Reading Padraic Kenney’s A Carnival of Revolution : Central Europe 1989

Posted by Misha Griffith.

Ernest Rutherford, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, once remarked “In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting.” I imagine what he was trying to say was that physicists created new and exciting scientific concepts, while every other scientist was just out gathering data and creating taxonomies. Kenney’s work can be misinterpreted in that light—just a lot of facts and events strung together. However, in retelling the myriad of events surrounding 1989, Kenney’s medium is his message. Following one group or staying in one country would have diminished his narrative and betrayed the spirit of the time. Kenny was the perfect expert—a specialist in Polish labor organization—to be in Wroclaw and Gdansk at this time. He could have just covered Solidarity and have written a good, concise monograph. Instead, he hit upon the concept of the carnival, the ancient ritual of upsetting the social norms, as the explanatory vehicle for the fall of Communism. He traced the movements of experienced opposition leaders and novice protesters through out the entire Warsaw Pact nations, and showed how new networks were created between a wide variety of groups.
As readers, we only get small tastes of the stories, but we get enough flavor to understand Kenney’s two great concepts: First, that the special appeal and final victories of the people over totalitarian regimes came because they spoke with a plurality of voices over a wide range of issues. Second that their struggle was not against a particular government. They struggled to build their own structures. Granted, we do see some old dissident hands like Vaclav Havel or Adam Michnik, but their stories take a back seat to up and coming protesters, like the high school students creating samizdat journals for each other or mothers with babies in strollers marching against nuclear reactors. The very carnivalesque nature of the many protest events “set Poles free to find their own paths back to opposition.” (190) Compared to the deadly serious uprisings in Hungary in ’56, Prague in ’68, or the earlier Polish labor strikes of the early ‘80s, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the other amazing events of ’89 seem almost fun. And as Kenney showed, perhaps that was how the opposition finally got the people to overcome their fears and organize.

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