The effects of living through communism

In their latest book Grigore Pop-Eleches and Joshua A. Tucker study how the experience of living through communism shaped the attitude of people in post-communist countries. They show that legacy effects of communism can be found and that those effects are surprisingly consistent. Communism’s shadow: historical legacies and contemporary political attitudes was published 2017 by Princeton University Press.

What was your starting point for writing this book? What did the existing research miss?

Grigore Pop-Eleches: We have both been thinking about the legacies of communism for a long time. The initial work that we and many others did focused mainly on the institutional side of things, but we found that there was a lot less work on how people’s attitudes and mind-sets were affected by communism.

Joshua A. Tucker: When we started the project, which was a long time ago, almost all the existing work on Communist legacies only involved studies of post-communist countries. We had the idea that when you want to look for legacy effects, you have to compare attitudes or individual behaviour in the post-communist world with that outside the post-communist world.

How did you proceed with this particular project?

Joshua A. Tucker: In the book, we explore different ways in which the past could matter. Those might have different consequences on how we think about behaviour today and how we understand post-communist politics. It is only a first step to acknowledging that communist legacies matter somehow and that there was not just a tabula rasa situation in the region after the collapse of communism. What we wanted to do was to figure out a rigorous scientific way to test these legacy effects. The questions were, could we come up with scientific theories to explain the effect that the past has on behaviour in the present, and could we come up with methods for testing these theories with with empirical data.

In your book, you distinguish between the experience of ‘living through communism’ and ‘living in a post-communist country’. Why is this difference important?

Joshua A. Tucker: It’s two really different explanations of why you might see a divergence in attitudes. You might say that the conditions on the ground in post-communist countries are different from those in the rest of the world, and people react to those conditions in exactly the same way. In this case, the explanation for why you see, say, less support for a market-based economy would be that economic performance was so terrible in the 1990s in those countries. That would set expectations that once economic conditions became more similar to those in the rest of the world, the differences in behaviour would go away. On the other hand, if the lack of support was due to the experience of having lived through communism, you might think that these differences in attitudes would only lessen over time due to generational displacement. 

You compared attitudes towards democracy, markets, social welfare, and gender equality in post-communist countries and the rest of the world. What were the main results?

Grigore Pop-Eleches: One potential hypothesis was that in the historical moment of 1989, communism was considered a bankrupt ideology and people would turn in the opposite direction: praising markets, praising democracy, and rejecting everything to do with communism. But we found consistently that people have stuck to those values. They are more supportive of social welfare and less supportive of democracy and markets.

Joshua A. Tucker: We set out to examine fundamental tenets of Marxist-Leninist ideology that we could use to look for legacy effects of communism. We chose democracy because of the single-party state, market vs. state economy because of the planned economy and social welfare. Then we were looking for something representative of the emphasis on social equality, and there was a strong rhetorical commitment to women’s rights. Unlike the other three cases, where there were clear differences in opinions in exactly the way that a communist-era legacy would predict, in this case we ended up not finding it. It was a very different pattern from what we found in the other three cases.

In what way?

Grigore Pop-Eleches: First of all, it is the one area where we don’t see a consistent communist legacy.[1] We would have expected greater support for gender equality, but we don’t see a positive effect; in fact, there is even a negative one.  We also found very different patterns of intergenerational transmission of attitudes. For the other issue areas—democracy, social welfare, and markets—we found that living through communism as an adult shaped people’s attitudes on those issues to a large extent. What we found with gender is different. Early exposure to communism gives us the results we expected: people who lived through communism in their adolescence are more supportive of gender equality, but living under communism as an adult has the opposite effect.

Joshua A. Tucker: Though it was not the main subject of our study, the finding that it was exposure during adolescence that matters with gender equality is interesting. If you wanted to point to one area in communist society where Communist regimes “walked the walk” on gender equality in addition to talking the talk, the schools – and particularly primary and secondary schools – would be a good bet.

How important is the collapse of communism itself for people’s attitudes?

Joshua A. Tucker: There are limitless ways to talk about legacies of the past. There might also be a legacy of the transition itself, of living through a period when the regime completely collapsed, but it requires a completely different research setup. Our intention was to develop a method to learn about legacy effects of communism—communism’s shadow, so to speak. You could imagine taking the model we set up to look at the legacy of communism to ask how people experienced the period of transition.

Grigore Pop-Eleches: We were surprised how uniform legacy effects were across different ex-communist countries. Transformation took very different forms, and there was a variety of early post-communist experiences: economic collapse in some countries and relatively good performance in others. The fact that we still see relatively uniform attitudes in these countries suggests that it is not so much the experience of transition that shapes those values but the experience of communism itself.


[1] It is also special in that it was one of the areas where, despite a nominal rhetorical commitment to gender equality, the reality of communist countries was much more mixed. There was genuine progress in terms of access to education and entrance into the labour market. But as far as political leadership and the day-to-day realities of family life were concerned, societies remained traditional.


Grigore Pop-Eleches is Professor of Politics and Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Joshua A. Tucker is Professor of Politics and Director of the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at New York University.