Revolution?! Farbe, Erinnerung, Theorie nach 1989

TitleRevolution?! Farbe, Erinnerung, Theorie nach 1989
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialeds. Gatskov, Maxim, and Tanja Wagensohn
Title in EnglishRevolution?! Color, memory, theories after 1989


PublisherBerlin: Parados
ISBN Number978-3-9388-8029-6
Full Text

Revolution?! is a collection of both scholarly and artistic essays broadly arranged around the years 1989–91 and later developments in Central and Eastern Europe including Russia. In the years of the twentieth anniversary, authors articulate reservations and difficulties with the commonplace label of ‘revolution’ assigned to the events of that period. The collection engages in the emerging debate in the humanities that reevaluates the experiences, motivations, and actors of the 1980s as well as the postsocialist transformation(s). The selection’s interdisciplinarity is used as evidence of the complexity of the topic and the novelty of the volume’s conceptual approach. The contributors as participants in the “revolutions,” and senior and young scholars of today, necessarily take different and at times dynamically colliding approaches, creating a noteworthy and stimulating compilation.

The editors’ introduction rejects earlier academic approaches to the conceptual frame of 1989 as a period of “revolutions.” They pursue several promising theoretical questions, the most prominent being: “How far can the events of 1989 retrospectively actually be characterized as a ‘revolution’?” and “How significant are symbols and symbolic acts?” (7–8). They seek to combine theory with case studies. Yet the introduction hardly elaborates on shared approaches, similarities, or often divergent viewpoints of the contributions. Nor do the editors highlight the general theses they want to advance in this volume. For example, Maxim Gatskov and Tanja Wagensohn strongly object to the Western domination of transition studies in the 1990s and its idealization of the “East European revolutions” (7–13; 25–26). Even though they explicitly reject the label ‘revolution’ due to its generalizing and manipulative effect (9), other contributors freely apply, appropriate, and approve of this term. Consequently, Stefan Militzer’s intellectual and historical assessment of the term and employment of ‘democracy/democratization’ is interesting and useful in terms of opening novel theoretical pathways. He traces the history of the term ‘revolution’ from its original meaning through the French Revolution, Marx’s ideas, and 1989, and inextricably ties it to Hannah Arendt’s concepts of freedom, equality, and a society’s right to determine the rules it lives by.  Most essays, however, lack the conceptual clarity and strong stand of Militzer’s contribution, contested as it may be (31–44).

Eight of the authors were born after 1975, and six grew up in the former Socialist countries. One of the younger scholars, Andreea Mascan, offers a very persuasive study on the stalled changes in Romania. She succinctly identifies three narratives about 1989/90 and their impact on Romanian self-perceptions today. Addressing non-Romanian readers, Mascan highlights the triumphant narrative, which celebrates the fulfillment of revolutionary hopes. Yet others question the spontaneity of the events, the expression of popular will, and adhere to the notion of a coup d’état. A third opinion accepts only the days of December 16–20 as revolutionary, and lament the deceit of a neo-Communist regime swept into power thereafter. Instead of participating in the general rejection of “Western” scholarship, Mascan extols the benefits of the less biased Western “scientific discourse” for the Romanian case, the institutional representative of which is the Institute for the Assessment of Communist Crimes in Bucharest (113–126).

Jan Prášil and Robert Bayer’s analyses of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the 1990s complement each other as both embed their studies in the postsocialist failure of the so-called (and often praised) “civil society.” They qualify the specific label of the ‘Velvet Revolution’ by pointing to a long-term continuity in the behavior of political and social elites, popular disillusionment with earlier hopes for political equality and improved living conditions, and a retreat into apolitical consumerism in the years since 1990. Bayer focuses on the development of civil society through the promising investments of foreign foundations in civil society initiatives, and instructive grassroots theater (69–82). Prášil, however, grapples with the concept of civil society through his cogent juxtaposition of the careers of Václav Havel (playwright, famous Czech dissident, president of Czechoslovakia 1989–92, first president of the Czech Republic 1993–2003) and Václav Klaus (co-founder of the center-right Civic Democratic Party, free-market economist, eurosceptic). According to Prášil political loyalties took priority because of the lack of “democratic” traditions.  He argues that rigid neoliberal convictions have defeated not only the expression of common, yet individualized memories, but also have stymied the broader assessment of the socialist past and its long-term implications (83–98).

Among the innovative autobiographical contributions (W. Rösner-Kraus, J. Huber, D. Wilke, T. Wagensohn), Daria Wilke’s award-winning essay about the “generation of tightrope performers” deserves the attention of academics. Wilke eloquently presents the pressures, disorientating experiences, lost hopes, and great expectations of those born between 1975 and 1980. Her essay is almost painfully personal. “Disappointments, saturation with freedom, eternal metamorphoses” (142) have forged this generation that witnessed the collapse of a world which their parents had lived and often believed in (139–146).

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the book is the brevity of all of the contributions. This weakness prevented the contributors from pursuing their thorough, well-sourced arguments beyond necessarily superficial analyses of complex developments. For example, Adam Busulean’s succinct analysis of the domestic impact of Polish support for the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” in 2004 (163–178) and Herbert Mayer’s concise summary of US foreign policy towards the postsocialist successor states indicate the authors’ excellent assessment of the topic matter and their exceptional scholarship (147–159). Yet, their evaluations end abruptly, leaving more questions than answers. Further, the organization of the volume—which encompasses a wide variety of genres and academic fields, and a large geographical area—appears rather arbitrary. It therefore would have benefitted from a cohesive and clear synthesis of the contributions as an epilogue which addresses the divergent and at times contradictory messages.

In short, this collection confirms the difficulties of developing and employing a commonly acceptable and widely applicable theory of revolution for explaining the events of 1989–1991. The volume seems to be more of an introduction to a promising generation of young scholars (from whom we should wish to hear more in the future) rather than a well-conceived scholarly contribution to the ongoing reassessment of 1989 and its aftermath. The diverse selection of articles touches upon interesting and worthy topics and the authors undoubtedly raise significant questions. Most importantly, they raise justifiable doubts about the laudatory yet idealizing analyses of 1989 put forward since that have too long dominated public perception.


Victoria Harms

University of Pittsburgh