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Category: History and Memory

The poverty of utopia revisited

In 1989 massive protests erupted from an increasingly restive population. The language of the intellectuals finally reached the people. The regimes found themselves unable to use tanks and bullets to maintain their utopian blueprints. Disenchantment with Marxism was a cathartic experience for Eastern Europe.

The story of Marxism in Eastern Europe begins with Stalinist fanaticism and ends with liberal revolutions in 1989. As the ideological determination of the elite faded through the second half of the 20th century, intellectuals advocated for human rights and dignity. Eventually, the wider populations revolted against communist totalitarianism, and the regimes found their pillars of terror and propaganda insufficient for ensuring continued domination. But with nationalist and fascist ideologies rising today, the journey of humanism in Eastern Europe goes on.

May 2, 2019 - Jordan Luber Vladimir Tismaneanu

The circle of hope: Samizdat, tamizdat and radio

I left Poland in 1970 with no hope that things would ever change for the better. Back then, would you dare to hope that Soviet communism could implode with just a little outside help?

I first got involved in dissident activity with a group of friends in high school during the early 1960s. During my studies at Warsaw University, my engagement with the movement grew. However it was all rather innocent then – mostly discussions about the past, present and the future, and some attempts to unnerve communist activists during public meetings at the university by asking awkward questions on issues such as the Katyń massacre or the exploitation of Poland by the Soviet Union. It was innocent until Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski were imprisoned for three years in 1965. After that, our group – built around Adam Michnik – started to be harassed by the secret police.

May 2, 2019 - Eugeniusz Smolar

The Polish Round Table. A bird’s-eye view

Today, the 1989 Round Table is still a topic of an important discussion in Poland, one that in the last years has become more intense than before. Many participants of the discussion are still active in Polish political life, including former presidents and prime ministers. A majority of them stress the positive aspects of the negotiations. Yet the Round Table has always had fierce critics.

The Polish Round Table negotiations, which started in February 1989, were one of those events whose meaning was not clear from the very beginning. In a way, we can compare this moment of Polish history to Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC, after he ignored the order of the senators who were well aware of his high ambitions and wanted to keep him away from Rome. It marked the beginning of the end of the Roman republic, while from that moment on, the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” refers to a decision, or a historical event, which brings about irreversible consequences.

May 2, 2019 - Paulina Codogni

The bodies of the Velvet revolution. Remembering 1989 in the Czech Republic

During the 1990s, the commemoration of November 17th 1989 was dominated by the generation of witnesses and former dissidents. Today, it is mostly in the hands of the younger generation that did not directly participate in the events of 1989; they must find other ways to formulate the significance of the commemoration.

Národní Street in Prague has become a place of commemoration of the last Czech (Czechoslovak) great historical turning point – the fall of the communist regime. On November 17th 1989 a student march was violently repressed here. This event triggered nationwide social changes leading to the fall of state socialism. The two authors of this article do not have the events of November 1989 in their living memory, yet in our teenage years, the surge of our parents’ generation was the closest one can get to the so-called “great history”.

May 2, 2019 - Čeněk Pýcha Václav Sixta

No bloody revolution

The year 1989 unfolded quite differently for Hungary than the rest of the Central European states where there was some sort of revolution. As opposed to all other countries in the Eastern bloc, the new political system that came into place was seemingly designed in advance.

The consensual term for the historical events that took place in Hungary in 1989 is rendszerváltás. In Hungarian it literally means “changing of the system”, as in Changing of the Guards. There are two other versions: rendszerváltozás (“the change of the system”, using an intransitive verb) and rendszerváltoztatás (“making the system change”, with a transitive and causative verb), reflecting some politico-linguistic subtleties that may be hard to grasp for a non-Hungarian speaker. The word “system” has special Hungarian connotations here, meaning the constitutional order or form of state.

May 2, 2019 - János Széky

Beyond nostalgia

The 30th anniversary of the fall of communism is an important milestone for Romania. Yet this anniversary is not present within the public space. Instead, today’s challenges appear to be far more pressing for society.

For many Romanians, the fall of the communist regime in 1989 was an unexpected moment that brought hope for a different way of life and a better future. Nicolae Manolescu, a Romanian literary critic, public intellectual and politician in The Right to Normality (published in 1991) pleaded for the restoration of normalcy after the political, social and cultural “rupture” brought by the communist regime in Romania. But what did this “normality” mean, and who was asking for it?

May 2, 2019 - Eugen Stancu

Bulgaria’s taboo

In recent years, Bulgarians have gained better clarity about what happened during communism because of the efforts of researchers who dared dig up the dirt and make their findings available to a broader audience. And it is only now that the crimes of communism have been included in the mandatory school curriculum. This transparency is essential for understanding the political processes in Bulgaria post-1989.

I was born in Bulgaria in 1985, but I first learned about the particularities of communism in an academic setting in 2003 when I started university in the United States and enrolled in various classes on political science and history. Until then, my understanding of communism was entirely based on conversations with my family and the obscure samizdat books which my grandfather kept in his library.

May 2, 2019 - Radosveta Vassileva

Saving the forgotten homes of the borderland

Centuries ago, thousands of Dutch and German Mennonites fled religious persecution and settled in the Żuławy region of Poland, introducing their arcaded houses, windmills and dykes to the area. Though this rich cultural history has deteriorated since the Second World War, some inhabitants are determined to revive it.

April 2, 2019 - Máté Mohos

The emergence of new countries in Eastern Europe after the First World War: Lessons for all of Europe

A new report and exhibition from a project led by WiseEuropa revisits the developments in Eastern Europe in 1918 and their relevance for Europe today.

March 20, 2019 - New Eastern Europe

War was not inevitable

A conversation with Dominic Lieven, professor of history at Cambridge University. Interviewers: Adam Reichardt, Andrzej Zaręba and Edmund Young (New Eastern Europe).

NEW EASTERN EUROPE: Could you tell us a little about you relatives from the old Russian aristocracy?

DOMINIC LIEVEN: Well, they were Russian in the broadest sense of the term. They would often be described as Baltic German. Ultimately, they were Livonian. They were there when the German knights arrived. And of course in terms of identities and mixtures, they were everything you could imagine – but Russian can be a good shorthand here.

March 4, 2019 - Adam Reichardt Andrzej Zaręba Edmund Young

The second homeland. Georgian Jews throughout the centuries

In the spring of 2018 the Georgian government officially recognised the “26 centuries of Georgian-Jewish friendship” as an intangible cultural heritage of the country. Yet, the story of Georgian Jews still leaves many questions and further research is required.

"When I went to Tbilisi, I went to the synagogue one evening… it was packed. Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, from which there's a major movement." Marshall Weinberg's Report on his trip to the USSR to the JDC Administration Committee, October 25th 1972.

The movement which is mentioned in the 1972 report refers to the movement of Georgian Jews outside the Soviet Union, mostly to Israel. “Every single Jew we met, there were 80 or 90, was talking about Israel, Israel, Israel,” Weinberg wrote. As soon as the Soviet Union lifted the ban on Jewish emigration in the 1970s, thousands of Georgian Jews moved to Israel.

March 4, 2019 - Yulia Oreshina

The other history of Ukraine

The recently released book The Pages of Jewish history of Ukraine is an important achievement. Despite the fact that it was written as a textbook for high schools, it is accessible to readers from different backgrounds and gives a comprehensive overview of the 2,000 years of Jewish presence in Ukraine.

In May 2018 the Kyiv city council passed a decision to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Koliyivshchyna – a peasant revolt which spread through right-bank Ukraine in 1768-1769 and was a response to the Bar Confederation (a political and military revolt of the Polish nobility against the politics of King Stanisław August Poniatowski, a protégé of Catherine the Great which took place partially on Ukrainian territories resulting in victims among Ukrainian orthodox civilians). The Koliyivshchyna rebellion could be seen thus as an episode of Ukraine's religious wars.

March 4, 2019 - Kateryna Pryshchepa

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