Life Under Communism in
After World War II, communists took control of eight Eastern European nations. Communism in these countries ended democracy, made limited economic and social progress, and finally collapsed.
World War II, Eastern Europe was caught between Nazi Germany and the Soviet
Union but by the war's end in 1945, the Soviet Union's Red Army occupied almost
all of Eastern Europe, including
the end of the war, Eastern European countries had been devastated. Millions
had been killed. Famine threatened the survivors. Unemployment and inflation
demoralized the people. The Nazis and the
communists promised the people of
communists who had fought the Nazis in
communists swiftly established "People's Democracies" in
Stalinization of Eastern Europe began. The communist party in each country held
a complete monopoly of political power. This permitted no independent political
parties, no meaningful elections, and no criticism of the ruling communist
party. Ultimately, the lack of political accountability to the people led to
communism's collapse in Eastern Europe and the
Stalin imposed a socialist economic model. The government, in the name of the people, owned the factories, farms, mines, and other means of production. People could no longer own their own profit-making businesses and farms, as in the capitalist system. Government economic planners decided what and how much should be produced each year, what the prices should be, and what wages should be paid to the workers.
Following Stalin's model, planners emphasized heavy industry such as steel making and coal mining. Consumer goods like automobiles, clothing, and TVs became scarce and expensive. The government guaranteed everyone the "right to work," but this often meant a low wage doing a dirty job.
With the emphasis on industrial production, smoke billowed from factories and industrial waste flowed into rivers. Pollution became a major problem, but little was done about it. Factory managers were under pressure to meet production quotas. Consumers demanded more goods. Planners mainly ignored environmental problems.
In most countries, the government took over privately owned farms. It combined them into large, state-owned agricultural enterprises or cooperatives where farmers shared the land and equipment. Eastern European farmers often resisted this collectivization of agriculture, but the communist governments applied special taxes and denied health benefits to force them to comply.
few years after Stalin's death in 1953, the
The Hungarian Revolt shocked Eastern European communist leaders, forcing most to enact economic reforms. The reforms placed more emphasis on producing consumer goods, eased up on farm collectivization, and even allowed some private free enterprise.
Economic and Social Conditions
1980, economic reforms had somewhat improved the standard of living in most
A small minority of people were members of the Communist Party. They held almost every important government post. They also enjoyed many privileges such as better housing and special access to Western consumer goods. Others "voted with their feet" and fled their homelands. Some risked open dissent. Most Eastern Europeans, however, conformed to life under communism.
Shortages of goods constantly occurred. Even when in stock, there was little variety of goods. Often there was only one type of laundry soap, one flavor of ice cream, and one kind of coffee. But most families owned a television set and a washing machine. Many owned cars. But cars and appliances required long waits.
fact, lines were a part of daily life. Shopping was an ordeal, especially in
In the workplace, almost everyone had a job. Wages, however, lagged far behind those in the Western democracies. A common joke was, "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work." But rents, goods, and services were far cheaper than in the West.
Most industrial workers belonged to labor unions. But the unions were run by the government mainly to help factory managers achieve their production goals. Farmers resented having to give up their land and work for the government on collective farms. Many left to work in city factories for higher pay or better working conditions.
Housing, built mainly by the government or group cooperatives, was always in short supply. Often, two or three generations of a family lived in a three-room apartment. Newlyweds usually had to wait years for a small apartment of their own. But everyone had a home. Homelessness was not a problem.
Public transportation was affordable and extensive. Most cities had a web of subway, streetcar, and bus lines that carried people everywhere in the city. Railroad transportation between cities was also low priced. Officials, however, forbid travel outside the Eastern bloc.
The government subsidized entertainment. The government paid the salaries of theater companies and athletes. Box office prices were low. Everyone could afford to go to the theater, movies, the opera, the ballet, or sporting events.
Universal public health systems ("socialized medicine") covered everyone. The government and state-owned businesses paid the costs of doctors, health clinics, and hospitals. As a result, the health of the population generally improved. The quality of health care, however, still fell short of that provided by public health systems in most Western European nations.
The communist governments offered many benefits for child care. They provided paid maternity leave, grants of money for childbirth, monthly childcare allowances, and low-cost pre-school.
All education--from elementary school through college--was free. The government in most Eastern European countries required all children to attend school until age 16. At the end of the eighth grade, they entered high schools. Students who wanted to go to special language or science schools took exams for entry. As in most Western European countries, a government education ministry created a uniform curriculum taught in all the schools. Entrance exams and students' high school records determined admission to the state universities. By the 1980s, illiteracy had been eliminated in most Eastern European countries.
All Eastern European countries established a social security system. It included government health insurance, welfare services, and pensions. In most countries, men could retire as early as 60; the retirement age for women was generally a few years earlier.
The rate of violent crime was low. The streets were safe. But crimes of corruption, such as bribery, flourished. People paid off officials and even shop clerks to get ahead in line or get an item in short supply. Theft was a problem for items that were in short supply. For example, car owners routinely removed their windshield wipers when they parked their cars. Otherwise, the wipers might be stolen and replacement parts were hard to find.
the communist systems of
The communist regimes established civil and criminal court systems. In most cases, the trial courts consisted of one professional judge and two citizen "assessors," not specifically trained in the law. Public prosecutors acted as defenders of the state, public defenders, and prosecutors of crimes. They, like the judges and assessors, were accountable only to the government officials who appointed them. The officials, of course, belonged to the communist party.
fair trial might take place if the communist party had no interest in it. But
otherwise the system was stacked against those accused of crimes. Defendants
could be charged with political or economic crimes. The crime of "economic
sabotage" included such offenses as failing to achieve a factory
production quota. The courts vigorously prosecuted anyone dissenting against
communist-party rule. As in the
the Eastern European countries established extensive secret police
organizations. Soviet "advisors" occupied key command positions in
each of them. Moreover, secret police agents from the Soviet Union worked
German Democratic Republic's State Security Service (called the Stasi) was
probably the most terrifying secret police organization in
The Stasi kept files on an estimated 6 million people. Stasi agents regularly used phone taps, bugging devices, and video cameras to spy on their fellow citizens and even on the Stasi itself. A huge number of informers passed on information and rumors about their neighbors, fellow workers, and relatives. Even church ministers sometimes informed on members of their congregations. A climate of fear chilled the daily lives of the people.
The Collapse of Communism
in the early 1970s, Polish workers joined food riots and called strikes that
led to the formation of Solidarity, a nation-wide pro-democracy movement. After
the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the
the late 1980s, it became clear that the