Longworth employs an interesting device to recount the history of Eastern Europe: He tells the story backwards. Beginning with the post-Stalin period, he considers the growth, then the decline, then the fall of the system, concluding with a set of questions: How much of contemporary Eastern Europe, particularly its troubles, comes from the Soviet legacy? Did Stalin intend from the beginning to make the region over in his image? How much of what happened after 1944 depended on the war? This leads to an exploration of the 1944-53 period and more questions. Without the war, he argues, the Soviet Union could not have subjugated Eastern Europe, "and there may well have been no war had the situation in Eastern Europe in the 1930s not invited Nazi aggression." But why was this so? Why had the region become a "strategic vacuum?" Why had the promise of 1918 dissolved? Why had democracy failed? Why had nationalism gone bad? After the chapter dealing with 1918 to 1944 comes the next barrel of the reverse telescope, the nineteenth century and the "roots of the [interwar] failure." For it was, he argues, during the period after 1848 when the peoples of Eastern Europe developed their passionate and divisive sense of nationality, the burden of rural overpopulation grew, and the region "failed to meet the challenge of the new, industrial age." And so on, back to the fourth century.
As the reader can tell from the theses implicit in Longworth's questions, more than the book's architecture is original and open to contention. He knows that and does not shrink from going further, insisting the history of these states can be told as the history of a region, a history long distinguishing East from West, a history making it far from certain that, but for the Soviet yoke, Eastern Europe would have long ago emerged into the daylight of democracy. He even invites the counterargument, which, if made with the same grand sweep and attention to basic historical questions as his book will serve the reader well.