New books — From the December 2009 issue

New Books

An entire generation has grown up since the end of the Cold War, an event that, despite the persistence of Communist governments in China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba, has nonetheless come to seem the manifest destiny of a system so cruel and absurd that one is amazed it lasted so long. The complexity of an episode often reduced to iconic snapshots of revelers atop the Berlin Wall is too easily forgotten, but in REVOLUTION 1989: THE FALL OF THE SOVIET EMPIRE (Pantheon, $30), Victor Sebestyen, who fled Hungary as an infant after the 1956 Soviet invasion, restores the complete picture of the epochal Wende, focusing less on Washington and Moscow and more on the six Warsaw Pact members—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany—recalling the perverse particularities that each country developed under Communism.

So many of these details were never widely known: who outside the region remembers, for example, the Bulgarian tyrant Todor Zhivkov’s desperate last-minute attempt to deport Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks, almost 10 percent of the population, although the incident eerily prefigured the death of Yugoslavia? Or that Elena Ceaus¸escu, though she had been thrown out of school at age fourteen, fancied herself a prominent chemist and even managed to get a leading British scientist to applaud her contribution “to macromolecular experimental chemistry, especially in the field of the stereospecific polymerisation of isoprene on the stabilisation of synthetic rubbers and on copolymerisation”?

The well-known struggles of Walesa, Gorbachev, and Havel are all here, but perhaps more interesting is Sebestyen’s exposure of the little stress cracks that became fissures as soon as pressure was applied: the incredible creative accounting that allowed the terminally bankrupt East German regime not only to keep its leader in bespoke suits but even to present itself as one of the world’s most dynamic economies, or the ethnic tensions always simmering beneath the rhetoric about socialist brotherhood, and the leading role minorities such as the Bulgarian Turks or the Magyar Romanians took in toppling those countries’ governments.

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October 2019