Uneasy Scrap Heap

Uneasy Scrap Heap

East Bloc still adjusting 10 years after Cold War's end, say faculty

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

If Prof. Donald Hafner (Political Science) needed confirmation that a new chapter of history began in 1989, he found one in a recent course evaluation from an undergraduate.

"Prof. Hafner, the Cold War ended," the student wrote. "Get over it."

But for Hafner and other faculty, the Cold War and its aftermath does not rest easily on the historical scrap heap. Ten years after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, experts in political science, history, social services and other disciplines are reflecting on the decade's changes and seeing new opportunities for research and fieldwork, as the former Soviet Bloc countries seek to transform their societies.

From left, Assoc. Prof. Cynthia Simmons, Prof. Demetrius Iatridis and Prof. Donald Hafner.

"What's been happening over the past 10 years is a very complex, unique phenomenon, an unprecedented historical event," said Prof. Demetrius Iatridis (GSSW). "We have witnessed a redistribution of power on a great scale, as these societies move from a planned, centralized economy to a free-market approach.

"At the same time," he added. "People have been faced with very harsh realities, their lives turned upside down. It requires us to view with our hearts, not just our heads."

In retrospect, faculty say, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East Bloc was a highly likely occurrence, given economic conditions and the increasingly tenuous hold on the various ethnic nationalities under their influence. Visiting Russia in early 1989, Assoc. Prof. Roberta Manning (History) saw handwritten notices of political meetings and heard enough rumors to realize "something extraordinary was happening."

If the pace and scope of change surprised observers, Hafner points out that many predictions about post-Cold War Europe were on the mark.

"It was an incredible development that Mikhail Gorbachev concluded that the West was not enough of a threat to justify maintaining a Soviet empire," explained Hafner. "But when the East Bloc disintegrated, things went about as analysts said. The countries they felt were best-prepared, like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, in general have had a successful transition, while Russia has undergone considerable economic and social turmoil."

However, as Iatridis notes, all former Soviet Bloc countries had to face the task of rebuilding a social welfare system. An organizer of several conferences focusing on social services in post-Communist nations, Iatridis says the privatization push created serious gaps in quality-of-life areas.

"[The leaders] listened more to the economists and management experts and not enough to human and social service professionals," he said. "They did not understand the need for political realignment, or for retaining values like equality and collective security."

Faculty say the post-Cold War era also has served up geopolitical dilemmas, most notably, and tragically, in the former Yugoslavia. Ironically, says Assoc. Prof. Cynthia Simmons (Slavic and Eastern Languages), Yugoslavia seemed the epitome of "Communism with a happy face," and had experimented with a mixed economy and decentralization before 1989. But these features masked a troubled region with peoples who "shared a separate history," she explains.

"Events in Europe put a great deal of pressure on Yugoslavia to find a way to take its place in this movement," Simmons said. "But there was nothing to keep them together, no economic or political resources to help them. When the wall came down, everything fell apart."

If the Cold War's end has created unexpected problems, historians like Manning hope it will help to shed light on events and issues of the past. But even with the demise of Soviet authority, archival material has not been as widely accessible as hoped, she said.

"There are a number of agencies and individuals who want to examine what's in the archives before allowing others," she said. "Some are concerned about being seen in a bad light, while others are seeking information that wasn't available before. There's a great deal of material on Stalin, including his personal archive, and one anticipates that there will be data on leaders like Khruschev and Brehznev.

"The hope is that these documents will deepen our understanding of the Cold War era," Manning said, "and perhaps help us make some sense of what's happened since then."

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