Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

Random House/Modern Library|2009|9.68
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In China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, more than one million protesters assembled to demand change, but the Communist regime employed force and easily survived.  By contrast, in Eastern Europe, the regimes were swept away in political bank runs.  What happened?  In a crisp, concise, unsentimental narrative, Kotkin employs three case studies – East Germany, Romania, and Poland – to illuminate what led Communist regimes to implode. This is less a story of dissidents, so-called civil society, than of the economic and political bankruptcy of ruling elites – communism’s establishment, or “uncivil society.” From East Germany’s pseudotechnocracy to Romania’s megalomaniacal dystopia, from Communist Poland’s cult of Mary to the Kremlin’s surprise restraint, Kotkin pulls back the curtain on the fraud and decadence that cashiered the would-be alternative to the market and democracy, opening the way to the enlargement of the European Union.  Based on a seminar co-taught at Princeton with Jan Gross.


“splendid and compact, . . . refreshingly lively analysis.”
– Serge Schmemann, New York Times


“One of the great strengths of Stephen Kotkin’s contribution . . . is his emphasis on issues of political economy.”
– Philip Zelikow, Foreign Affairs


“Princeton history professors Kotkin (Armageddon Averted) and Gross (Neighbors) deliver a perceptive account of how [1989] happened. They deny that freedom-loving citizens (civil society) led the transformation, pointing out that, except in Poland, no organized opposition existed. The only true establishment was the incompetent, blinkered, and ultimately bankrupt Communist system—an uncivil society. Even in private, all awaited the collapse of capitalism and increasingly focused on the moral superiority of socialism in the face of the unnerving economic superiority of the West. In 1989 the bottom fell out. Polish leaders agreed to a quasi-free election, which unexpectedly voted them out; faced with peaceful demonstrations and a mass exodus of citizens, East German leaders resigned. Except for a bloody attempt to stave off the inevitable in Romania, all satellite governments peacefully dissolved, often with comic-opera ineptness. Combining scholarship with sparkling prose, the authors recount a thoroughly satisfying historical struggle in which the good guys won.”

– Publishers Weekly, starred review