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Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (Modern Library Chronicles)

14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0679642763
ISBN-10: 0679642765
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In 1989, all East European Soviet satellites abruptly broke free, triggering a similar breakup inside the U.S.S.R. In this addition to the Modern Library Chronicles series, Princeton history professors Kotkin (Armageddon Averted) and Gross (Neighbors) deliver a perceptive account of how this 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. 16 pages of b&w photos; maps. (Oct. 13)
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"Following hard on the heels of Armageddon Averted, Stephen Kotkin has written a brilliantly original account of the fall of the Soviet empire. Almost everything on this subject up until now has been journalism. Kotkin's genius as an historian is to turn conventional wisdom on its head and force us to rethink completely a revolution we thought we understood merely because we lived through it."                                                                                      —Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard and author of The War of the World

"In this lively and fast-paced study, two distinguished Princeton historians, Stephen Kotkin and Jan Gross, analyze the 1989 revolution in Eastern Europe as a product of the political bankruptcy of 'uncivil society,' meaning the communist elite. Using the case studies of Poland, Romania, and the German Democratic Republic, the authors combine deep historical analysis of the development and failures of East European communism with brilliant insights into the events of 1989 themselves. The book makes a critical contribution to our understanding of the annus mirabilis." —Norman M. Naimark, Robert and Florence McDonnell Chair of East European History at Stanford University

Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Chronicles
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library (October 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679642765
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679642763
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,477,564 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Graham on November 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a useful short account of the collapse in 1989 of the Communist regimes in East Germany, Romania, and Poland.

In the 1980's many in the West hoped that the Communist system would be slowly undermined by the rise of an alternative "civil society", where organized progressive citizen groups would slowly establish support for a tolerant law based society. Kotkin argues that, with the great exception of Poland, this turned out to be a red herring. In countries like East Germany and Romania, he argues that there were only tiny numbers of active dissidents, no meaningful organized opposition and no significant "civil society". He argues that to understand the events of 1989 we need to instead focus on "uncivil society", the increasingly sclerotic and self-serving regimes. He argues that it was the regimes' failures, especially in failing to deliver acceptable living standards, which led to mass disaffection, withdrawal and ultimate regime collapse. Above all, the regimes seem to have suffered a paralyzing loss of faith in their own futures.

The Leipzig marches in East Germany are a fascinating example of a truly grass-roots movement. There was no organization for the Stasi to infiltrate, no leadership to be arrested, no leaflets to be confiscated. There was simply a widespread popular understanding that each Monday at 6:00pm a mass march would take place. So the regime's only potential coercive response was overt mass repression. But the high leadership was anxious to retain "plausible deniability" and thus avoided explicitly ordering the bloody repression they seem to have desired. Similarly the local commanders could see that they were being positioned as scapegoats, and were careful to avoid decisive action without explicit orders.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By E. Jaksetic on February 9, 2012
Format: Paperback
This book provides a thoughtful, interesting look at the fall of the Soviet Bloc in 1989, from the perspective of how events unfolded in East Germany, Romania, and Poland. The author contends that: (1) the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe were "uncivil societies" consisting of rigid Communist Party organizations, stifling bureaucracies, and secret police and security forces that were inflexible and unable to cope with, or adequately respond to, the economic, political, and social problems arising from Communism's failure to compete successfully against the West; (2) except for Poland's Solidarity Movement and the Catholic Church in Poland, there were few or no societal organizations or structures in most of Eastern Europe that posed any opposition or meaningful alternative to the Communist regimes; and (3) the fall of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989 was the result of their implosion and internal collapse, not the result of any organized opposition. The author supports his contentions with a combination of thoughtful observations, interesting insights, and reasonable inferences and extrapolations from the available information about largely closed, secretive societies.

For the most part, the book is written in a readable style that is suitable for a member of the general public or a reader engaged in scholarly research. There are many books about the fall of Communism. This book provides an interesting perspective on that subject that warrants serious consideration. Although not a definitive book about the fall of Communism, it is worth reading on that subject, if read in conjunction with other books on the subject.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This concise book is a well written and insightful analysis of the collapse of Communist governments in Eastern Europe. Kotkin and Gross adopt successfully a hybrid approach. They focus on 3 states where the dynamics of collapse were different - East Germany, Poland, and Romania - to convey the heterogeneity of events while also providing considerable analysis of the underlying structural flaws of Communist states that led to their demise. A distinctive feature of this analysis is that Kotkin and Gross focus on the features and behaviors of the governing elites rather than the dissident movements. Much of the writing on this topic tends to celebrate of the triumph of civil society against the oppressive regimes, but with the very important exception of Poland, dissident movements/civil society were not particularly powerful. In all other Eastern European states, membership in the Communist parties, for example, greatly outstripped participation in dissident movements. Kotkin and Gross emphasize the problems and decision making of the elites in the fall of Communist states, emphasizing the loss of confidence and willingness to abandon monopoly of power that characterized many of the elites. As Josef Skvorecky wrote in the Miracle Game, "the Party was like a church without believers but with an Inquisition."

How did these party-states, with their ability to mobilize large fractions of the population through party participation, monopoly of state power and economies, and potent security apparatuses, suddenly lose the capacity to use their weapons in the face of relatively modest opposition? The basic dynamic identified by Kotkin and Gross is the failure of Communist states to compete economically with the West.
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