Are There Enduring Effects of Communism, or Is It Kaput? Two Princeton Professors Set Out to Determine Its Historical Legacy

Thursday, Aug 21, 2014

When two passionate professors of Russia and Eastern Europe get to talking about their favorite subject – post-communist politics – there’s a good chance that an idea for a book will be in the works sooner rather than later. That was certainly the case when Mark Beissinger, director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), and Stephen Kotkin, professor of  history and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, delved into the topic of the enduring effects of communism during a spirited discussion over lunch at Prospect House.

"After we managed to recruit Mark to Princeton, I spent considerable time contemplating how he and I might work together on something potentially valuable," Kotkin says. "I invited him to lunch and pitched the idea of a book. He had already been thinking about something similar, and we decided that very day to do it."

The result: Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, a collection of 11 essays written by notable scholars in the field and edited by Beissinger and Kotkin. The 256-page work was published last month by the Cambridge University Press.

“We were both frustrated that in the field of post-communist politics 20 years after communism’s collapse, the notion of the historical legacy of communism was being used quite loosely,” Beissinger explains. “At the same time, there are some areas in which the communist experience continues to be formative, such as institutional practices, that have received less attention within political science literature than we believe was warranted. We thought that a dialogue between historians and political scientists on these issues would shed light on the variety of ways in which the past may or may not be connected to the present, and how one might prove or disprove the existence of a historical legacy.”

After developing a conceptual outline for a book that would explore these areas, Beissinger and Kotkin invited a group of scholars, many of whom eventually contributed to the book, to discuss their ideas and provide feedback.

“We chose scholars who were extremely knowledgeable about their particular spheres of concern and had already demonstrated an interest in the subject of the historical legacies of communism,” Beissinger says. “Some had also worked in areas that deserved more thorough examination in the context of the communist experience which made their contributions critical.”

Additionally, the editors were interested in gathering a diverse group of scholars with disparate views about the forces that have shaped post-communist politics. Several came from the region itself—something that they considered important.

In addition to Beissinger and Kotkin, the authors include: Timothy Frye of Columbia University; Clifford G. Gaddy, Brookings Institution; Béla Greskovits, Central European Institute in Budapest, Hungary; Anna Grzymala-Busse, University of Michigan; Eugene Huskey, Stetson University; Volodymyr Kulyk, National Academy of Science in Kyiv, Ukraine; Jessica Pisano, New School for Social Research; Grigore Pop-Eleches, Princeton University; Brian D. Taylor, Syracuse University; and Alexei Trochev, School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.

With financial support from PIIRS, the group met twice preceding publication: first, to brainstorm about a framework for thinking about historical legacies empirically, and subsequently, to discuss and improve the essays utilizing that framework that the authors developed. A number of other scholars of post-communist politics were also invited as commentators or as lecturers at Princeton, which also influenced the ways in which the authors approached their subjects.

“Our joint writing and editing of the launch-pad paper – which went through numerous iterations – was a richly rewarding experience," Kotkin says. "The other authors influenced our joint paper, which we revised again in dialogue with their essays and discussions.“

“The result of all this was an unusually coherent set of essays for an edited book,” Beissinger adds.

When speaking about the impact of the book Kotkin says, “We hope that we have collectively helped advance the research and analysis about what, precisely, took place after communism, and how social science tackles rupture as well as real and seeming continuities."

Beissinger adds, “Steve and I feel that we moved the conversation forward concerning how to think about a historical legacy, what needs to be done in order to demonstrate the presence of a historical legacy, and the ways in which scholars should go about studying them.”

Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe is available through Cambridge University Press, as well as on Amazon among other retailers.