People Power –Seeds of ’89 “Anticommunist” Revolution:

Padraic Kenney, Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002)

Opposition Youth Movements in Central Europe

“A single spark can cause a prairie fire.”

-Mao Zedong, 1930 (On the potential of a Chinese peasant revolution)

The remarkable Independent Peace Association (NMS) August 21st demonstration, which marked the beginning of the Czech revolution was of “‘extraordinary significance’ …. As ‘spontaneous forces rose up without any fixed framework.’ Most surprising of all was the demonstrator’s age. … They ‘had felt those deficiencies [of freedom and of living standards] for a relatively short time. …The coming generation will be willing to endure what we have endured for an ever shorter period of time.’”

– Padraic Kenney, Carnival of Revolution (p.240).
Sometime in the middle of January 2011, a twenty-six years old college student and fruit street vendor in Tunisia called Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building to protest against, not only official harassment but, also, years of autocracy and dictatorship. In what has come to be seen as a modern day miracle, this act of self-immolation was followed by days of street protests in Tunisia ultimately ousting the government there. This was replicated with remarkable speed elsewhere in the Arab world in Cairo (Egypt) –where President Hosni Mubarak also stepped down, Tripoli (Libya) –where Muamar Gadhafi continues to cling onto power precariously, Tehran (Iran), Manama (Bahrain), Sana’a (Yemen) and, more recently, this conflagration has reached Jordan and Syria. This has led to pundits saying that this political phenomenon could be the 1848 of the Arab world or even 1968. Others yet think that it is reminiscent of the almost supernatural “happenings” or the wind of change that swept across Central and Eastern Europe in the late nineteen eighties culminating in the end of communism. Alongside the prominent question that preoccupies many today with regard to the uprising in many of these Arab world countries –what will follow this demonstration of people-power to replace an average of three decades of autocracy- is why and how this wave has happened when it did. The answer to the latter question in this Information Age of cellphones and texts, the internet –Facebook and Tweeter and satellite television (CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera) is not difficult to imagine. However, it is becomes a rather complicated question when trying to explain 1848 or 1988/89 happenings in central Europe.

How the “miracles” of 1989 as the culmination of more or less similar events in the second half of that decade in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, German Democratic Republic (GDR) and (Western) Ukraine were connected/related is a question that Kenney deals with in his book Carnival of Revolution. In so doing, he seeks to dispel the idea of the fall of communism as having been miraculous or finding readily available explanations such as “the accession to Kremlin leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev” who pursued liberalizing and democratic policies of perestroika and glasnost; the (communist) economic system factor –that it was fatally flawed, and that as a result, people simply sought and chose a system that would improve their standard of living; and, lastly, the role of a small group of intellectuals who, drawing in part on Western ideas and national traditions, “formulated powerful humanist critiques of the state-socialist regimes and then disseminated these ideas” through self-published magazines and newspapers –samizdat.[1] These championed –in their writing, declarations and strike action- human rights as espoused by the Helsinki Accords of the mid and late-1970s. Kenney, however, argues against each of these explanations saying that what led to the end of communism –while operating within the generally amenable milieu for opposition to the status quo provided by the “Gorbachev factor;” deteriorating socialist economies in the Soviet Union and throughout the bloc of countries; and intellectual dissent- was a plural call to protest action by a young “new elite.”[2] In other words, understanding the multiple anticommunist revolutions in Central Europe is not complete if focus is limited to the top-down liberalizing policy from Moscow, the late nineteen seventies’ international human rights regime or intellectual dissent. After all, Kenney argues, communist bloc countries were not particularly enthusiastic about glasnost and perestroika and often resorted to Stalinist methods to put down any opposition as the assassination of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko attests. In addition, Kenney also notes that intellectual dissent is not enough to rally people behind change –that is, ideas, even those about freedom and oppression, or about economic deprivation, do not translate automatically into action.[3]

In this book, Kenney does it again: he manages to make a remarkable contribution to understanding yet another defining moment in central and eastern European history as he did in his localized history of the dynamics of the communist transformation of Poland between 1945 and 1950. This time around, he casts a much wider glance at what was happening in at least half a dozen communist bloc countries where one regime after another capitulated when confronted by unique and unprecedented forms of communist resistance spearheaded by a variety of burgeoning civil society. These succeeded where anticommunist ideological dissent and communist reformism of the early to the late nineteen sixties, and to some extent, the short-lived experiment with Solidarity opposition of communist hegemony in Polish society had failed miserably. Kenney manages to prove one thing in this book: that revolutions are not “miracles” or supernatural happenings and that they can be best understood through closer scrutiny and focus on the “faceless” people that pour in the thoroughfares and side streets; participate in anonymous underground activity and everyday rituals of secrecy working for comprehensive change in their day-to-day lives. Hence, Kenney’s work is an acknowledgement of (bottom-up) human agency. That is, the often overlooked place of the foot soldiers of revolution acting on a range of varying stages and spaces –streets, parks, private apartments, squares, textual etc. – “already prepared for them and by them.”[4] Some of these spaces defy categorization as regular theatres of political action.

An indifferent young generation (under the leadership of led by youthful leaders who were konkretny –that is, keenly attune to everyday problems and on realistic, effective means of overcoming them, or simply exposing the weaknesses of the communist regime) -overcame their fear and confronted their governments on a range of piecemeal or minuscule issues. In time, various communist regimes made gradual concessions regarding military service, environmental issues, pension, matters moral, freedom of association and expression among others. As Czeslaw Milosz (1951) aptly observes, communism had truncated and simplified “centuries of human history, with their thousands upon thousands of intricate affairs,” which were now reduced to a few most general terms.[5] There was, as a result, throughout Central and Eastern Europe, as with the Soviet core, an illusion of full knowledge –after all, dialectical materialism and the analysis of history through a class-struggle prism led to all truth. It supplied answers to all questions. As Kenney observes, communists aimed at controlling “every aspect of society (even if that was impossible).”[6] As such, communist governments in the region undertook upon themselves to engineer society and landscapes towards a socialist reality. Part of this involved gigantomanic projects including the reversal of rivers, sculpting mountains, irrigating deserts, building large cities and industrial complexes overnight –superhuman feats in the service of humanity’s progress.[7] These were matched by the expectation of these regimes for singular loyalty and acceptance of unquestioned authority and hegemony of the communist party as the sole repository of societal and political power. Needless to say, the ubiquity of government, socialist control of society and economic planning was wanting, and indeed, led to a dismal existence for most ordinary people. This state of affairs is what in the nineteen eighties spawned a multitude of dissenting groups that sought, not to ideologically challenge communism, but question its logic with regard to specific issues or, simply, appropriate certain aspects of everyday life that challenged the practical efficiency and soundness of the communist ideology and, therefore, the legitimacy of various communist regimes.

It is these civic organizations and groups, then, which constitute Kenney’s story of the final days of communism in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, (Western) Ukraine and the GDR. In an impressive recasting of an intricate web of domestic and regional networks of communist opposition, Kenney’s book is a study of a groundswell of movements, a harvest of dissent and passionate preoccupation with practical everyday questions that fed into revolutionary fervour that culminated in the demise of communism. Indeed, Kenney’s analysis of recurring themes such as “youth, concrete action, internal pluralism, irreverence toward politics, and cross-border contacts to uncover how a carnival of anticommunist opposition spread so enthusiastically across such a wide regions” can be aptly summed up as a kaleidoscopic representation of all life as political, and therefore, all politics, life. Just to reiterate, Kenney’s point is that this communist resistance was not an attack on the ideology but a proliferation of local initiatives to challenge the excesses of developed socialism.[8] As such, it was no so much a cause for the reform or defeat of communism but, rather, a sprouting of self-help initiatives calculated to build society –the fight against communism, intense before 1981, was seen not to be more important than helping people (“the student, worker, or high school teacher beaten or fired …”).[9]

This, then, is what explains a growing new young opposition that contested the efficiency, if not the legitimacy, of communism with regard to areas where no disagreement was expected –temperance and anti-alcoholic campaign (49-51); celebration of indigenous culture and folk traditions;[10] world peace and anti-nuclear marches; clean-up campaigns; exposure of decrepit social infrastructure of cities (83); decrying the lack of theaters, of shops and restaurants, of parks and playgrounds, and of health clinics (83); anti-dam construction in Hungary –Danube Circle; religious freedom; greater freedom for students and the repair of dormitories or to reclaim them from other uses (39); setting up of homeless structures (51); a group of retirees who sought greater rights (52-54); toilet paper politics and that of other basic needs such as sanitary pads (163) among others that backed up communist regimes into uncomfortable corners. The effect was the multiplication of points of disagreement and the existence of many niches in the opposition –in effect, these multifarious challenge to communism found and pried “chinks in the amour and exploited” various issues that were sensitive to the Central and Eastern Europe regimes.[11] These led to storied and cumulative concessions that led, in various contexts, to greater compromises in the long-term. In other words, as the exponent of toilet paper opposition –feminist Slavenka Drakulic- claimed, “the socialist system rose and fell on its ability to supply basic needs” –it could not supply the basic needs of half the population.[12] In other words, communism was encumbered by its own ambitious and overweening ubiquitous mandate.

Suffice it to say that Kenney’s work is dedicated to literally populate the 1989 revolution across Central and Eastern Europe –giving the hitherto anonymous participants names, at least a few key leaders and the organizations that they worked for. Some of these are prominent, and the issues with which they dealt quite weighty, others not so much so. One of the prominent groups he discusses is, the Polish Freedom and Peace that was an umbrella movement comprising of various groups pursuing different ends such as animal rights; spiritual awakening (for example, The Twelve); anarchist Alternative Society Movement (RSA); environmentalists among others and, as such, was able “to play many pianos.” This is what made it a formidable and prominent opposition force in Poland and beyond, tackling issues such as human rights and military service. Numerous other groups and individuals are discussed in this book all of which, according to Kenney, played modest but important roles in deriding and ending communism in the respective countries. Some of these include the successful campaign against nuclear dumping in Miedzyrzecz (75); the Slovak Union of Protectors of Nature and Land (SZOPK) (82); Wole Byc (86); the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights (IFM) in East Germany (111); the Kalynet Circle and Lion Society –Ukraine (123); Fidesz (Hungary); Lyviv hippies (164) and Poland anti-sexist hippy group QQRYQ –kukuryuku (178); the Yugoslav punk bands Laibach (181) and Pankrti (Bastards) (132); the Slovak and Polish Catholic Church among numerous underground and above-ground movements that cannot be mentioned here but which Kenney with tireless and painstaking effort, investigates in great details.

The most impressive analysis undertaken by Kenney is showing how some of these groups and their members networked under difficult circumstances with both the West (in the initially tense conferences European Nuclear Disarmament and the more daring initiative by Berliner Dieter Esche –the Network for East-West Dialogue [104]) and within the Soviet bloc “as if Europe” was free. With regard to the latter, the most inspiring and what must have been mutually energizing (if not inebriating) was the Karkonosze/Krkonose summit summits, which brought together leading intellectuals from Poland and Czechoslovakia like Zbigniew Romanaszewski, Vaclav Havel, Jaroslav Sabata, Adam Michnik, and Jacek Kuron.[13] This brief discussion of “the Trail of Friendship” between Poland and Czechoslovakia among other dissent networks within the bloc help the reader to not only understand the connection between the revolutions but also how dissidents were able to overcome their difficult recent history –read, the Warsaw Pact attack of Czechoslovakia. With regard to dissident relations with the West it helps one appreciate the cross-purposes and difficulty encountered in communicating the language of “peace,” which in Central Europe meant more than just nuclear disarmament but also embracing domestic freedoms and human rights.

A lot more can be said about this remarkable book. Little can be said by way of a critique –Kenney does what it seems he does best viz.-mapping in great details the contours of the making of the 1989 revolution/s in a way that had, before this book, not been attempted. Having said that, it is important to add that one is a little disappointed though by the characteristic manner –which perhaps betrays his academic demeanour- in which he dismisses the Gorbachev factor almost relegating it to oblivion. He writes: “Gorbachev’s chronological irrelevance to social movements in Central Europe is matched by a logical limitation, applicable anywhere. The emergence of new social movements is not a chemical reaction, occurring automatically under the right conditions. No matter how liberal, even revolutionary, we, may know Gorbachev to have been how does that affect the would-be demonstrator?”[14] A good point if ever there was one but one expects some modesty on Kenney’s part that would have led him, in as much as he bombards the reader with impressive illustrations to build his argument, to acknowledge the coincidence and complementarity of the inherent limitations of the communist system at the top –hence Gorbachev’s reforms- and the practical opposition (that Kenney so expertly discusses) borne of doubt leading people to the streets. The question that the critical reader must ask, therefore, is Would there have been a revolution given a crusading Stalinism style leadership; Khrushchevite reformism and/or Brezhnev technocracy and interventionism instead of perestroika and glasnost in the mid-1980s?

         The author also sometimes seems to interpret the facts to suit his thesis like when he says that the Kalynet Circle that met in Lviv might have used the Polish word konkretny to describe itself. One wonders whether Kenney does not too generously interpret communist regimes’ bid to normalize society as a push towards self-reliance and independence. Indeed, in some instances, one is not entirely convinced that some of the semi-autonomous organizations operating within the ambit of Communist Parties that he discusses should be considered as having elements of dissent. The author, therefore, does not deal with the issue of collaboration during this period exhaustively. In the same vein, he does not exhaustively discuss the whole gamut of such organizations in the Soviet bloc –the Baltic Sea states like Estonia are missing, for instance. Similarly, all the aspects of communist resistance, say, by the Slovak Catholic church, are not analyzed comprehensively. Perhaps Kenney deals with a little too much than he could handle in one volume. Neither does he also satisfactorily address why the Solidarity and its strikes that were a meager shadow of the ground shaking opposition in 1980/81 met with far more success in 1988/89 –but then, that might be the whole point of this book. That is, the proliferation of resistance in the second half of the decade such that what was happening in the two Lenins (in Steel Mill Krakow and the Shipyard in Gdansk) were not special or unique anymore.[15] Lastly, while one appreciates the argument that all these resistance groups helped close the disconnect between their respective societies and the state, we do not know to what extent this was the case. For example, in the case with Poland’s Solidarity when it was outlawed one can understand the subsequent disconnect. With the exception of the Papal visits (1983 and 1987) where one can appreciate popular opposition and intensity of anti-establishment sentiment, there is no clear parameter to measure the effectiveness or impact of these social movements that took Solidarity’s place. This notwithstanding, Kenney’s work is outstanding in its sheer analytical brilliance and ambitious geographic and thematic comparative scope.




[1] P. Kenney, Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002) 8-10.

[2] That is a group a young people mainly from 15-25 years of age or, at least under thirty-five years of age, Carnival of Revolution, 66.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (trans. Jane Zielonko) (New York: Random House, 1951) 201.

[6] Carnival of Revolution, 14.

[7]Ibid., 76.

[8] Ibid., 79.

[9] Ibid., 55 & 131.

[10] For example the idea of a “communist” monarchy in Slovenia imagined by Petr Placak in his Czech Children’s Manifesto, which is reminiscent of the sad fate of the sad fate of the Czech folk tradition of the Ride of Kings that so affects Jaroslav in Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke (1967) 184-187. Other traditions that are reclaimed are the hayvka and vertepy Christmas practice in Lviv, Ukraine –see Kenney, 126-127.

[11] Kenney, 89.

[12] Ibid., 163.

[13] Ibid., 106-109.

[14] Ibid. 122.

[15] Ibid., 218-225.

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Nicholas Githuku

Assistant Professor, African History at York College, CUNY
Nicholas Githuku is a Ph.D. holder in African Studies. His research interests include: War & Peace Studies in general; Conflict and Security and mediation in general and trends in the Great Lakes the Horn Regions of Africa; Memorialization of War; Development studies (Sub-Saharan Africa): Postcolonial/Contemporary Kenyan Politics; European History (1648 to 1900); First and Second World Wars; and Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Balkans) History.