The Eastern European revolutions against Communism have been hailed as the best of their kind. Overwhelmingly peaceful, they helped produce two Nobel Peace Prizes. The first went to Lech Walesa, the heroic leader of Poland’s 10-million-strong Solidarity Trade Union, in 1983; seven years later, the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was honored for having the courage to acknowledge the moral, political and economic bankruptcy of the old regime.
These two political figures — Mr. Walesa, who became the first democratically elected president of Poland, and Mr. Gorbachev, who served as the last Soviet leader — have since become the most potent symbols of 1989. Now the heroic status of both men, and the very legacy of those revolutions, are being called into question.
Mr. Gorbachev has been accused of betraying his country, and Mr. Walesa of betraying his fellow anti-Communists.
In Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia, the resentment against 1989 is so intense that when the celebrated movie director and Kremlin loyalist Nikita Mikhalkov recently denounced Mr. Gorbachev’s policies leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “a real crime,” the public hardly blinked — people thought he was just stating the obvious.
What did make news was a prankster presenting himself as Mr. Mikhalkov who called Mr. Gorbachev and apologized. Everyone got a good laugh at the Nobel Prize winner, who was grateful to accept an apology that was never made. Russians are not really nostalgic for Communism per se, but they pine for the days of the Soviet Union as a superpower. In Russia, 1989 doesn’t symbolize society’s victory over Communism, but rather Moscow’s defeat and humiliation at the hands of the West.
Almost at the same time as the Mikhalkov affair, the Institute for National Memory in Poland released documents, some of them obtained from the widow of the last Communist interior minister, reviving the claims that Mr. Walesa was a secret police informer in the 1970s. (He was cleared by a special court after an earlier wave of accusations in 2000.)
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Walesa called the document a “fabrication,” and thousands of people took to the streets of Warsaw, Gdansk and other Polish cities in defense of the former Solidarity leader. But the Polish government, under Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s populist Law and Justice Party, refused to defend him, insisting that the Walesa “legend probably cannot be defended anymore.”
Can anyone be confident that Mr. Walesa never collaborated with the police? To be sure, no. It is most likely that Mr. Walesa, like many others, cut various small deals with the authorities in the 1970s to secure his freedom after being arrested for pro-democracy activities.
But the demonstrators on the street, some of them old Solidarity activists themselves, also understand that the secret police was hardly above fabricating police files in order to discredit its opponents. And those same demonstrators are fully aware that the miracle of Solidarity would have been impossible without leaders like Mr. Walesa.
The larger point, though, is that people on the streets of large Polish cities today are defending something greater than Mr. Walesa — the legacy of 1989 itself. They suspect the government is using the attack on Mr. Walesa as an instrument to delegitimize liberal democracy.
And they seem to be right. Antoni Macierewicz, the current Polish defense minister, claimed bluntly that Mr. Walesa’s police file proved that “post-Communist Poland was a product of the secret police and not of democratically elected institutions.”
It is one thing to have to defend the 1989 revolution in “defeated” Russia. But why is it suddenly so hard to do so in victorious Poland, where people are freer and more prosperous than ever before and where Solidarity is a national icon?
The irony of the current wave of revisionism is that 1989 is rejected for the same reasons that it has long been acclaimed, namely its absence of radicalism. The fact that it chose to integrate the old elites instead of persecuting them has turned out to be, at once, the revolution’s lasting achievement and its ultimate Achilles’ heel.
The populist insurgency feverishly advancing in Poland, Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe is a rebellion against moderates and moderation. The events of 1989 are condemned as little more than an ingenious plot to transform the elites’ political power into economic power (like the Who song, it’s “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”)
In this narrative, 1989 marks the liberation not of the people, but of the Communist elites. They were liberated from fear (of party purges and anti-Communist uprisings), guilt, ideology, the chains of community and even national loyalty — before they had the privilege to travel; now they have the right to be part of the West. Before they ran the country, but now they own it. The shadow power of the old elites has become the ultimate explanation for everything that went wrong after 1989 — rising inequality, betrayed expectations.
Mr. Kaczynski’s politics of anger, like Mr. Putin’s politics of resentment, resonates with the younger generations, who live in a world where history no longer matters. They have Google and smartphones but little patience for the moral complexities of the Communist period, and thus no desire to understand what Mr. Walesa actually did in the 1970s, or what choices Mr. Gorbachev faced in the 1980s. For those generations that cannot claim any personal experience with the destructive and self-destructive nature of revolutionary politics, moderation is neither inspiring nor justified.
The heroes of 1989 traded peace for justice. It was a noble compromise. But today, when peace is taken for granted, the deficit of justice is all that remains.
Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.