The Empire in Decay

Eight years after the birth of Solidarity, occupation strikes once again spread across Poland. The workers’ first demand is: Solidarity. On the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion, ten thousand Czechs march through the streets of Prague, chanting “Dubcek!” and “Freedom!” With official permission, some forty thousand people demonstrate in Budapest—against the policies of a neighboring socialist state. Without official permission, half a million Czechs and Slovaks sign a petition for religious freedom. The Protestant churches in East Germany try to praise the recent policies of the Soviet Union, but are censored by the state. The Polish government spokesman invites himself to visit Radio Free Europe. A Hungarian Politburo member says he has “no arguments in principle for the one-party system.”1

These days one is mildly disappointed if, on opening a Polish or Soviet journal, one finds that some great, immovable, forty-year-old taboo has not been casually broken. It would be amusing, although perhaps a little cruel, to compile a small anthology of statements from Soviet and East European experts of the form “what is unthinkable is…” or “one thing is certain….”

It is not just individual taboos that fall like ninepins. Whole concepts have crumbled. “Normalization,” for example. After the imposition of martial law in Poland, most serious Western analysts concentrated on the “prospects for normalization” in Poland, where “normalization” might be defined as the attempt to return an East Central European country, initially by the use of force, to Soviet norms. The comparison was with Hungary after 1956 and Czechoslovakia after 1968. This line of analysis was entirely reasonable at the time. But what relevance has the concept today? Not only has the Jaruzelski team’s original vision of “normalization”—Kádárism à la Polonaise—failed, as the best analysts predicted it would.2 The very idea of what is normal seems to have changed.

Old concepts crumble, but, where are the new? Beside the novelty, intricacy, and fragility of internal developments in each country, and the central uncertainty about the nature, pace and durability of change in the Soviet Union, there is the problem of divergence. To generalize about “Eastern Europe” was always a difficult and questionable exercise—even at the height of Stalinist Gleichschaltung—but it becomes ever more difficult and questionable as individual countries become increasingly different, not just from the Soviet Union but from each other. The historian Joseph Rothschild calls his new political history of East Central Europe since World War II Return to Diversity. A knowledge of each country’s prewar, or pre-“Yalta” history is now quite as necessary as a general understanding of Soviet-type systems.

Eastern Europe today resembles a landscape on whose commanding heights vast uniform concrete blockhouses were built some forty years ago. There they stand, still inhabited, still hideous, from the wooded hills of Thuringia to the Great Hungarian Plain, and on their terraces the familiar fat-jowled proprietors still sit at lugubrious leisure, with their black, curtained cars and their prefabricated lies. But look again: strange things have happened. Here, a whole wing…

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