Colin Woodard: Academe in Eastern Europe 20 years after the fall of Communism

Roundup: Talking About History

[Colin Woodard covered Eastern Europe for The Chronicle for many years. His latest book is The Republic of Pirates (Harcourt, 2007).]

Today Masaryk University's Faculty of Social Studies occupies a beautifully renovated 19th-century building in Brno's historic center, not far from the tourist crowds on Námestí Míru, or Peace Square. Its founder, Ivo Mozny, and his colleagues enjoy spacious quarters, an exhaustive library, and, most important, freedom of inquiry.

Twenty years ago, sociologists at the university had none of those things. Classes were held behind locked doors, so that no one could walk in on discussions of forbidden topics. Current academic works were carried in by visiting foreign scholars and were passed from professor to professor and student to student. Mozny himself—blacklisted from teaching after the Soviets overthrew the reformist government, in 1968—was reduced to working as a mere research technician and had to hold his lectures underground.

But he and his colleagues were fortunate in that they were able to create and maintain a zone of freedom where, out of the authorities' sight and hearing, sociology students could study and discuss works and ideas that might have landed them in prison. When the regime finally collapsed, in 1989, one of the largest and most prestigious sociology schools in the region was built on that underground foundation.

Ask Mozny how he did it and he chuckles: "Coincidences and a lot of very good luck." What he leaves out is bravery, and a willingness to take considerable risks to push the bounds of what was possible, both during and after the collapse of Eastern Europe's Communist regimes.

The Soviet empire in Eastern Europe fell apart 20 years ago in a cascading series of events that took even the participants by surprise. Steps taken by reform-minded Communist regimes in Poland and Hungary to liberalize political life—and Budapest's decision to dismantle its section of the Iron Curtain—triggered a mass exodus of disaffected East Germans and, largely by accident, the opening of the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989. That December demonstrations brought down the regimes in Czechoslovakia (peacefully) and Romania (with great loss of life). Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev could have ordered in the tanks as his predecessors had done but chose not to.

The revolutions unleashed head-spinning changes for Eastern Europe's universities and the scholars who work within them. In just 20 years, the former Soviet satellite nations of Eastern Europe have joined the European Union, expanded their higher-education sectors, transformed the structure of academic degrees, and rebuilt the relationship between research and teaching. Outdated infrastructure has been replaced, and outsized departments of Marxism-Leninism and metallurgical engineering have been pushed aside to make room for programs in business and environmental science. In Romania academics have gone from rationing of heat, electricity, and food to wireless broadband in a single generation.

Some scholars who lived through those changes played a central role in bringing them about. Academics who had limited prospects for advancement under the old system have led departments, universities, government ministries, even nations. Get scholars talking about what university life was like then and what it has become, and sometimes they themselves express amazement...

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