In A Nutshell
For most of the 20th century, Eastern Europe had the bad luck to be Russia’s go-to choice for expanding its Communist “utopia.” Dictators, secret police forces, torture, terror, and even genocide became the norm for decades, until the collapse of the Berlin Wall ushered in a new era of capitalist democracy. Yet Communism and even Stalin still remain surprisingly popular in the region, with a majority saying they were better off under Soviet rule.
The Whole Bushel
The history of Eastern Europe in the 20th century is one of dreams shattered, individuality stifled, and lives ground into dust. From the 1920s right up until the 1990s, a succession of Soviet despots made existence a misery for millions: spying on their citizens, torturing dissenters, and keeping the region an economic backwater made up of grey clothes and grey-faced people. When the USSR finally folded in the early ’90s, global observers thought it could never possibly be missed. Oh boy, were they wrong.
In a 2009 survey of global attitudes, the Pew Foundation questioned Eastern Europeans on their current attitudes toward the Cold War’s end. Although places like Germany and the Czech Republic reported continuing high support for life in the post-USSR world, plenty of others were less enthusiastic. When asked if they approved of the change to democracy, only half of all Hungarians, Lithuanians, Russians, and Bulgarians said “yes,” with only 30 percent of Ukrainians in agreement. Acceptance of capitalism was even shakier, with only two-thirds or less of those polled in six major countries agreeing it was a good thing. But most interesting of all was their thoughts on Communism.
A majority in every single country (bar the former East Germany) felt their lives were either worse under capitalist democracy or hadn’t changed at all. Even in the Czech Republic—a country that continually rebelled under Russian rule—over 50 percent of the population felt capitalism had made their lives no better, and probably worse. Thanks to a combination of rising inequality and a high-poverty transition period from Communism (which The Economist estimated had indirectly caused millions of deaths), we’re now at the point where people who suffered under actual Soviet tyrants apparently think capitalism is literally worse than a dictatorship. Maybe the Occupy Movement was right all along.