Scholar Interviews

How do you help students make sense of 1989?


What I do with 1989 is I try and explain why it happened and that, of course, is the big question. And there are many, many different answers to that. The strategy that I employ with them throughout the course of this semester where we’re talking about 20th century Eastern Europe is I highlight for the earlier period, for the Stalinist period, the role of ideology. And then I talk about how in the 1970s and 1980s the regime shifted to more of an economic, what I call an economic mode of legitimatization. How they attempted to buy off, essentially publicly bribe the population by offering them consumer goods in trade for political quiescence. The "you pretend to work, we’ll pretend to pay you," on the one hand and on the other hand, the "you pretend to believe us and we’ll pretend to believe you when you say it."

By 1980 at the latest, their economic way of legitimizing their rule, their buying acquiescence for their rule, had run its course. I bring up the notion of self-legitimacy, that the regimes, all they had left was their own belief that they should rule and that this deteriorated very rapidly because of the kinds of events that were happening. Not just in each individual country, but as I said before, a cascade of events as they see what’s going on in other places. And, of course, as a response to what Gorbachev is doing in the Soviet Union. And I point out that Gorbachev or his allies paid visits to many of these regimes and within a few weeks of paying this visit the regimes start to crumble. I couch it in terms of legitimacy, self-legitimacy. How did these regimes see themselves? How were they perceived by their publics? How did they end up in a position where they had no legitimation strategies left?

I give them a list of the various explanations that scholars have come up with and I ask them to pick, to think about which ones and which combinations they think are salient. And one further thing I do on the final exam I have given in the past—a question where I ask them when the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe began to end. Whether it was with Stalin’s death in March of 1953. Whether it was 1956 with the Secret Speech and the events in Poland and Hungary. Whether it was 1968 with the collapse of Marxist revisionism because of the end of the Prague Spring. Whether it was some time in the 1970s, early 1970s, with the turn to this economic way of legitimizing their rule. Whether it was Solidarity in 1980. Or whether it was February of 1988, when Gorbachev announced the withdrawal from Afghanistan signaling the end of the Brezhnev Doctrine, and essentially people in Eastern Europe knew what the withdrawal from Afghanistan meant. Having to pick one or another of those and answer why it’s not the others forces them to confront what— from which spheres this came— whether it came from the economy, whether it came from ideology.

How to Cite

Bradley Abrams, interview, "How do you help students make sense of 1989?" Making the History of 1989, Item #619, (accessed February 23 2020, 7:13 am).