Understanding Post-Communist Transformation: A Bottom Up Approach

Understanding Post-Communist Transformation: A Bottom Up Approach

Understanding Post-Communist Transformation: A Bottom Up Approach

Understanding Post-Communist Transformation: A Bottom Up Approach


The fall of the Berlin Wall launched the transformation of government, economy and society across half of Europe and the former Soviet Union. This text deals with the process of change in former Communist bloc countries, ten of which have become new European Union (EU) democracies while Russia and her neighbours remain burdened by their Soviet legacy.

Drawing on more than a hundred public opinion surveys from the New Europe Barometer, the text compares how ordinary people have coped with the stresses and opportunities of transforming Communist societies into post-Communist societies and the resulting differences between peoples in the new EU member states and Russia.

Subjects covered by Understanding Post-Communist Transformation include:

  • Stresses and opportunities of economic transformation
  • Social capital and the development of civil society
  • Elections and the complexities of party politics
  • The challenges for the EU of raising standards of democratic governance
  • Differences between Russia's and the West's interpretation of political life

Written by one of the world's most renowned authorities on this subject, this text is ideal for courses on transition, post-communism, democratization and Russian and Eastern European history and politics.


We are making such a large turn that it is beyond anyone’s dreams. No other people
has experienced what has happened to us.

(Mikhail Gorbachev, speech at Khabarovsk, 1991)

While every society is in transition, few have experienced transformation as abruptly and pervasively as nations once in the Communist bloc. Transformation is different in kind from the adaptation that established political systems periodically engage in to maintain their stability. Transformation is abnormal; it starts with the disruption of a steady state. It is a relatively short phase in a country’s history, an interlude between a way of life that has been upset and the establishment of a new way of governing society. In the case of the Communist bloc, it was more than a political revolution. There was the treble transformation of the economy, society and the political regime – and often of the boundaries of the state as well.

Understanding post-Communist transformation is important because the bloc that Moscow dominated had upwards of 400 million subjects. Moreover, substantial elements of Communist practice, such as using a party as an organizational weapon and a state-controlled economy, have appeared in dozens of countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa. From a changing China to Cuba, more than 1.5 billion people have been or are now under Communist rule.

The actions of charismatic leaders such as Boris Yeltsin and Lech Walesa could disrupt a Communist regime; doing so left a wreckage as the starting point for building a replacement. It was politically convenient to describe what was happening as transition. Doing so implied predictability: we not only knew where a country was coming from but also knew where it was going. Many transition studies assumed that even if transformation was not literally the end of history, it would lead to the creation of societies from East Berlin to Vladivostok that would become ‘just like us’.

In the midst of transformation, it was clear what was being left behind, but it was not clear what lay ahead. As the Soviet Union was sliding toward the political abyss, no one, including its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, knew what would fill the void created by its collapse. At the time, the only thing we could be sure of was that our knowledge of how a Communist system worked was no longer adequate to understand new regimes that were holding free elections in order to demonstrate their break with it. It quickly became evident that our knowledge of how a neo-classical economic system works in theory was inadequate to understand how economies in transformation were working in reality. As a Russian central banker subsequently reflected, ‘Life has . . .

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