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The Great Divide: Literacy, Nationalism, and the Communist Collapse

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Keith Darden
Yale University,
Anna Grzymala-Busse
University of Michigan,


As communist regimes collapsed in the years 1989—91, communist parties and leaders exited power in roughly half the cases. The causes and the impact of this variation have generated considerable controversy. The authors show that the combined timing and content of the introduction of mass literacy was responsible for generating the national standards and comparisons that either sustained the legitimacy of communist party rule or led to its rapid and complete demise during the collapse of communist regimes. Mass literacy explains more of the patterns of the communist exit than do structural, modernization, or communist legacy accounts, and it provides a clear and sustained causal chain.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 2006


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22 Only Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, both with low levels of education prior to 1945, diverge from this general pattern. These two cases will require further research; given the high level of decentralization in the Yugoslav school system, we currently lack sufficient data on the content of schooling in these provinces under communism.

23 With one notable exception, Ukraine, our units were the current countries and the historical data are for the population that lived within the current boundaries. Given the significant regional differences in the content and extent of schooling prior to communism, we created two units out of Ukraine, one for the three provinces that made up Austrian Galicia and another for the remaining provinces.

24 Janos (fn. 12).

25 The widely used historical GDP data set by Angus Maddison is unfortunately incomplete and does not break down the data for the republics in the Soviet, Yugoslav, and Czechoslovak federations; Maddison, , Monitoring the World Economy, 1820–1992 (Paris: OECD Development Centre, 1995)Google Scholar. Much of these data are simply not available, especially in the areas under Soviet control, such as Central Asia. See Good, David, “The Economic Lag of Central and Eastern Europe: Income Estimates for the Habsburg Successor States, 1870–1910,” Journal of Economic History 54 (December 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Pammer, Michael, “Proxy Data and Income Estimates: The Economic Lag of Central and Eastern Europe,” Journal of’ Economic History 57 (June 1997)Google Scholar.

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31 Magocsi (fn. 30), 168.

32 Ibid., 177.

33 Jelavich (fn.30).

34 In fact the slight improvement in literacy rates for Yugoslavia as a whole is probably attributable to the death of an older generation of illiterates rather than any significant improvements in education.

35 Hobsbawm (fn. 18), chap. 3; Posen (fn. 18).

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40 Jews, who were nearly all annihilated on the territory of Ukraine and Belarus during the Second World War and thus could have little effect on postcommunist trajectories, would have inflated the precommunist literacy statistics of these regions somewhat.

41 Eklof(fn.37)

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46 Ibid., table 66b.

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49 Scribner and Cole (fn. 20), 554–55.

50 Considerable experimental evidence supports the notion of a direct causal relationship between schooling and abstract thought and reliance on general concepts not drawn from experience. See the discussion of these experiments in Luria, A. R., “Towards the Problem of the Historical Nature of Psychological Processes,” International Journal of Psychology 6, no. 4 (1971)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976)Google Scholar; Scribner and Cole (fn. 20); and especially idem, The Psychology of Literacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981)Google Scholar. As demonstrated most persuasively by the experiments conducted by Scribner and Cole (pp. 130–33), with the Vai tribe of Liberia, the shift toward abstraction is linked only to Western-style schooling (that is, curricular content), not to the development of literacy or written languages of the type of rote memorization typical of Islamic madrassas.

51 In one of the few efforts to test the hypothesis Unking schooling and nationalism systematically, Howard Schuman, Alex Inkeles, and David H. Smith, in their study of East Pakistan in the 1960s, found that even controlling for factors such as urbanization and occupation, literacy had a massive substantive impact on the likelihood that respondents would identify first and foremost as Pakistanis (rather than with their Bengali, regional, or village identities); Schuman, , Inkeles, , and Smith, , “Some Social Psychological Effects and Noneffects of Literacy in a New Nation,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 16 (October 1967)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 The model, emulated by most countries in both Eastern and Western Europe, was the Prussian school system adopted in 1808. The ideology justifying the nationwide system was the need to build a new set of shared ideas to legitimate state authority in the face of the breakdown of the old traditional order.

53 On the importance of this modern “pyramid” of schooling for the development of nationalism, see Gellner (fn. 18), 34.

54 The postwar demographic shifts had little impact on nationalist sentiments. Germans returned to Germany, Poles moved from Ukraine and Lithuania into the new borders of Poland, and so on. The forced migrations did not insert new populations with distinct linguistic or national identities into established national communities. The tragedy of the Holocaust further homogenized the ethnic composition of Poland, Hungary, and other countries.

55 Gellner (fn. 18), 32.

56 Sommerville, C. John, The Discovery of Childhood in Puritan England (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), chap. 9Google Scholar.

57 See in particular the chapters by Zhelitski, Bela, Micgiel, John, and Iazhborovoskaia, Inessa, in Naimark, Norman and Gibianskii, Leonid, eds., The Establishment of Communist Regimes in Eastern Europe, 1944—1949 (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997)Google Scholar. The few reliable communist-era public opinion polls tended to show a support for socialist values without support for the regime itself (in Poland, for example, roughly 70 percent of the students polled supported socialist values but rejected Marxism). In both the Czech Republic and Poland, these polls also show interest and glorification of the prewar era. Connor, Walter D. and Gitelman, Zvi, Public Opinion in European Socialist Systems (New York: Praeger, 1977), 45178Google Scholar.

58 The Communist Party won 38 percent in the Czech lands but far less in Slovakia.

59 The Red Army and Soviet presence were seen as the main guarantee of border integrity in the Sudetenland.

60 The victorious Yugoslav partisans under Tito relied on the presence of the Soviet Army and its entrance into Belgrade in 1945, to ensure communist rule.

61 The lower enmity to Russia in Bulgaria stems from the 1905 liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule by the Russians.

62 The Serbian Orthodox church claimed a kinship with its Russian Orthodox brethren.

63 The most explicit example of this conflation is the Polish Black Madonna, both an object of religious veneration (pilgrimages, prayers) and the symbol of divine protection of Poland (credited with inspiring the resistance to the Swedish invasion in the seventeenth century and with the success of the Bolshevik War of 1920).

64 For example, Hungarian postwar inflation was the worst the country had experienced. Similarly, industrialization plans in the Czech lands failed largely because the country was already industrialized, had few natural resources, and had been dependent on foreign trade, largely with Germany.

65 Figures calculated from Janos (fn. 12), 349.

66 A 1970s joke plaintively asked, “Why did the Black Madonna fight back the Swedish onslaught? We could have been Sweden . . . “

67 Przeworski, Adam, Sustainable Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

68 Dragadze, Tamara, Rural Families in Soviet Georgia (New York: Routledge, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69 Ibid., 183–84

70 Farmer, Kenneth C., Ukrainian Nationalism in the Post-Stalin Era: Myth, Symbols and Ideology in Soviet Nationalities Policy (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1980), 176–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

71 See Jones Luong (fn. 11), chap. 3.

72 The same depictions of the positive impact of communist rule depicted in the 1920s propaganda film, Three Songs for Lenin (Dziga Vertov), were repeated in many conversations with Central Asian respondents in the mid-1990s.

73 According to State Department surveys conducted through the 1990s, the share of respondents with a “favorable” opinion of Russia in 1994 was 74 percent in Azerbaijan, 78 percent in Kazakhstan, 86 percent in Uzbekistan, 83 percent in Kyrgyzstan, 90 percent in Armenia (up from 43 percent in 1992), but only 36 percent in Georgia. See Faranda, Regina, “Ties That Bind, Opinions That Divide” (Manuscript, U.S. State Department Opinion Surveys, 2001)Google Scholar; see also Laitin, David D., Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Nationality in Estonia and Bashkortostan (Glasgow: Centre for the Study of Public Policy, University of Strathclyde, 1995)Google Scholar.

74 In 1994, 81 percent of respondents in Ukraine and 88 percent in Belarus took a favorable view of Russia, and these figures were consistent throughout the 1990s. Only 27 percent of respondents in Western Ukraine viewed Russia as an ally; Faranda (fn. 73), 44.

75 Wilson, Andrew, Ukrainian Nationalism in the 1990s: A Minority Faith (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Berkhoff, Karel C., Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 206–13Google Scholar.

76 See Kubik, Jan, The Power of Symbols against the Symbols of Power (Pittsburgh: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Wedel, Janine, The Private Poland (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1986)Google Scholar.

77 Tõkes, Rudolf, Hungary's Negotiated Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 318Google Scholar.

78 Even the 1989 slogan for Kučan's extremely liberal Slovene communists was “Europe Now!”

79 See Kenney, Padraic, A Carnival of Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

80 As these movements and the manner in which they drew on precommunist national symbols and dates of significance to mobilize the population are demonstrated in detail by Beissinger, we will give only a brief overview here. See Beissinger, Mark R., Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002), chap. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

81 Beissinger (fn. 80),187.

82 Karklins, Rasma, Ethnopolitics and Transition to Democracy: The Collapse of the USSR in Latvia (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1994), 9495Google Scholar, cited in Beissinger (fn. 80), 169.

83 In Estonia, for example, the “singing revolution” replicated the national singing festivals of the late nineteenth century, singing precommunist songs and mobilizing as much as a third of the population into demonstrations calling for independence; Beissinger (fn. 80), 172. Person, Robert, “Resisting Hegemony: Transformations in Estonian Identity under Soviet Rule” (Manuscript, Yale University, 2005)Google Scholar.

84 Beissinger (fn. 80), 180.

85 Zviad Gamsakhurdia, ldquo;Open Letter to Eduard Shevardnadze,” translated from the Russian by the Zviad Gamsakhurdia Society in the Netherlands, April 19,1992.

86 Beissinger (fn. 80), 194–98; Wilson (fn. 75).

87 They then exited office after their government collapsed in November 1991.

88 See Vachudova, Milada Anna and Snyder, Timothy, “Are Transitions Transitory? Two Models of Political Change in East Central Europe since 1989,” East European Politics and Societies 11 (Winter 1997)Google Scholar.

89 Wilkinson, Thomas, “Urban Structure and Industrialization,” American Sociological Review 25 (June 1960), 357CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Urbanization here is defined as the proportion of the population residing in politically defined cities.

90 See Szelenyi, Ivan, “Urban Development and Regional Management in Eastern Europe,” Theory and Society 10 (March 1981), 180CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Berend, Ivan and Ránki, György, Economic Development in East-Central Europe in the 19th and 20th Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 154Google Scholar.

91 Stokes, Gale, “The Social Origins of East European Politics,” in Chirot, Daniel, ed., The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 217Google Scholar.

92 Berend and Ranki (fn. 90), 310.

93 Kopstein and Reilly (fn. 5).

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