The Chronicle Review

A World Transformed

Academe in Eastern Europe 20 years after the fall of Communism

Laszlo Balogh, Reuters, Corbis

A Hungarian flag is seen behind barbed wire at the “Iron Curtain Museum” in Felsocsatar, Hungary.
October 25, 2009

Today Masaryk University's Faculty of Social Studies occupies a beautifully renovated 19th-century building in Brno's historic center, not far from the tourist crowds on Námestí Míru, or Peace Square. Its founder, Ivo Mozny, and his colleagues enjoy spacious quarters, an exhaustive library, and, most important, freedom of inquiry.

Twenty years ago, sociologists at the university had none of those things. Classes were held behind locked doors, so that no one could walk in on discussions of forbidden topics. Current academic works were carried in by visiting foreign scholars and were passed from professor to professor and student to student. Mozny himself—blacklisted from teaching after the Soviets overthrew the reformist government, in 1968—was reduced to working as a mere research technician and had to hold his lectures underground.

But he and his colleagues were fortunate in that they were able to create and maintain a zone of freedom where, out of the authorities' sight and hearing, sociology students could study and discuss works and ideas that might have landed them in prison. When the regime finally collapsed, in 1989, one of the largest and most prestigious sociology schools in the region was built on that underground foundation.

Ask Mozny how he did it and he chuckles: "Coincidences and a lot of very good luck." What he leaves out is bravery, and a willingness to take considerable risks to push the bounds of what was possible, both during and after the collapse of Eastern Europe's Communist regimes.

The Soviet empire in Eastern Europe fell apart 20 years ago in a cascading series of events that took even the participants by surprise. Steps taken by reform-minded Communist regimes in Poland and Hungary to liberalize political life—and Budapest's decision to dismantle its section of the Iron Curtain—triggered a mass exodus of disaffected East Germans and, largely by accident, the opening of the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989. That December demonstrations brought down the regimes in Czechoslovakia (peacefully) and Romania (with great loss of life). Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev could have ordered in the tanks as his predecessors had done but chose not to.

The revolutions unleashed head-spinning changes for Eastern Europe's universities and the scholars who work within them. In just 20 years, the former Soviet satellite nations of Eastern Europe have joined the European Union, expanded their higher-education sectors, transformed the structure of academic degrees, and rebuilt the relationship between research and teaching. Outdated infrastructure has been replaced, and outsized departments of Marxism-Leninism and metallurgical engineering have been pushed aside to make room for programs in business and environmental science. In Romania academics have gone from rationing of heat, electricity, and food to wireless broadband in a single generation.

Some scholars who lived through those changes played a central role in bringing them about. Academics who had limited prospects for advancement under the old system have led departments, universities, government ministries, even nations. Get scholars talking about what university life was like then and what it has become, and sometimes they themselves express amazement.

Twenty years ago, Zoe Petre remembers teaching her students in cold and darkness.

Petre, a professor of history at the University of Bucharest, would arrive on winter afternoons to a classroom in which all the light bulbs but one had been removed. The elevators had been shut down years before, and the use of most electrical devices had been prohibited to conserve power. The radiators, on for only a few hours in the morning, were beginning to cool. Classes ran past 8 p.m., and the room would only get darker and colder.

"We professors were able to move around, which helped us keep warm, but the students were expected to sit still and take notes," she recalls. "They wore lots of overcoats, and they had gloves with the two fingers needed for writing cut out. We could see through our windows that the young architecture students had it worse: They had to draw, so they couldn't keep their gloves on."

"It was forbidden to have any light outside the classrooms: not in the hallways, the staircases, or the lobby. After classes in winter, my students and I would creep down from the third floor in total darkness, feeling with our fingers for the walls and banisters."

In the final, Orwellian years of Nicolae Ceausescu's regime, the Romanian dictator became obsessed with paying off the national debt. His solution was to export everything—food, oil, medicine—triggering rationing, rolling blackouts, and extreme shortages of basic staples. His secret police, the Securitate, seemed everywhere, its 11,000 agents and half-million informants watching over Romania's other 22 million citizens.

Any criticism of the regime was dangerous, and ordinary Romanians refrained from uttering the Ceausescus' names at all, referring to them simply as "he" and "she." Fortunately for Petre, her specialty was ancient history, a topic the regime had little interest in. "I said lots of things about Greek tyrants and the late Roman emperors, and the students were aware of the allusions, but I never faced any repercussions," she says. The secret police "were apparently uninterested in historical parallels."

But they were certainly listening. One morning immediately after Romania's bloody revolution (during which the Ceausescus were captured and summarily executed), Petre arrived at work to find the walls and ceilings pockmarked with holes left behind by Securitate agents as they removed listening devices.

In the months and years that followed, Petre helped her friend Emil Constantinescu, a geology professor newly elected rector by the students, expand Bucharest from 7,000 students and seven faculties (or colleges) to more than 30,000 students and 17 faculties. The university secured decision-making autonomy from the government, although sacking professors whose credentials had been political rather than scientific proved impossible. "Many of them left for the private universities that were invented for them," Petre says, referring to the profusion of unaccredited institutions that appeared in the early 1990s. "It was funny to see the Americans investing in these private universities because they thought the system was like in the states, not as in Romania."

In 1996, Constantinescu was elected president of Romania, and Petre served as his principal adviser until his term ended, in 2000. "We were a bunch of university people around the president who had not been part of any party hierarchy," Petre says. "In a way, it was inevitable: Where are you going to pick a new political class after a long dictatorship if not from the intelligentsia?"

The challenges were enormous. Throughout the former Soviet bloc, teaching had been sealed away from research, which took place exclusively within the institutions of each country's Academy of Sciences. The single-discipline academies also had a monopoly over the issuing of doctorates, leaving the universities as little more than undergraduate teaching institutions, "factories" to churn out the necessary specialists to meet the next five-year plan. In some countries, the large, federated universities had been dismantled to form specialized colleges and schools that were enormously expensive to operate. Enrollment levels were low and weighted toward fields like agricultural, chemical, and industrial engineering, which were no longer the focus of the economy after 1989. Postrevolution, the region had an acute shortage of skilled personnel in law, marketing, management, public administration, and business management. All of those problems had to be tackled simultaneously at a time of economic privation.

Ceausescu's extreme dictatorship had left Romanian historians like Petre with an additional challenge, in that much of postwar history had been grossly distorted. New courses in contemporary Romanian history were started, and an entire Institute of the Romanian Academy of Sciences was established to study the totalitarian regimes.

"A lot of doctoral dissertations were defended and published on these topics, and many documents from the Securitate archives have been published," Petre says. "Seeing the ways in which the young generation thinks and works, I am convinced that significant progress in this area is to be expected."

In 1989, Hungary was the most open country in the Soviet sphere, headed by reform Communists who had taken Gorbachev's perestroika policies to heart. While Romanians cowered in the cold, Hungarians saved up for shopping trips to Austria or even vacations in Western Europe, and the Communist Party was dismantling the Iron Curtain and negotiating with the democratic opposition to organize free, multiparty elections.

Geza Jeszenszky, a history professor at Budapest's Karl Marx University of Economics, was a leading figure in the main opposition group, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, acting as its international spokesman. A year later, when his group won the election, he would become the first post-Communist foreign minister and, later, ambassador to Washington. But in 1989 there were at least 65,000 Soviet troops in Hungary, and nobody knew for certain at what point they might be ordered to intervene, as they had in 1956.

"I cautioned my colleagues that anything could happen as long as Soviet troops were in Hungary and Gorbachev's control was in question," Jeszenszky recalls. "Fortunately the coup against him happened in 1991, when it was too late. If it had happened earlier, the results could have been quite tragic."

At the university the historian had felt increasingly free to discuss once-taboo subjects—the Soviet repression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Stalin's execution of thousands of Polish officers in Katyn Forest, and the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia—leading to "a very tense atmosphere" in some of his classes. "It has since been revealed that Hungary was also infested with informers, but the difference with Romania was that there the consequences of being reported as hostile or critical of the regime were very, very serious: not just a loss of job, but a loss of life," he says. "In Hungary the infraction was meticulously filed and categorized, but no action was taken. I now know much of my action was monitored—including my correspondence and my telephone calls—but it did not affect our daily life."

A colleague at Karl Marx University, the economics lecturer Peter Akos Bod, remembers having learned "a sort of self-control not to tease the Soviet Union." Other topics were fairly open, particularly in economics, where Marxism-Leninism no longer dominated the discourse. Bod even taught a course to exchange students (including this reporter) highlighting the tragicomedy of Hungary's centrally planned economy. He joined the Hungarian Democratic Forum, participating in parliamentary negotiations over economic matters. "The most important thing was to create a legal framework for a peaceful transition, or else there would have to be a civil war," he says. "There were high expectations, but nobody wanted to die."

After the forum's candidates won the 1990 elections, Bod agreed to serve as minister of industry and trade (and later, as Central Bank president), but he remembers the atmosphere as still tense. "I knew people who refused to join the government for fear that the Soviets would come back," he recalls. "If the 1991 coup had happened earlier, it would have changed history only in the short term, but that doesn't matter so much if you are shot in the short term. I guess I was a born optimist."

At the university, the fact that the Communists had presided over a peaceful transition meant there was little changing of the guard on the faculty. "No one was fired, no one retired or admitted to having been ideologically motivated or stupid, as in East Germany, where old professors were ousted and young, dynamic ones came," says Bod, now director of the university's M.B.A. program. "Maybe a little too few changes took place." He's one of many professors irked that a giant statue of Marx still dominates the ceremonial hall of the main building on the campus.

According to Jeszenszky, who holds his position as a history professor at what is now called Corvinus University of Budapest, the biggest change since 1989 is one that any American professor could relate to: the coming of the computer and the Internet. "Information has become so much easier to access, and the available material has grown enormously," he says. "People have to work even harder than before, but they also waste less time traveling and trying to find what they need in the library stacks."

Some information remains difficult to obtain, however. While taboos on, say, Communist persecution of dissidents have been lifted, many secret-police archives remain closed to scholars. "Freedom is a precious notion and practice," Jeszenszky observes, "but some of its aspects are unwelcome."

Twenty years ago, Czechoslovakia lay between the extremes of Romania and Hungary: a dour police state, but one that had not descended into madness. There it was possible to carve out a zone of freedom if you kept your head down and were lucky enough to have superiors who were willing to look the other way or were otherwise occupied. Both were true of Ivo Mozny.

After the Soviets crushed the country's democracy movement, in 1968, sociology—a discipline they considered bourgeois—was slated for destruction: No new students were to be admitted, and all departments would close when the last student graduated. At each university, the process was overseen by a party apparatchik—who, over time, all realized that their own comfortable jobs would vanish with the departments. Eventually the Ministry of Education decided to rebuild the departments, with Marxist-Leninist sociology at the forefront.

Fortunately for Mozny, the apparatchik at Masaryk University was relatively benign and had a heart condition that compelled him to avoid stressful situations. He turned to Mozny to help him out. "We developed a sort of unspoken contract that he would not destroy the department as long as there were no political incidents, but that he would leave me to make many of the decisions," Mozny says. It was his first bit of luck, allowing him to seek out competent academics for his boss to rubber-stamp. His boss's successor, too, was willing to look the other way.

By 1983, when Radim Marada started his studies here, the department had effectively gone underground. "For the first half-year I was basically silent in classes because I thought, 'These people are going to get in serious trouble,'" recalls Marada, now an associate professor on the Faculty of Social Studies. "They talked about [the dissident Vaclav] Havel and [the émigré novelist Milan] Kundera freely—and not just to denounce them. This was unthinkable in Prague!"

Professors would hold sensitive talks outside and warn students when an intruder was approaching by greeting the newcomer with a hearty "Greetings, comrade!" In another stroke of luck, Marada says the principal student-police informant was often absent, chaperoning other Czech students on foreign trips. He says the quality of studies was excellent, comparing favorably with that at the New School, in New York, where Marada would later earn his doctorate.

Mozny was blacklisted from publishing his research, but in the 1980s he was able to "gradually detour the ban" by publishing in journals where ideological surveillance was weaker. (Now there are many sociological journals in the country, he says, "more than there are quality papers.")

After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Mozny was able to come out of the shadows. He led the transformation of the department into a full-fledged college within Masaryk. (It now has 800 students, 10 times as many as in 1989.) He was the first in Brno to create a credit system and to scrap the German-style, five-year degree for the American three-tier degree system, years before it became the European standard. He went from housing the entire 5,000-volume departmental library in his office to taking over the turn-of-the-century building that once housed Brno's German-language technical university.

The biggest change since 1989, say Mozny and Marada: the introduction of Anglo-Saxon teaching philosophy in a university with a tradition of rote learning. "The Czech word for student literally means 'listener,' and that's what they would do: 45 hours of classes per week, and exams where they would simply memorize what they had heard," Mozny says. "I was determined that students would have more time to work with books and in seminars, that here in Brno we would not have an audience of listeners."

Mozny and his colleagues succeeded by reducing the number of hours spent in lectures and replacing them with more-intimate seminars, discussion groups, and individual proj ects. "We like to think that this kind of training—supporting creativity, independence, and critical approaches—is one of the reasons why [our] graduates … have statistically been the most successful in the whole of Masaryk University in finding jobs," says Marada, the associate professor.

Now the challenges are ones more familiar to Western academics: financial constraints and ever-growing administrative and accounting demands, which tend to fall on the shoulders of professors and researchers. Additionally, Mozny says, the introduction of public financing puts pressure on universities to enroll more students but not to hire more staff members. "The main challenge now," he says, "is to survive our success and not start to produce many students at a lower standard."

Colin Woodard covered Eastern Europe for The Chronicle for many years. His latest book is The Republic of Pirates (Harcourt, 2007).