This concise book is a well written and insightful analysis of the collapse of Communist governments in Eastern Europe. Kotkin and Gross adopt successfully a hybrid approach. They focus on 3 states where the dynamics of collapse were different - East Germany, Poland, and Romania - to convey the heterogeneity of events while also providing considerable analysis of the underlying structural flaws of Communist states that led to their demise. A distinctive feature of this analysis is that Kotkin and Gross focus on the features and behaviors of the governing elites rather than the dissident movements. Much of the writing on this topic tends to celebrate of the triumph of civil society against the oppressive regimes, but with the very important exception of Poland, dissident movements/civil society were not particularly powerful. In all other Eastern European states, membership in the Communist parties, for example, greatly outstripped participation in dissident movements. Kotkin and Gross emphasize the problems and decision making of the elites in the fall of Communist states, emphasizing the loss of confidence and willingness to abandon monopoly of power that characterized many of the elites. As Josef Skvorecky wrote in the Miracle Game, "the Party was like a church without believers but with an Inquisition."
How did these party-states, with their ability to mobilize large fractions of the population through party participation, monopoly of state power and economies, and potent security apparatuses, suddenly lose the capacity to use their weapons in the face of relatively modest opposition? The basic dynamic identified by Kotkin and Gross is the failure of Communist states to compete economically with the West. The leaderships of all Communist states were committed to economic modernization and raising standards of living. The poor economic performance of the Communist states, a particular problem for the East Germans who were constantly exposed to West German TV, undermined the legitimacy of the Communist governments. After about 1970, the relatively sluggish world economy and the reduction in Soviet economic subsidies exacerbated this chronic problem. In desperate efforts to escape economic stagnation, Eastern European governments turned to borrowing huge amounts from the West, and when borrowing failed to produce the desired effects, these governments were placed in intractable binds. Implicit in Kotkin and Gross's presentation is that some Communist achievements, notably the relative success of mass education in all states, and expansion of the working class that followed industrialization in Poland and Romania, created large social segments that were increasingly disenchanted with their regimes.
By the late 80s, and with the Gorbachev led withdrawal of Soviet guarantees to back up Eastern European governments, economic deterioration, widespread alienation of their citizens, and loss of elite faith in socialist dogmas resulted in fragile regimes. In Hungary, the regime was actively looking for a way out, in Romania, the military assisted in the fall of the regime, and in East Germany, official indecision at the higher levels of the regime allowed lower level officials to make decisions that undercut the regime. These structural factors allowed the actions of a relatively small number of courageous individuals to trigger popular surges in Romania and East Germany that brought down these governments. Implicit in Kotkin's and Gross's narrative is that events in different Eastern European states tended to be reinforcing and events in one state tended to undermine governments in surrounding states.
Within the limits imposed by the concise account required of a Modern Library volume, this is an excellent book. The emphasis on the behavior of elites and the heterogeneity of events in different Eastern European states is a useful corrective to popular, triumphalist impressions. The book also emphasizes the importance of Gorbachev and his supporters as both initiators and sustainers of change in Eastern Europe.