Shock Waves: Eastern Europe after the Revolutions

By John Feffer | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
From above and below

I would rather bark like a dog than speak the language of the foreigners. 1

—Czech noble

Stalin lived, imposed his model on Eastern Europe, then died. Revolution broke out in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland in 1980. Then came Gorbachev. Finally a new era dawned in 1989, people awoke as if from a dream, the Wall fell, and the Stalinist model finally crumbled in its entirety. Voila, the Cold War in fast forward.

This condensed version of the last 45 years in Eastern Europe does not, needless to say, capture the ebb and flow of reform and revolution in the region. Spanning the Cold War gap between Stalin and Gorbachev, numerous top-down restructurings and popular uprisings from below chipped away at the communist system of one-party rule, centralized planning, and security police surveillance. By 1989, Stalin's model had been hollowed out by his communist successors and non-communist detractors alike.

This hollowness was often referred to, in the lingo of specialists, as a "legitimation crisis": the communist rulers could not ultimately fulfill the expectations generated by their own propaganda. 2 No longer reliant solely on the raw repressions of the Stalinist period, such governments sought political legitimacy through rigged elections, economic stability through high growth and external borrowing, and social support through egalitarian rhetoric. Whatever the legitimacy gained initially by these policies, communist governments gradually drifted toward crisis, attempting to fine tune from above when protest erupted from below. The events of 1989 did not come from nowhere. Both the Gorbachev- style reformers and the successful oppositionists had their forebears. Although tensions had long been waxing and waning, emphasis in the 1980s was clearly on the wax rather than the wane. The Soviet model—a distinctly foreign tongue to many in the region—was to be a short-lived lingua franca.

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