All historic revolutions had a geographical center, from Paris in 1789 to St. Petersburg in 1917. Where did the revolutions of 1989–91 begin and who were the agents driving them? In a longer-term perspective, Gdańsk stands out as a significant hub. This is where the trade union movement Solidarność (Solidarity) was founded; it spread across Poland within a few months. Unlike in previous revolutions, then, resistance did not originate in the capital but in the provinces. The same was true in 1989 of the GDR (Leipzig), Romania (Timişoara) and, later, Ukraine (Ľviv).
Earlier mass protests against communism had also taken place in regional centers: in Plzeň in 1953, in Poznań in 1956, in Gdynia in 1970, and in Gdańsk in 1980–81. In the second half of the eighties, Gorbachev gave the reformist governments in Hungary and Poland free rein to implement perestroika. At the same time, the communist party leaders of the GDR and the ČSSR, Erich Honecker and Gustav Husák, and other hardliners openly resisted reforms, deviating from Moscow in an opposite direction. In view of this long-term power shift from the center to the periphery, Moscow can hardly be regarded as the epicenter of the revolutions of 1989–91.
Nevertheless, Cold War history and literature on the collapse of communism and the Eastern Bloc tend to portray the Kremlin and Gorbachev as the originators of the changes. Despite the strong academic focus on Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), information about his role remains limited.29 More has been written about prominent opposition activists, especially Václav Havel, who was a noted dramatist and political philosopher.30 Little is known about the mid-ranking party officials and second-string opposition who were not in the public gaze—the managers, industrial and agricultural workers, and other oppositional groups within society—or local centers of the revolution. James Krapfl is the only author to convey an impression of the broad mass of protesters in 1989, their ideals, and their rapid disappointment. His Revolution with a Human Face also marks the transition from “why” questions, or causal explanations for the revolutions of 1989–91, to “how” questions, inspired by considerations of cultural history. Krapfl’s book inquires into the representations and interpretations of the revolution that shaped the further course of transformation.
The hermeneutic dilemma inherent in all the existing analyses is that their explanations are based largely on preexisting fields of inquiry. Anyone who focuses on Moscow—as most experts on Eastern Europe do, if only for linguistic reasons—will no doubt find the reasons for communism’s collapse there. But shifting the focus to the smaller nations of Eastern Europe exclusively would be just as counterproductive. This is where the potential weakness of Timothy Garton Ash’s explanatory model lies. His argument that civil society spurred the changes is tenable with respect to Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin but less so with respect to Moscow. The same in reverse is true of Kotkin’s thesis.
The two lines of research can be combined by stressing the communicative links between Poland and the western parts of the Soviet Union. As recent studies on opposition networks around the Baltic Sea have shown, Baltic dissidents were well informed of the activities of Solidarność.31Polish underground publications reported on the mass demonstrations in Tallinn, Riga, and neighboring Vilnius. A number of GDR civil rights activists took Poland as their model, and Polish and Czech opposition members met in Krkonoše, the mountain range along their nations’ shared border. These contacts broadened the horizons of civil rights activists. Moreover, the knowledge that they were not alone in their struggle had an important psychological effect.
The communication between the various opposition movements qualitatively changed their characters. This can be inferred from the images of history that were circulating in Eastern Europe in the late eighties. The dissidents (including a disproportionately high number of historians) had a common goal: to revise the official image of history, and especially to expose the truth about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Soviet terror against Poles, Baltic peoples, Ukrainians, and members of other nations. Thanks to their cross-border discussions, some of history’s “blind corners,” such as Katyn (where Stalin ordered the shooting of over 4,400 Polish officers), the gulags, the deportations to Siberia, and the Yalta Agreement, were researched and remembered in a broader, international context. United in their outrage at Stalinism and the major crimes committed in its name, the opposition activists initially neglected other conflictual issues, such as Polish-Lithuanian relations in the interwar period, the Polish-Ukrainian civil war of 1943–46, and the persecution of Jews by their compatriots. But by setting aside thorny bilateral issues, which the communists had actively misused in their propaganda, they prepared the ground for friendly relations among the Visegrad group, between Poland and Ukraine, and in a unified Germany, as well as for the revival of Jewish life. This contradicts the hitherto predominant image in historiography of a stereotypically nationalist Eastern Europe during the transformation era. This verdict only really holds for Yugoslavia, where the legacy of past conflicts, especially the persecution and mass killing of Serbs in 1941–44, was harnessed to fuel the war beginning in 1991. Remarkably, again, the impetus to reappraise Eastern Europe’s history often came from provincial towns far from the capital cities, where there was less surveillance. This is a further indication that the revolutions of 1989–91 had multiple centers, and cannot be attributed to just a few “big men of history.”
It is also worth looking beyond the borders of the Soviet empire. In the spring of 1989, tens of thousands of people were taking part in demonstrations in the center of the other communist superpower, China. While on June 4 the Poles were invited to freely elect a section of their parliament for the first time since 1947—resulting in a crushing defeat for the Polish United Workers’ Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, PZPR)—the Chinese party leadership was using tanks and gunfire to clear Tiananmen Square of demonstrators.
The violent suppression of the protests in Beijing marked a victory for the hardliners over the reformers in the Chinese politburo. The military crackdown was also a reaction to the authorities’ loss of control in the Soviet Union, which the Chinese leadership had closely observed. In spring 1989, there was growing unrest in the Baltic states, the Caucasus, and neighboring Central Asia. From a Chinese perspective, glasnost (openness) seemed the primary threat to stability. The Tiananmen Square massacre, then, is as much a part of the global history of the year 1989 as was the Washington Consensus.32 The repercussions were perceptible in Europe: the party leaderships of the GDR and the ČSSR discussed the possibility of a “Chinese solution.”33 In the end, only Ceauşescu risked an escalation in December 1989, with disastrous consequences for himself and his wife.
The above events illustrate the internal dynamics of the revolutionary and postrevolutionary periods. With the wisdom of hindsight, the aging Eastern Bloc regimes seem predestined to fall. But the reform communists, especially, still believed that they could save state socialism. When Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika, he did not foresee the consequences. Despite their conciliatory intentions, neither Gorbachev nor the reform communists in Poland and Hungary should be idealized. Poland’s last communist government, under Mieczysław Rakowski, entered into negotiations with Solidarność on a political gamble. Rakowski, the former editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Polityka, presumed that once power had been divided, the public would blame the opposition for the country’s economic plight. This is exactly what happened, and in 1990 the trade union that had become the ruling party was struggling to contain its internal disagreements. While Solidarność tried to implement reforms that were not in the interests of its own clientele, the reform communists in the opposition had a chance to regenerate and develop a new program and economic policy.
In the GDR and the ČSSR, the dynamics of the revolution cut the period of power-sharing short. The East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KPČ) had blocked reforms for so long that their legitimacy was rapidly waning. The mass protests in Leipzig, East Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, and many provincial towns marked a psychological watershed. The demonstrations showed that the public had lost its fear of the police and security forces. This dynamic was repeated in Romania, the Baltic states, and Georgia, and, following the attempted putsch of 1991, in Moscow. The tendency of revolutions to gather momentum has often been observed and incorporated into various revolution theories.34 Yet it has been disputed whether the radical changes of 1989–91 can be included in the long tradition of modern revolutions—paradoxically because of the predominant lack of violence. The time is right, then, to update the established revolution theories in the light of the events of more than twenty-five years ago.