The winners and losers in post-Socialist Europe

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell unexpectedly, which led to a wave of revolutions across Eastern Europe, culminating with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Suddenly, more than 400 million people were living in post-Socialist states. The summer after the Wall fell, Kristen Ghodsee and Mitchell Orenstein were traveling separately in Eastern Europe. Unbeknownst to them at the time, that experience would help shape their careers. Both now professors of Russian and East European Studies, Ghodsee and Orenstein recently co-authored a book, “Taking Stock of Shock: Social Consequences of the 1989 Revolutions,” which provides an interdisciplinary look at 29 countries over the last 30 years of transition.

Kristen Ghodsee and Mitchell Orenstein.
Kristen Ghodsee and Mitchell Orenstein, professors of Russian and East European studies. (Images: Alina Yakubova)

The book was the byproduct of a disagreement between the two. “Mitchell’s early work focused on Czechia and Poland, while my work focused more on Bulgaria and the Balkans,” says Ghodsee. “He’s a political scientist; I’m an ethnographer. We held very different views about the impact of the changes in 1989 in the region.”

“Kristen sent me an article by Branko Milanović [a Serbian-American economist] that was really interesting and provocative. Basically, he argued that people hadn’t benefited economically from the revolutions of 1989,” says Orenstein. “His ideas didn’t align with my own observations of certain countries. On the other hand, Kristen thought he was underestimating how bad things really were.”

The book, however, takes into consideration more than just economics. When dismantling communism, the social safety nets under socialism are also dismantled, which is where the phrase “shock therapy” originates. Ghodsee and Orenstein understood that a broad picture of a society’s well-being should take into account more than just economic indicators. “Rather than just look at economic data like GDP per capita or average consumption, which is what most people who study the transition focus on,” says Ghodsee, “we decided to combine that with public opinion, demographic, and ethnographic data to show a more robust picture of what’s happened over the last 30 years.”