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East: Analysis From Washington -- A Decade Of Disappointments

  • Paul Goble

Nineteen eighty nine was a year of remarkable change in Central and Eastern Europe, and the 10 year anniversary of those changes is being marked in the region and beyond. But as RFE/RL's Paul Goble notes in this analysis from Washington, the anniversary is also forcing a recognition that much remains to be done before the legacy of communism is overcome.

Washington, 3 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 unleashed great expectations that the world was entering into a new period of democracy, free markets, peace and stability.

But despite the undeniable progress almost everyone has made, the decade since that time has brought even greater disappointments, both in the countries which languished under communist domination as well as in those which had actively fought that political system.

Such a sequence, of course, is typical of periods of massive change. As the Polish writer Adam Michnik points out in the current issue of the American journal "Dissent," "any great social change unleashes great expectations. And therefore, of course, it leads to great disappointments."

This particular decade of disappointed expectations has had the unintended consequence of focusing attention on three aspects of the communist experience in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe which many participants and analysts of these developments up to now have been largely unwilling to confront.

First, communism was far more insidious, pervasive and evil than even many of its sharpest critics have been prepared to acknowledge. And as a result, overcoming its consequences requires a far longer and greater effort than many had earlier assumed.

Not only did the communist regimes of the region kill millions of people and destroy their physical environment in the name of a supposedly higher good -- something even former communists now acknowledge -- these regimes deformed the mental and moral make-up of the people living under them.

The communist authorities were ultimately unsuccessful in reducing everyone to the status of "homo Sovieticus." Had they been able to, these regimes might have survived far longer than they did. But they did have a major impact on the hearts and minds of those over whom they exercised their power, as any comparison of pre-communist and post-communist periods of these countries shows.

Many of the most committed anti-communists, however, had assumed that formally replacing communism as the ruling ideological system with democracy and free market economics would be sufficient to overcome up to seven decades of communist indoctrination: that a change in words by itself would magically and immediately transform the people using them.

Second, Soviet domination of this region was never only about communism, and resistance to that domination was never only about communism either. Instead, it was about nationalism and patriotism, values that the Soviet system sometimes actively exploited and at other times even more actively opposed.

There were and remain enormous differences between those countries where indigenous groups imposed communism and those where a foreign occupying power did so. In the former, many people viewed the communist government as somehow their own, even if they hated it for what it did. In the latter, far more people viewed it as what it was, an occupying force that they would ultimately overthrow.

During the communist period, this difference helped to explain the pride many Russians took in the achievements of the Soviet state, even if they were suffering as much as anyone else from its rule. And it explains some of the impetus behind East European resistance to communist occupation, not only in 1956 and 1968 but in the struggle to overthrow communism a decade ago.

But as important as these differences were in Soviet times, they have become even more significant in the post-communist period. It has proved far less difficult for those societies which always viewed communism as something foreign to turn away from its precepts than it has been for those which saw communism, however awful in its development, as part of their own national patrimony.

To a large extent, this national dimension of communism and its collapse has been either ignored or downplayed by all involved. On the one hand, any mention of it inevitably reopens the question of just what the Cold War was in fact about. On the other, any discussion of this dimension of that conflict opens a variety of broader historical issues which political leaders both East and West believe are best resolved by being ignored.

And third, the struggle between those who did the oppressing and those who were oppressed did not end just because the Berlin Wall fell and those who had called themselves communists now call themselves something else.

Largely because neither the international community nor the people in many post-communist countries were prepared to acknowledge the impact of communism on the minds and behavior of people living under it, there has not been any genuine de-communization either of personnel or, in many cases, of ideas in the governing stratum.

In many post-communist countries, especially those in which communism was viewed as something indigenous rather than imposed, the same people are in office today who were there when communism was in charge. They now style themselves as democrats, but in many cases, they behave in ways little or no different than they did when they called themselves something else.

And equally important, the people living under their rule continue to suffer from many of the same things they suffered from in the past, even if those responsible now use different words. In some countries, like Uzbekistan, a new GULAG is being constructed; in others, the continuities with the past are less striking but equally significant.

As a result, those concerned about human freedom are increasingly being forced to recognize that the defeat of communism did not mark the final victory in that struggle. Not surprisingly, some of them have grown discouraged and even opted out. But others, and their numbers are once again growing, now understand that they must continue the fight, lest the victory of a decade ago be undermined by their own inaction or the actions of others.