Reviewed by John H. Brown, Ph. D.
Constantine Pleshakov, There Is No Freedom Without Bread! 1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-374-28902-7, 304 pp. $26.00
“[F]reedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together.”
The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov
Religious fundamentalism — be it of the Christian or Islamic type — has done much to shape our new, “globalized” century. Arguably, there would have been no 9/11 — or the ensuing “war on terror” — without enemies in this conflict holding deeply-held (but narrow) religious beliefs.
What I take from Constantine Pleshakov’s There Is No Freedom Without Bread!: 1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism — as well as from his talk about his book at the Kennan Institute in January (www.wilsoncenter.org/ index.cfm?topic_id= 1424&fuseaction=topics.event_summary&event_id= 566576) — is that religious fundamentalism also played a crucial role in a momentous event in the previous century: the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
According to Pleshakov, a Russian-born historian who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, it was mystical Polish Catholicism (granted, he does not call it “fundamentalism”) that, in its opposition to atheistic Marxist-Leninism, was the necessary condition for the unexpected, sudden end of the workers’ paradises constructed in Eastern Europe after World War II under the influence of the USSR.
And the man who best expressed this religious fundamentalism was none other than Pope John Paul II, “a native son of Poland, the nation that had crowned the Virgin Mary as its queen in the seventeenth century and since then had been expecting her intercession, which — at least in the view of John Paul II — finally arrived in 1980-89.”
The Holy Mother of God is what saved Eastern Europe from godless communism — or so thought the servant implementing her wishes, the Polish Pope, according to Pleshakov. If we agree with this argument, it is easy to believe that the KGB did indeed try to murder the Holy Father.
All the other Eastern European revolutions, according to Pleshakov, “were products of a chain reaction originating in the Polish revolt.” To underscore this point — the essential one in his book — Pleshakov pooh-poohs other factors some have said led to communism’s demise, among them: “good masses overthrowing the bad regimes”; Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost’; and, implicitly, Reagan’ anti-communist rhetoric and policies, as well as Western democratic influence.
Most Eastern Europeans, Pleshakov suggests, were not anti-Soviet or anti-Russian (“1989 was not really about throwing off Moscow, an outside power”); but, in difficult times, they were infected by the Polish Roman Catholic anti-communist virus and rebelled.
Pleshakov is skeptical about the results of the Eastern European revolutions ignited, he believes, by the Pope. Indeed, his book, by its very title (“there is no freedom without bread”), questions Solidarity’s assumption that “history has taught us that there is no bread without freedom.” Since 1989, life for the common man in Eastern Europe is no less of a paradise than it was under communism — or so Pleshakov suggests, with considerable justification. “Correlation between prosperity and liberty,” Pleshakov underscores, “is never simple.”
He adds that a consequence of the liberation of Eastern Europe was a mass migration of “hundreds of thousands” that led to the “spontaneous redefinition of ‘whiteness’ in Europe that resulted in a new caste bigotry, in which domestic Caucasians divorced themselves from other Caucasians, newly arrived and disadvantaged.”
Pleshakov claims that the revolutions of 1989 were “complex,” stating that each revolution’s path in Eastern European countries was “unique.” But his obsession with Polish Catholicism as the main factor in leading to this revolution makes his book reductive in nature. Indeed, given how different Eastern European countries were and are, it is hard to understand how the Pope was responsible for the overthrow of communism in countries with non-Catholic populations (including agnostics and atheists).
How inspirational, after all, was John Paul II in East Germany or Bulgaria?
John H. Brown, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University, “Propaganda and U.S. Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview.” He compiles the online Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review: