Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall came down, a sense of missed opportunity hangs over the countries that once lay to its east. Back then, hopes ran high amid the euphoria that greeted the sudden implosion of communism. From Bratislava to Ulaanbaatar, democracy and prosperity seemed to be just around the corner.
Today, the mood is more somber. With a few exceptions, such as Estonia and Poland, the postcommunist countries are seen as failures, their economies peopled by struggling pensioners and strutting oligarchs, their politics marred by ballot stuffing and emerging dictators. From the former Yugoslavia to Chechnya and now eastern Ukraine, wars have punctured the 40-plus years of cold peace on the European continent, leaving behind enclaves of smoldering violence. To many observers, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic grip and aggressive geopolitics symbolize a more general democratic decay spreading from the east. “The worst thing about communism,” quipped the Polish newspaper editor and anticommunist dissident Adam Michnik, “is what comes after.”
An anniversary is a good moment to take stock. Much has changed since the postcommunist countries -- the 15 successor states of the Soviet Union, the 14 formerly communist states of eastern Europe, and the former Soviet satellite Mongolia -- shook off Marxist tyrannies a generation ago. Not every change has been for the better. But writing off postcommunist reforms as a failure would be a mistake, and one with implications far beyond the region. Some observers, struck by China’s rise and shocked by the global financial crisis, have recently cast authoritarian state capitalism as a vibrant alternative to the dysfunctions of liberal democracy. The erroneous belief that market reform has flopped in eastern Europe reinforces this delusion.
The truth is that the prevailing gloomy narrative about the postcommunist world is mostly wrong. Media images aside, life has improved dramatically across the former Eastern bloc. Since their transition, the postcommunist countries have grown rapidly; today, their citizens live richer, longer, and happier lives. In most ways, these states now