Scholar Interviews

What are your personal memories of 1989?


This was a watershed year. This was a year—a crucial year for whatever the future of Europe would have been about. Europe after 1989 has not been the same as before 1989. It is clear at this moment for instance that the Cold War came to an end as a result of 1989. It was not that clear at the moment of the events. The Soviet Union was still the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was still hoping to reform socialism, to keep the Soviet Union alive. The Warsaw Pact was still there, the Council for Mutual Economic Aid, which was the economic organization, the equivalent of the common market, it was to become the European Union, was still there. So basically the changes have been fantastic.

I was an editor at that moment of something called East European Reporter which was London-based and the editor-in-chief was a person called Jan Kavan who later on would become the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. At this moment there was a lot of exhilaration about what we called the idea of civil society. There was a lot of hope that civil society would be the most important driving force of the dramatic changes taking place in the region. Primarily movements from below, movements of civic self-empowerment. That meant citizens refusing to be anymore subjects of the totalitarian state, and becoming what they are supposed to be. That meant critically thinking creatures, being able to open their mouths and express their autonomy of their mind.

So in this respect probably we were a little bit too optimistic about the chances and prospects for civil society, and I plead somewhat guilty because I wrote the book which came out in ‘92 which was called Reinventing Politics, and the whole book had this paradigm of the resurgence of civil society, the revival of civil society, the resurrection of civil society as the main force that destroyed communism.

Second, I think that I have spent more time in the last 15 years or so thinking about the importance of the public sphere and the struggle for the public sphere in Eastern Central Europe. Some of us were quite convinced at the beginning that, especially in a country like Romania which I know somewhat better than the other countries, but also in Albania for that matter or in the former Yugoslavia where we saw the furies of nationalism resurfacing so viciously after 1989, I thought that nationalism had been somewhat used and abused by Communists to such an extent that it would not be a really appealing proposition for the masses of those countries. I was convinced that in the struggle between democracy and its nationalist, tribalistic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-western, general anti-liberal trends, that these trends were somewhat weaker than they turned out to be.

At the same time I think that we should not go into kind of an apocalyptical scenario on the other side and say that basically the whole history of the last 15 years has been one of populism, nationalism, and fundamentalism. After all as we tape this discussion, at this moment, we are only three months since Romania and Bulgaria got accepted into the European Union. And I look back for instance into my book Reinventing Politics, which is still in print and, you know, I had nothing in that book about the prospects for these countries to be accepted into the European Union. There was nothing about the prospects of these countries to be accepted into NATO. At this moment, most of Eastern Europe is now part of NATO and so are the Baltic States, which was something unthinkable in 1990. Altogether I think that 15 years after the big upheaval, I think that the story is an encouraging one.

How to Cite

Vladimir Tismaneanu, interview, "What are your personal memories of 1989?" Making the History of 1989, Item #610, (accessed May 28 2021, 3:22 pm).