Scholar Interviews

How have your ideas changed?


Well, I guess the first thing I have to say is that when we’re talking about contemporary history, I think it does matter at what moment in your own life you experience it and so as much as an historian needs to be careful about bringing one’s life in, still it’s worth saying, okay, I was 26 in 1989, therefore I was around a certain group of people and experiencing 1989 in a particular way. When I began to think of it as a historian, I guess I would say that first for me it was an experiential revolution in a sense that I was aware of and interested in the texture of those events as experienced and created by my own generation.

As I began to think about 1989 as a historical moment, the first thing that was important to me was that I had a strong sense that the interpretations I was reading were simply inadequate. They weren’t wrong, but falling far short. That they were focused on larger structural factors. Because if we think of the fall of Communism, we’re already talking about a systemic change. What could possibly account for all of these changes across so many countries?

But structural things, such as the breakdown of the economy, or the way that Communists had sort of lost their way and a reformist generation is willing to do deals, emerges. Or the opening to the west in different ways, whether pushed from the outside or pushed from the inside, people being aware of what’s going on on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Or western leaders ranging from the Pope to Reagan or whatever pushing from outside. So all of those factors are the ones that people latch onto.

And then we can also add what I would think was sort of the Garton Ash version, which is the intellectuals, Vaclav Havels and so on, who create these wonderful ideas. But for me, the experience of my generation was missing. And it wasn’t just that they had experienced it differently, but I felt in some way they had created that change. They’d helped to create that change.

The problem was how to fit that story in and I would say that as I went into it, as I went into looking at the story of 1989 and trying to fit in the generation that were students and how they had both experienced and created change. At first I think I was quite strongly influenced by ideas about dissidents in the region, in particular the emphasis on anti-politics. The standard story about dissidents of the generation of Vaclav Havel or Adam Michnik, George Konrad, was that they had found a way to essentially ignore the state, ignore politics, and get back to a kind of a human politics where you worry about you know: what are people actually experiencing? What is important to them? And how can we give people meaning in their lives beyond the structures that the state has created for them.

And as I look back at the first versions of my research proposals back in the mid 1990s, they were all about anti-politics. And that turned out to be wrong. And that, to me, was really the interesting story and it clarified this generation as truly bringing something new to 1989. But what I discovered is that this generation was so powerfully political in a very pragmatic sense that they were nothing like their elders, the Havels and so on. They were actually rejecting an anti-politics and saying “no, we’re about political change.” We want to get rid of Communism. We don’t care really how we do it as long as it’s non-violent.

And so I guess that was the really the most important way in which my thinking, as I began to study this group, as I began to study this experience and these people as a historian, that my ideas began to change.

How to Cite

Padraic Kenney, interview, "How have your ideas changed?" Making the History of 1989, Item #583, (accessed May 21 2019, 2:45 pm).