"It was clear in the fall of 1988 that the world was changing for the better," said Constantine Pleshakov, Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies and Critical Social Thought, Mount Holyoke College. At a Kennan Institute lecture on 11 January 2010, Pleshakov discussed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and his new book, There Is No Freedom Without Bread! 1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism.
The first half of his book's title, There Is No Freedom Without Bread!, was recycled from the slogan of the Polish Revolutionary movement, explained Pleshakov, and refers to the "age-long paradigm" between freedom and bread. However, even in November 1988, "no one expected communism to disintegrate so rapidly, and with the exception of Romania, so bloodlessly."
The fall of communism was coupled with cries for democracy and free markets, but Pleshakov remarked that these concepts were very hard to define at the time, especially for people who had been under Soviet rule for so long. "When a revolution has no agenda but the overall inclination to better society and life, it uses what it thinks are Western models," stated Pleshakov, adding that these models yielded some very "interesting interpretations" in Eastern Europe.
While the communist regime was undoubtedly oppressive, Pleshakov asserted that there were nevertheless large numbers of people that supported the system because it was convenient and materially comfortable to do so. After all, the regime was built not only on fear but on a social contract to provide many free benefits to individuals, including housing, healthcare, and employment. Therefore, "the revolution was really complicated and complex, and the use of big words like freedom and democracy were very misleading," claimed Pleshakov.
Drawing parallels between 1989 and today, the author wondered why people were still surprised by the political role of religion in places such as the Middle East and Afghanistan. He argued that in Eastern Europe, the revolution did not start when dissident groups formed, but when a Pole was elected to be Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978. Religion was so important to Polish identity and life that "when it became part of the revolutionary paradigm, the revolution became unstoppable." Therefore we should not be surprised today that a different religion is carrying the same sort of clout in other parts of the world, concluded Pleshakov.
By Larissa Eltsefon
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute
- Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies and Critical Social Thought, Mount Holyoke College