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Uncivil Society : 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-10-06
  • Publisher: Modern Library
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Twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. In one of modern history's most miraculous occurrences, communism implodedand not with a bang, but with a whimper. Now two of the foremost scholars of East European and Soviet affairs, Stephen Kotkin and Jan T. Gross, drawing upon two decades of reflection, revisit this crash. In a crisp, concise, unsentimental narrative, they employ three case studiesEast Germany, Romania, and Polandto illuminate what led Communist regimes to surrender, or to be swept away in political bank runs. This is less a story of dissidents, so-called civil society, than of the bankruptcy of a ruling classcommunism's establishment, or "uncivil society." The Communists borrowed from the West like drunken sailors to buy mass consumer goods, then were unable to pay back the hard-currency debts and so borrowed even more. In Eastern Europe, communism came to resemble a Ponzi scheme, one whose implosion carries enduring lessons. From East Germany's pseudotechnocracy to Romania's megalomaniacal dystopia, from Communist Poland's cult of Mary to the Kremlin's surprise restraint, Kotkin and Gross pull back the curtain on the fraud and decadence that cashiered the would-be alternative to the market and democracy, an outcome that opened up to a deeper global integration that has proved destabilizing.

Author Biography

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.

Jan T. Gross a native of Poland, also teaches at Princeton, where he is the Norman B. Tomlinson ’16 and ’48 Professor of War and Society. He was a 2001 National Book Award nominee for his widely acclaimed Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. His most recent book, Fear:Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post.

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Chapter One

Bank Run 

“How did you go bankrupt?
” “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” —Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

The wry Romanian filmA fost sau n- a fost?(2006), known in En - glish as12:08 East of Bucharest,poses a seemingly passe question: Was there or was there not—“A fost sau n- a fost?”—a revolution in 1989? Most of the film takes place at a desk, as an on- air discussion inside a television studio. (It is often said that Romania’s 1989 events took place mostly on TV.) The pompous host (who is given to quoting Herodotus) is called Virgil Jderescu, a provincial TV station owner whose talk show is calledIssue of the Day.This particular day is December 22, 2005, and the issue is what happened on the same date sixteen years earlier. After some potential panelists bow out, Jderescu goes live with a debt- ridden, alcoholic history teacher named Tiberiu M∫nescu and a grumpy, lonely pensioner named Emanoil Piscoci who dresses up as Santa Claus for children. The telecast backdrop shows the live image of a drab, unnamed Stalinist- style wide town square (thought to be Vaslui, the eastern Romanian hometown of the film’s director, Corneliu Porumboiu). The film’s nonaction is riveting: three men sitting in chairs. Jderescu keeps asking “Was there, or was there not, a revolution in our town?” M∫nescu recounts how on December 22, 1989, he had gone to their town square with three other teachers—conveniently, two are now dead and one departed for Canada—before 12:08 p.m., as part of a protesting vanguard. The timing is crucial because Nicolae Ceauoescu, the Romanian dictator, fled Bucharest by helicopter precisely at that time. The Santa Claus impersonator claims that he, too, went to the square, albeit after 12:08. Jderescu takes a call to the show: it’s the sentry on duty in the town square sixteen years ago, who denounces as a lie M∫nescu’s claim to have been on the square before 12:08. Another caller places M∫nescu at the corner bar drinking the whole day and night. As callers along with the host impugn M∫nescu’s story, the latter interjects, “Why split hairs over such stupidity?” The broadcast winds down by depicting—live on the studio backdrop—forlorn gray buildings, a darkening sky, streetlights turning on, and beautiful snow falling. The last phone- in caller says, “I’m just calling to let you know it’s snowing outside. It’s snowing big white flakes. Enjoy it now, tomorrow it will be mud . . . Merry Christmas, everybody!” The woman reveals that she lost her son on December 23, 1989, the day after the revolution. 

The film seems to examine whether a revolution can take place if no one risks anything, at least in this town, and it seems to reinforce a general impression that Romania in 1989 was the grand exception. Romania, it is often said, was the only Eastern European country whose experience in 1989 was supposedly a coup, not a revolution. Or it is said that Romania did have a revolution, but it was stolen.1 Adding to this sense of exceptionalism, Romania turned out to be the only country besides Yugoslavia where socialism’s end was bloody. That carnage notwithstanding—officially Romania suffered 1,104 dead, mostly after December 22—it will be our argument that Romania in 1989 was not an exception but part of a continuum that includes East Germany as well as most other cases. Communist Romania had a minuscule opposition. It was a country of Tiberiu M∫nescus and Emanoil Piscocis, as well as Vir

Excerpted from Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment by Stephen Kotkin
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