EXTRAORDINARY CHANGES are occurring in East Central European countries brought on by the spectacular collapse of state-socialist regimes in 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the rapid transition to liberal democracy and a market economy. The countries' domestic economic and political institutions have been recast, new political forces, parties, and organizations have emerged, private property and markets have been restored, and their social structures have been undergoing radical transformations. These domestic changes have been paralleled by a profound alternation in the international situation. The constraints that governed the global politics during the four decades following the Second World War disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet empire. This rapid unraveling of state-socialist regimes and Soviet-imposed regional institutions left scholars of East European affairs in a state of confusion and uncertainty. Do the knowledge, research, and theoretical approaches developed and accumulated over four decades of the existence of state-socialist regimes have any lasting values? Does the fact that the collapse of state socialism was so sudden and largely unexpected mean that we failed to understand and untangle the political and economic processes taking place in the region? Do the newly open archives reveal new facts that make our analyses and interpretations of events obsolete?
Albert Hirschman once noted that in social sciences “as soon as a social phenomenon has been fully explained by a variety of converging approaches and it is therefore understood in its majestic inevitability and perhaps even permanence, it vanishes.” 1 Does this statement reflect the situation of political scientists and sociologists working on contemporary Eastern Europe? State socialism certainly vanished from the European continent. Whether we were able to fully explain it is still an open question. The postmortem assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the field has been slowly emerging. 2 With a healthy dose of self-criticism, scholars emphasize contributions that added significantly to our understanding of state socialism. Ellen Comisso argues that “although our knowledge and understanding of 'actually existing' socialism is far from complete, it is also quite considerable, and that despite a multiplicity of models, characterizations, and labels, there exists a fairly broad consensus as to the essential features of communist systems, the way in which these features vary over time and place, and the causes of the variations.” 3 Moreover, despite well-known difficulties in conducting scholarly research under state-socialist regimes (i.e., almost total lack of access to documents and primary sources, censorship, political constraints on empirical research, etc.), recently opened archives have not yielded any significant