by Stephen Kotkin, author of Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (Modern Library, 2010)
I started teaching at Princeton University in September 1989—and two months into my first course the Berlin Wall fell. The ink on my Ph.D. was barely dry. Within two years, the Soviet Union was gone. The conundrum of Communism’s collapse has haunted me ever since. In 1989, more than 1 million people gathered in protests on Tiananmen Square, but the Chinese Communist regime endures. In Poland, there were hardly any street demonstrations in 1989, yet it was the first Communist regime to go.
Obviously, it was necessary to look inside Eastern Europe’s Communist establishments (what I call the “uncivil society”) and not just at the protesters (usually called “civil society”). What struck me was that the 1989 “roundtable” initiated by the Polish Communists with the opposition Solidarity was not intended as an end to the system—by either side.
Poland was broke. In exchange for re-legalizing the rump Solidarity free trade union, the Communists proposed to borrow the former’s legitimacy to impose economic austerity and maybe get the country’s huge hard-currency debts reduced. The regime offered to allow one-third of the seats of the parliament (Sejm) to be contested, while two thirds would be uncontested. In turn, the Sejm would elect a new president—who would be the communist leader General Jaruzelski. The Communists had no intention of giving up power. Solidarity, fearful of being sullied by collaboration with the regime, suspected a trick.
There was a trick, all right: the Communists were polling 20–30 percent, so they were confident not just of a two-thirds majority (through lack of contestation) but a little extra, yet they chose to introduce single mandate districts rather than proportional representation! Solidarity won every seat it was allowed to contest. In addition, the Communists often failed to gain 50 percent plus one vote even for the uncontested seats—and no runoff was possible because there was no candidate to run against.
Students invariably drop their jaws when they come to see that the Polish Communist regime unintentionally organized a referendum against itself. They are also shocked to learn that Solidarity was confronted by something it had not sought—taking political power. The kicker is students’ discovery that Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin let it all happen mostly without understanding the consequences. The impact on the integrity of the Soviet state was devastating.
To students, almost all of whom were born after 1989, the world today seems very different—economic ascendancy in East Asia, wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. But 1989 was the inflection point, when the Soviet Army left Afghanistan, the Chinese Communists resolutely held onto power (amid their ongoing shift to the market), and Eastern European Communism imploded, falling back into the world economy and ratcheting up the instabilities of globalization. Simply put, after World War II, capitalism experienced a prolonged middle class economic boom that crushed communism in a daily-life competition. But long-term structural factors were unleashed by contingencies. For today’s world as well, 1989 provides a model for understanding change, just not in the way we usually think.
Stephen Kotkin is Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, with a joint appointment as Professor of International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School. He is the author of the enormously influential books Magnetic Mountain:Stalinism as a Civilization and Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970—2000 and contributes regularly to The New York Times, The New Republic, and the BBC.