Comparative Studies of Communism: New Perspectives

On May 27, the Department of History and Pasts Inc., Center for Historical Studies, organized the Third Annual Conference of the OSI-CEU Comparative History Project. The conference was sponsored by the Higher Education Support Program of the Open Society Institute (OSI). John Shattuck, CEU President and Rector, delivered the welcome address, while Constantin Iordachi, Head, Department of History, CEU acted as chair of the event and gave the introduction to the discussion. The roundtable debate, which featured such renowed historians as Stephen Kotkin, Department of History, Princeton University; Vladimir Tismaneanu, Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, and Istvan Rev, Director, Open Society Archives/Professor, Department of History, CEU, was entitled “The Collapse of Communism: Civil or Uncivil Society?”.

As Constantin Iordachi noted in his introduction, the topic of the debate illustrated the comparative nature of studies on communism, par excellence: obviously one cannot study the revolutions of 1989 and the collapse of the communist systems by only focusing on isolated national case-studies; he or she would have to take into account a complex web of multiple interactions at local, national, regional, and translational levels, as part of the the larger dynamics of East-West relations. He emphasized that apart from illustrating the comparative vocation of studies of communism, the debate also illustrated many of challenges faced by students of the history of communist regimes; in the last two decades, political and academic debates over the concept of civil society have been greatly invigorated by the changes set into motion in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989.

Professor Iordachi elaborated that the revival of the ideal of civil society owes much to political dissidents who—in their fight against the communist regime—attempted to carve out an autonomous space in the public sphere, free from the control of the communist authorities, and to gradually enlarge it as to ultimately subvert the totalitarian state's system of rule. However, he also drew attention to several questions, such as: What is the historical relevance of the concept of civil society for the study of Communist regimes? Was there an emerging civil society in Eastern Europe during late communism? If yes, was it as strong as to be self-liberating? Can the “ethos of civil society” be credited with the key role in the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989? Is there a causal link between the re-emergence of civil society and the collapse of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, or was the autonomous public space the dissidence movements managed to carve out rather “modest” or embryonic, and not, by its own means, able to overthrow the hegemonic party-state?

As Professor Iordachi concluded before introducing the participants of the debate, these were to be addressed by the three distinguished speakers, who were all eminently qualified in the fields of comparative history and comparative politics; had made path-breaking contributions to the study of communist regimes; and were widely acknowledged for the innovative and non-conventional nature of their research. 


Stephen Kotkin is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Professor of International Affairs, and Director of the Program in Russian Studies at Princeton University . He specializes in the history of Euroasia in general, and the history of the Soviet Union, in particular, but is also interested in Geopolitics and Global History. His work focuses mostly on authoritarian politics, and deals with institutions and power in imperial and post-imperial contexts. Professor Kotkin is a leading world expert on Stalinism. His pioneering and widely acclaimed book, “Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization” became almost instantly an icon of the anthropological turn in Soviet Studies, providing inspiration to a new generation of Sovietologists, many of them grouped around the journal “Kritika”. More recently, Professor Kotkin has explored the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, his work resulting in two major books:  “Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000”, published with Oxford University Press in 2001 and republished in 2008; and “Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment”, published in 2009, including a contribution by Jan Gross also.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is Professor of  Political Science at the University of Maryland and, since 1998, Director of the Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies. He was Editor of “East European Politics and Societies” between 1998 and 2004, and Chair of the Editorial Committee from 2004 to 2008. He also served as President of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania (April 2006 to March 2007), a commission which delivered a final report in a joint session of the Romanian Parliament in December 2006; and recently as the President of the Scientific Council of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile.

Professor Tismaneanu has written widely on issues of East European and Russian politics, the collapse of communism; democracy, memory, and moral justice in post-authoritarian societies; nationalism; civil society; threats to liberalism in post-Cold War Europe; and the revolutions of 1989 and their aftermath. Among his numerous publications, I mention selectively “The Crisis of Marxist Ideology in Eastern Europe: The Poverty of Utopia” (Routledge, 1988); “Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel” (Free Press, 1992); “Fantasies of Salvation: Nationalism, Democracy, and Myth in Post-communist Europe” (Princeton UP, 1998); and “Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism” the most complete synthesis availabe on the topic to date (University of California Press, 2003), and which was granted  the “Barbara Jelavich Award” by the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS) in 2004.

Istvan Rev is Professor of History in the Department of History, at CEU; and Academic Director of the Open Society Archives at Central European University (CEU), one of the largest archives in the world on the history of the Cold War, the history of the former communist countries, human rights, and war crimes, but which is also an innovative research and education center. Professor Rev is a founding member of CEU, and also the first Director of the Budapest College of CEU and also the first CEU Academic Pro-Rector. Among his publications, is his book “Retroactive Justice: Prehistory of Post-Communism”. 

The Comparative History Project was launched in October 2006 by the CEU Department of History. The project is funded by the Higher Education Support Program of the Open Society Institute, Budapest, and is administered with the help of CEU’s Special Projects Office. The project seeks to contribute to the placing of teaching of, and research in, comparative history--including newly emerging trans-national approaches, such as shared/entangled history, history of transfers and histoire croisee--firmly on the agenda and into the curriculum of universities in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe, or at a more general level, traditions of global history or world history.

More specifically, the project has aimed at developing a set of courses on comparative history within a set of target departments in the region, with CEU acting as the core of this regional consortium; developing a set of teaching materials on comparative history, such as course syllabi, but also a reader on the theory and methodology of comparative history for the use of partners in the consortium, but also for dissemination to other history departments in the region and beyond it; and, last but not least, developing a vibrant network of scholars working on comparative history by means of workshops and annual conferences.