Kathryn Hadley: The Collapse of Communism in Europe: A Re-examination 20 Years After

Roundup: Talking About History

Why did communist systems in Europe collapse twenty years ago? A big question. A question that has been repeatedly asked and a question that has been tentatively answered time and time again.

It was the question that a panel of six speakers sought to answer yesterday evening at The British Academy. All speakers were present and involved in various ways in the events and through each of their presentations they sought to both recapture the spirit and views of the time and to assess the latest research. Speakers included the British academic Professor Timothy Garton Ash; Dr Andrei Grachev, who was Deputy Head of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1990 and Presidential Press Spokesman for Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991; Bridget Kendall, the BBC Moscow correspondent at the time; US Professor Robert Legvold; the Hungarian Professor Ferenc Miszlivetz, who was part of a Hungarian movement promoting East-West dialogue; and Dr Lilia Shevtsova, who was Deputy Director of the Institute of Economics of the World Socialist System in Moscow in 1989.

How were the changes perceived at the time? Was there a sense of the scale of events? Did people know that communist systems in Europe were about to collapse?

Professor Timothy Garton Ash warned against the dangers of studying the events in retrospect and of ‘hindsight bias’. In the light of these ‘illusions of retrospective’, even asking such questions may be misleading. There is a tendency to believe that the collapse of communism was bound to happen. However, it is not lose sight of what Garton Ash described as the ‘real alternatives that were there at the time’ and to examine why these real alternatives did not happen.

Indeed, most speakers stressed the unexpected outcome of the events at the time. According to Garton Ash, it is impossible to recapture the excitement of the time and times were exciting because nobody knew what would happen the following day. The outcome was also unexpected for Gorbachev. Bridget Kendall met Gorbachev on various occasions and argued that he did not want the collapse of the communist system. He ‘wanted evolution not revolution’, both to ensure popular support for his policies and that he remained in control.

As a student and member of a small group of East-West dialogue formed in 1985, Ferenc Miszlivetz remembered the hope and optimism of the time. The group sought to ‘give life’ to the Helsinki Accords signed in 1975 by establishing, for the first time, networks between students in the East and West. He described a growing sense of central European ‘togetherness’ which inspired a hope that things were gradually changing. Miszlivetz and members of similar groups that may have contributed to the collapse of communist systems on a local level had no sense, however, of the scale of what would come just a few years later.

If the collapse of communism was so unexpected, how then and why did it eventually fall?

On the whole, historians agree to a variety of causes. The fall of communism was the result of the complex interaction of all these causes on various levels, between different states, but also between states and societies.

Both Dr Andrei Grachev and Dr Lilia Shevtsova argued, however, that the collapse of communism in Russia came primarily from within due to the distinct nature of the Russian communist model. It fell victim to the contradictions of its own identities and ambitions, which were to realise social justice for all and to build and project the image of a Russian superpower in the world.

Shevtsova reiterated the words of Arnold J. Toynbee stressing the ‘suicidal statecraft’ of Russia. It gradually became increasingly difficult to realise these ambitions, in particular as war came to an end and states instead sought cooperation rather than conflict. Dr Lilia Shevtsova highlighted the uniqueness of the Russian civilisation: it was a militarised civilisation, which survived on conflict and war. The Russian economy had best performed in times of war. It was dependent on war and, from the First World War, to the Russian Civil War, the Second World War and the Cold War; war had been a constant feature throughout the 20th century.

Ferenc Miszlivetz thus underlined the importance of the effects of the Helsinki Accords signed in 1975 by the USSR and thirty-two other European states, as well as Canada and the United Sates, in an attempt to improve the relations between the communist bloc and the West.

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