World Politics

Liberalization and Democratization in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

Now out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989

Timur Kurana1*

a1 University of Southern California


Like many major revolutions in history, the East European Revolution of 1989 caught its leaders, participants, victims, and observers by surprise. This paper offers an explanation whose crucial feature is a distinction between private and public preferences. By suppressing their antipathies to the political status quo, the East Europeans misled everyone, including themselves, as to the possibility of a successful uprising. In effect, they conferred on their privately despised governments an aura of invincibility. Under the circumstances, public opposition was poised to grow explosively if ever enough people lost their fear of exposing their private preferences. The currently popular theories of revolution do not make clear why uprisings easily explained in retrospect may not have been anticipated. The theory developed here fills this void. Among its predictions is that political revolutions will inevitably continue to catch the world by surprise.

Timur Kuran is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Southern California. His research focuses on the evolution of values and institutions. He is completing a book on the cognitive, social, political, and economic consequences of preference falsification—the act of concealing one's wants under social pressure.

* This research was supported by the National Science Foundation under grant no. SES-8808031. A segment of the paper was drafted during a sabbatical, financed partly by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I am indebted to Wolfgang Fach, Helena Flam, Jack Goldstone, Kenneth Koford, Pavel Pelikan, Jean-Philippe Platteau, Wolfgang Seibel, Ulrich Witt, and three anonymous readers for helpful comments.