Perspectives

Four Books to Help You Understand Democracy in Eastern Europe, Eurasia

In advance of the publication of Freedom House’s annual Nations in Transit report, we present another installment of our ongoing book series—featuring books that help explain the state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Four Books to Help You Understand Democracy in Eastern Europe, Eurasia   

Illustration: Gil Wannalertsiri/Freedom House

 

In the last century, the 29-country region covered by Freedom House’s annual Nations in Transit report has been the stage for two world wars, two genocides, two of the vilest and most egregious dictatorial regimes in history, and countless acts of sectarian violence, persecution, and repression.

Nevertheless, when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, hopes were high that democracy and the rights it ensures would spread in its wake. Instead, over the last two decades authoritarianism has expanded at the expense of democracy.

In advance of the newest edition of Nations in Transit—coming May 24—let’s examine four books that help explain the past, present, and future of freedom within this volatile region.

 

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

2012, Basic Books

From 1930 to 1945, within a narrow strip of land extending between the Baltic and Black seas, 14 million people were murdered, and millions more plundered, imprisoned, raped, and starved with impunity. Men, women, children, Jews, Gentiles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians—anyone who got between the Nazis and Soviets and their goals.

In Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder meticulously and compassionately answers the questions of how and why this happened, starting with what we know about this infamous period in history and carefully expanding our field of vision. We know that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were evil; we know—or we should—of the crimes against humanity that occurred inside the gates at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Mauthausen, Majdanek, and so many other Nazi death factories. But many do not know that the Soviet government deliberately starved nearly three and a half million Ukrainians seven years before World War II began, an event known to history as the Holodomor. Many do not know that German occupiers murdered more than four million Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians before and after their tenuous wartime alliance with the USSR collapsed.

For this reason, Bloodlands is essential to understanding not just the history of this region, but the present-day happenings within it. Past Russian atrocities in Ukraine, for example, contextualize why Ukrainians have presented a united front against Russian aggression today. Vladimir Putin may have been caught off guard, but students of history not so much. To borrow from Snyder: “Nothing is exactly like anything else. Everything flows, and everything changes. And yet all of the flowing and changing is a part of a single human history.”

 

Masha Gessen, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

2018, Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House

A popular narrative on how and why Russia’s brief experiment with democracy in the 1990s failed draws from the chaos following the collapse of the USSR. Boris Yeltsin was a shaky leader. The transition from a planned to a market economy was painful. The process of privatizing the nation’s financial, energy, and industrial sectors was hijacked by guileful actors who amassed far more than their fair share of wealth and political power. Nationalism flourished and paved the way for a strongman to propose a trade: security and stability in exchange for absolute power. Hence, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. 

This narrative isn’t wrong, but it is incomplete. Masha Gessen, the esteemed Russian-American reporter and author, adds nuance to the narrative in The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. It chronicles the nation’s flirtation with freedom through the eyes and experiences of seven Russians. Three are elders. Marina the psychoanalyst and Lev the sociologist, each practicing sciences that were regarded suspiciously in Soviet times, and Alexander, who became a Putin evangelist and enabler.

But the bulk of the story belongs to four Millennials—Zhanna, Masha (not the author), Seryozha, and Lyosha—all whom came of age after the Wall fell and have since rooted themselves in the shrinking space of Russian civil society. Through Gessen’s powerful pen, their stories suggest another popular narrative—that Putin enjoys widespread support among everyday Russians—isn’t wrong, but it is incomplete.

 

Olga Onuch and Henry Hale, The Zelensky Effect

2023, Oxford University Press

Imagine you are Volodymyr Zelenskyy. You grew up experiencing the demoralizing impact of corruption in local and national politics and it rankled you. You longed to be a diplomat, to study international relations, to fix the system.

But you discover a talent for comedy and acting, and you leverage it to poke fun at politics-as-usual in your country. On television you play an ordinary man who inexplicably becomes a beloved president of Ukraine; who fights the good fight against oligarchs and bribery and all the malfeasance that people have endured here for generations.

There’s a groundswell to make you the real-life president of Ukraine. You run. You win by nearly 50 percentage points. Other than your part in a phone call that gets the president of the United States impeached, your country only occasionally makes international headlines—until February 2022, when a power-mad autocrat rolls his army across your borders and declares war. Now you are a key defender of the free world.

In The Zelensky Effect, Olga Onuch and Henry Hale document this story and make the case that Zelenskyy’s focus on the collective history of Ukraine and his prodemocracy and pro-European stances leveraged an existing “national civic identity” that minimized divisions within the country, divisions that the Kremlin intended to exploit.

We do not know what the future holds for Ukraine or its president. Zelenskyy has exceeded expectations as a wartime leader, but polling data from December 2021 indicated his political star was dimming. And not every action he has taken since the war began has been popular, successful, or right. But the authors make a compelling argument that he was indeed the right Ukrainian, in the right place, at the right moment in history. And so the freedom-loving world crosses its fingers on his behalf. And waits.

 

Charles Clarke and Contributors, Understanding the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since 1991

2023, Hurst & Company

Lithuania. Latvia. Estonia. Collectively, these are the Baltic States, but this shorthand does not imply they are a monolith; far from it. They each have unique histories, influences, and languages. And their self-government predates the Nazis and the Soviets.

This context is explored in Understanding the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since 1991, a collection of essays from 22 authors focusing on how and why these countries broke away from the Soviet Union, and how their independence hastened the USSR’s ultimate collapse. And while the book examines the Baltic States through a Western (namely British) lens, the history and analysis offered here are invaluable to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the region, specifically why democracy has flourished here as opposed to other former Soviet states.

Implied by the book’s title, the Balts have a history of being misunderstood and underestimated. Even under the thumb of Soviet power, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians kept the embers of freedom glowing as they waited for the opportunity to reassert their sovereignty. When such an opportunity presented itself in 1989, citizens across the region literally put their bodies on the line—more than two million of them linked arms from Tallinn to Vilnius, forming a 675-kilometer human chain along the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Line. This event—known as the Baltic Way—demonstrated the admirable courage of Baltic civil society and reminded the world of the legacy of unfreedom this region had endured at the hands of both fascists and communists. Fittingly, the highest civil society scores measured in Nations in Transit 2022 belong to these three countries.

More than three decades after escaping Moscow’s grasp, the Balts are warily watching the situation unfolding in Ukraine and wondering what the future holds. If the Kremlin achieves its goals in Ukraine, would it shift its focus further east? A lot has changed in the region from 1989 to 2023—much of it documented in this book—but the threat of Russian aggression, regrettably, has not.