernhard and Jan Kubik found the complex memory of 1989 to be critical to understanding the contemporary political and cultural landscape of the region. Numerous authors, who contributed to the volume on Twenty Years After Communism: The Politics of Memory and Commemoration, edited by Bernhard and Kubik, demonstrated how 1989 was interpreted in divergent and often opposite terms from the year of liberation to the year of “betrayal” and a secret pact between the elites. These authors pointed to the political utility of 1989 for Eastern European elites to evoke specific emotions and generate support for a particular political platform.8

Such battles entailed more than manipulating the memory of 1989. They distorted the intellectual traditions essential to the development of democracy. The collapse of communism opened a new way for the post-1989 political elites and the media to de-historicize and distort such fundamental concepts of democracy as liberalism, feminism, socialism and human rights. While liberalism was typically reduced to the free-market ideology in public discourses and practices, any progressive ideas, such as the welfare state or the equality of the sexes, which were ironically often derived from nineteenth-century liberal thought, were deemed as “communist” and therefore illegitimate. In that sense, another marginalized story of 1989 is how the oversimplified interpretation of capitalism’s triumph limited democratic freedoms and the individual empowerment that so many people felt in 1989. Freedom of speech allowed for multiple perspectives to come to the surface, but the dominant anti-communist paradigm established new boundaries. One could indeed speak one’s mind, as Teresa noted in 2002, but not all thoughts and feelings were equally legitimate.

Thirty years after 1989, one can begin to examine how 1989 instead of “returning” Eastern Europe to Europe, as many had hoped, contributed to distorting the European intellectual tradition, including the concepts of liberalism and communism. One could argue that 1989 rather than empowering liberalism in Eastern Europe, proved to weaken liberalism and make societies vulnerable to populist agitation.

Stigmatizing any Ideas of Social Justice

The danger of distorting intellectual traditions for political gain was noted by historian Andrzej Walicki in the early 2000s. Walicki criticized the distinct use of “communism” in post-1989 Polish public culture as a term exclusively associated with Soviet control rather than with the rich and complex intellectual tradition that had shaped modern European and global history. In addition, the anti-communist rhetoric was accompanied by an unabashed rejection of any Polish leftist tradition as illegitimate and “un-Polish.” For Walicki, this was a deliberate strategy on the part of ruling elites aimed at evoking negative feelings towards the welfare state and workers’ rights, all of which did not fit the neoliberal model of post-communist transition. Walicki also warned about the danger of separating liberalism from individual freedoms not limited to the economic sphere, which are essential to human rights.9

These statements ring particularly true today. Stigmatizing any ideas of social justice as “communism” has hampered public debates over real inequalities eventually opening up a new field for populists such as the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland, who have labelled the welfare state not as a universal human right but as part of elevating the “nation” understood in exclusionary terms.

Freedom of speech allowed for multiple perspectives to come to the surface, but the dominant anti-communist paradigm established new boundaries.

At the same time, 1989 was not all about de-legitimizing leftist politics and stifling voices from below. The collapse of communism also gave us new languages to speak about the limits of democracy in post-communist Eastern Europe. Some of the first critiques of the post-communist political and social environment in Eastern Europe came from feminist activists. In contrast to other scholars and journalists, who focused on applauding parliamentary democracy, market reforms, and civil society, feminists pointed to backtracking on women’s rights. These included the resurgence of conservative gender ideology, employment discrimination, and the attack on reproductive rights. In the early 1990s, while criticizing the restrictions on abortion rights in Poland enacted in 1993, Wanda Nowicka noted a “positive side effect.” She wrote: “Women have become aware of the need to organize and to be more conscious about their own issues. We were given liberal regulations much earlier and easier than many other women in the world. … Many of us did not perceive a danger until recently. But what is given can be easily taken away. Now, it is our turn to struggle for our rights.”10 At that time, Nowicka could not have known how powerful the language of feminist resistance would become in the second decade of the 2000s.

Feminist Protests as an Effective Strategy against Populists

Remarkably, decades later, the feminist struggles acquired a new meaning and became an effective strategy of resistance against the global populist turn while also providing a source of inspiration for deepening democracy. In a sense, Eastern European feminists, who had noted the backtracking on democratic values and protested against the denial of full citizenship to women shortly after 1989 were better prepared than others to fight for democracy three decades later. Indeed, one can look to 1989 as marking the beginning of the shift in the language of democratization and inclusion from the Marxist critique focused on labor and class to the feminist quest for women’s rights as human rights. The Black Protests in Poland against the government’s attempts to enact a total ban on abortion in 2016-18, serve as a powerful example of this trend. The demonstrations mobilized women from all social backgrounds and political orientations, large cities and small towns. They also generated sister demonstrations across the globe.

The time has come to examine 1989 not only as the end of something: communism, Marxist illusions, “history,” but also as a new beginning.

Feminist language has a good chance to continue to exert its influence because it offers an alternative conceptualization of the “people” to the one promoted by authoritarian nationalists. Studying contemporary women’s protests in Latin America and Poland, Jenny Gunnarson Payne wrote: “The Black Protests are one of the most powerful movements against neoliberal populism—not only in Poland, but also globally. The success of the Black Protests primarily lies in the fact that the participants first clearly opposed the exclusionary definition of ‘people’ proposed by the neoliberal regime and conservative Christian movements, and then showed an alternative kind of collective identity—a different one, a feminist and supra-national version of the ‘people’—who began to effectively organize at the national and transnational level on behalf of broadly understood democratic demands, far beyond the realm of gender and reproduction.”11

The time has come to examine 1989 not only as the end of something: communism, Marxist illusions, “history,” but also as a new beginning. 1989 was a deeply humanist moment that cannot be reduced to oversimplified ideological categories of capitalism’s victory over socialism. The departure from the neoliberal narrative allows us to recover the personalized and emotional experiences of 1989 and its long shadow. This requires an honest and critical assessment of the collapse of communism in terms of the human cost. At the same time, 1989 can still serve as inspiration for human cooperation and resistance against authoritarianism. 1989 allowed for politicizing discourses and distorting intellectual traditions in a particular way to eliminate leftist sentiments. It also provided, however, material to make new tools to confront the populist regimes that threaten democracy. 1989 opened a new chapter in global history that is still being written. The content of that chapter depends on bringing to light the “repressed” stories and on the lessons we learn from them.

  1. Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 (New York: The Free Press, 1994); Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18.
  2. Ivaylo Ditchev, “Epitaph for Sacrifice, Epitaph for the Left,” in Alexander Kiossev, ed. Posttheory, Games, and Discursive Resistance: The Bulgarian Case (New York: SUNY, 1995). Quoted in Balázs Trencsényi, Michal Kopeček, Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, Maria Falina, Mónika Baár, and Maciej Janowski, A History of Modern Political Thought in East-Central Europe. Vol. II: Negotiating Modernity in the “Short Twentieth Century” and Beyond, Part II: 1968-2018 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 192.
  3. Stephen Kotkin and Jan Tomasz Gross, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (New York: Modern Library, 2010).
  4. Padraic Kenney, Rebuilding Poland: Workers and Communists, 1945-1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 1.
  5. Alicja Kusiak-Brownstein, “Gen X and 1989 in Poland,” Nanovic Institute for European Studies, 21 November 2014 x-and-1989-in-poland-2/ accessed 24 September 2019.
  6. The phrase “magic of the moment” comes from the popular song by the Scorpions, Wind of Change, released in 1990.
  7. The term “Year of Truth” comes from Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and Berlin (New York: Random House, 1990).
  8. Michael Bernhard and Jan Kubik, eds. Twenty Years after Communism: The Politics of Memory and Commemoration (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  9. Andrzej Walicki, Od projektu komunistycznego do neoliberlanej utopii (Warszawa: Universitas,2013).
  10. Wanda Nowicka, “Ban on Abortion in Poland. Why?” in Tanya Renee, ed., Ana’s Land: Sisterhood in Eastern Europe (New York: Westview Press, 19997),42-46,46.
  11. Jenny Gunnarsoon Payne, “Kobiety jako ‘lud.’ Czarne protesty jako sprzeciw wobec autorytarnego populizmu w perspektywie międzynarodowej,” in Elżbieta Korolczuk, Beata Kowalska, Jennifer Ramme, Claudia Snochowska-Gonzales, eds. Buntkobiet. Czarne protest i strajki kobiet (Gdańsk: Europejskie Centrum Solidarności, 2019), 157-183, 159.

Małgorzata Fidelis

Małgorzata Fidelis is an associate professor of history, University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research focuses on social and cultural issues, particularly everyday life and the relationship between individuals and state power, in post-1945 Eastern Europe. She is the author of Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Polish translation, 2015.

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