2022 Annual European Studies Lecture
History Doesn’t Travel in One Direction: Eastern Europe after 1989
This talk examines some of the unanticipated outcomes of transformation in Eastern Europe, considering both progressive and regressive tendencies within politics and society. The advent of liberal democracy and market capitalism in the region, along with European integration, were experienced unevenly by East Europeans. While a minority thrived, many experienced precarity and downward mobility. Increased social disparity, combined with corruption and institutional dysfunction, have produced popular frustration, causing some to question the democratic promise. These sentiments have, in turn, been manipulated by populists to consolidate power and undermine democracy. Such backsliding, however, is only part of the picture—and only one example of history’s bidirectionality as ordinary individuals, in their perspectives and practices, look forward and backward to make sense of and navigate change. An analysis of the political, social, and everyday dimensions of postsocialism thus brings into sharp relief the fluidity and, for some, irrelevance of conventional temporal benchmarks and larger systemic changes—and illustrates that history does not travel in one direction.