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Disappointment after 1989 revolutions

Ivaylo Ditchev
September 14, 2019

The revolutions in Eastern Europe inspired many dreams, but were followed by the tedium of societal change. Today's disillusionment reflects the current attitude toward the EU, says Bulgarian intellectual Ivaylo Ditchev.

Friends and relatives of striking workers listen to the news given by Lech Walesa (C) outside the gates of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, 25 August 1980
Image: Getty Images/Afp/Jorma Puusa

After 30 years, the mostly peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe seem to have turned out to be a general disappointment.

For people on the left, the transition went too far, destroying not only the dictatorship, but also equality, morality and the state itself. For those on the right, transition was nothing but a sham, since former communists carried it out, in order to transform political power into economic assets.

Ivaylo Ditchev
Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Sofia in BulgariaImage: BGNES

The general dissatisfaction made it possible for new populists to seize control in almost all post-socialist countries by opposing European values, challenging liberal democracy, promoting mafia-like practices and flirting with religious fundamentalism.

This, in turn, has disappointed Western Europeans: Many of them bitterly regret the once glorious eastward enlargement of the European Union.

Read more:  My Europe: Eastern promise and Western pretension 

Various reasons have been attributed for such a negative perspective on a process that was seen as a historical success. For some, it was the rise of inequalities that usually accompanies economic growth. Inequalities that had been a matter of hidden privilege and status before 1989 suddenly became visible and measurable.

Others began to feel insecure after the harsh opening of their countries to world competition, or felt frustrated because their glorious nation states seemed to be diluted in the fog of globalization. Observers wrote that the mobilization against immigration was hiding the fear of emigration, which began to empty Eastern Europe of its most active population (up to 20% in countries like Latvia and Bulgaria) after communist barbed wire borders came down.

There might be an alternative explanation. This disappointment could be due to a misunderstanding of the communist rule itself, conceived as a system of absolute control, implied in the notion of "totalitarianism."

Abandoned buildings in Pripyat
The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl reflected the inefficiency of the communist systemImage: DW/D.Kaniewski

Political dictatorship, socioeconomic anarchy

In fact, its dictatorial methods came as a compensation for the total chaos underlying the ideological surface. Political dictatorship made up for socioeconomic anarchy. HBO's recent hit series Chernobyl was a stark reminder of the inefficiency of this system: Amid history's worst nuclear disaster, there was nobody to assume responsibility and take action.

This was not a psychological particularity of one specific person, but a structural defect of the entire system. The abolition of private property, as well as a legitimate way to elect people to leadership positions, made society practically ungovernable. These modern societies had to put "saboteurs" in jail for not fulfilling their assignments, and needed to mobilize free student labor to bring in the harvest. It even sent people to sacrifice their lives — in times of peace — to repair a nuclear energy plant.

It might sound paradoxical but communist societies were, in some ways, freer than their Western counterparts. The worker was free to steal from the factory, the boss was free to promote his nephew and employees were free to take revenge on their colleagues by secretly reporting on them. How did people survive in such a system? By adapting to it, by opposing the chaos with smaller personal chaos. "I am pretending to work, he is pretending to pay me," as a popular saying went.

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'Those communists in Brussels!'

Bearing in mind these deepеr characteristics of the communist system (chaotic, voluntarist, ungovernable), let us go back to the revolutions. They were motivated by the passion for freedom, and yet they proved to be a road to a better control over the respective societies. A paradox that German philosopher Georg Hegel would have called "the ruse of reason"!

Just imagine the workers of the Gdansk shipyard in Poland being told that after the victory over communism, their plant would be privatized and 90% of them fired. At the end of the day, it's better to live in an orderly society, and those workers have a better standard of living today. Nevertheless, their revolutionary impulse would certainly have been overshadowed by disappointment.

Read more: Dangerous escape: Fleeing the GDR through Bulgaria

Order is usually imposed by authoritarian governments, as in Singapore, or sometimes even by loathsome military juntas, as in Chile. Bulgarians may remember a text by Zhelyu Zhelev, the late dissident and Bulgaria's first democratic president, who argued that in Eastern Europe the role of military dictatorship to ensure peaceful transition was, in fact, played by the... EU!

I don't know how seriously we should take this idea, but at least it gives us an impression of the ambivalent attitudes toward the European Union that promised freedom, and yet, in the long term, imposed rules. "Those communists in Brussels!" is a sentence you often hear in Eastern European countries. Yes, liberation is imagined as a swift and irreversible act that engages dreams and passions. The normalization of societies after the communist jumble could only be slow, dull and painstaking.

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Sofia in Bulgaria. He has lectured in Germany, France and the United States, among other places.