Revolutions: The Revolutionary Tradition in the West, 1560-1991

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The anti-Communist revolutions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1989 to 1991

Robert V. Daniels

The collapse of Communism and the nature of revolution

Two unforgettable images bracket perceptions of the revolutionary fall of Communism: the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank in Moscow to defy the hardline coup plotters of August 1991. Between and around these landmark events swirled a storm of defiance and rebellion that brought about one of the most spectacular developments of the twentieth century, when the old political order in the Soviet Union and its bloc of East European satellite countries came to an end. By many standards - the break in governmental continuity, the depth of change, the reversal in dominant public attitudes - this movement was one of the great revolutions of history, as its protagonists, including Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, believed. Yet there are peculiarities about this upheaval - the lack of violence in most places, the centrality of national independence, and the targeting of the Soviet system that was itself the product of revolution in 1917 - that raise the question whether it was a true revolution.

It is important to understand what the Soviet and East European anti-Communist revolutions were actually contending against. ‘Communism’ is often construed as the revolutionary doctrine of Karl Marx, implemented in Russia by Vladimir Lenin to begin a seventy-year ‘utopian experiment’ that ultimately ‘failed’. In reality, the old regime preceding the revolutions of 1989 to 1991 was no longer an experiment, but a post-revolutionary, imperialist dictatorship dressed up in the language of Marxist ideology.

In any case, the events of 1989 to 1991 still invite analysis in the framework of the comparative history of revolution, following as they did the classic Russian revolutionary upheaval of 1917 to 1921, the pragmatic consolidation of the New Economic Policy in the 1920s, and a protracted post-revolutionary dictatorship, ushered in by Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’ of the early 1930s and marked by imperialist expansion after the Second World War. Stalin’s ‘Great Retreat’ back to conservative social and cultural norms in the mid-1930s, along with his purge of most of the


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