WRITING a book about Eastern Europe these days is like reporting about the American Revolution on July 5, 1776. Hungary and Poland have declared independence from the Soviet empire. Poland's Solidarity has formed the first non-Communist government in Eastern Europe since the early postwar years; Hungary is preparing for its first fully free elections in more than four decades. But the Soviet Union still could intervene, Solidarity still could split and collapse, and the Hungarian communists still could lose control of their dramatic reform drive.
With the future so unsure, no credible observer should dare make any predictions. Even if the revolution is rolled back, its underlying cause will not vanish. Communism never took root in Eastern Europe. Instead of producing a utopia, it proved politically inflexible, economically inefficient, and ideologically insufficient. A score of books, by both journalists and academics, has appeared analyzing this failure.
In Mad Dreams, Saving Graces, Michael Kaufman focuses on Poland, the largest, most populated, most volatile, and most strategically located Soviet ally. Kaufman was the New York Times correspondent in Warsaw from 1984 to 1988. The period offered few headlines. Solidarity was banned.
``The throngs of striking workers that had commanded the attention of the world press vanished, the story also had shifted from the streets,'' Kaufman writes. ``Along with much of Polish society, it had gone underground.'' The changes that were taking place were profound, but they were more subtle, more elusive and harder to communicate than the rhythmic cries of the hundreds of thousands who had once chanted Sol-i-dar-nosc in open squares.''
``Mad Dreams, Saving Graces'' brilliantly describes this slow, incremental change. Kaufman carried with him an advantage, the baggage of his own family legend.
Since childhood, he had heard the story of his father's years in Polish prisons as a pre-World War II Polish communist. By a stroke of incredible irony, the elder Kaufman shared a cell with the father of Adam Michnik, today perhaps the most articulate champion of Polish resistance to modern communism. Using his father and Michnik as guides, Kaufman discovers the many layers of Polish conspiracy, tying present-day resistance to prewar times in a most personal fashion.
The unusual technique works. Westerners tended to look at martial law and Solidarity's banning in 1981 and 1982 as a dramatic break, an end. In reality, it was just another moving chapter in Poland's epic. Martial law failed to reinforce the Polish communist party. Solidarity remained alive.
``The action,'' Kaufman writes, ``had withdrawn beyond camera range to basements, where emboldened high school pupils printed their own newspapers, or to police stations, where frustrated detectives gave up chasing after such students because there were just too many of them.''
Kaufman cuts off at the beginning of last year's dramatic strikes. He does not describe Solidarity's relegalization and its takeover of power. But his book remains indispensable for understanding how these surprising events took place.
JOHN RENSENBRINK'S Poland Challenges a Divided World deals with the same crucial period, much less successfully. Rensenbrink, a professor of government at Bowdoin College in Maine, received a fellowship to spend several months in the provincial city of Lublin, teaching at the university and living with his family in a Polish apartment.
He arrived with almost no background in Eastern Europe. The most interesting part of Rensenbrink's work is his early description of the negative prejudgments he brings about Solidarity, as a ragged band of renegades, retrograde trade unionists, and perpetual oppositionists, capable only of saying ``no.''
But Rensenbrink fails to give the reader a feeling for the texture of Solidarity or Polish society, an understanding of why the communists cannot control it. His writing strays into tired academic ``political science'' clich'es. His characterizations are flat and lifeless.
MUCH more pertinent academic writing on Eastern Europe is found in a volume edited by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor William Griffith, entitled, Central and Eastern Europe: The Opening Curtain? A wide range of the Western world's leading observers offer pithy, provocative essays on topics ranging from ``The Economics and Trade of Eastern Europe'' to ``Human Rights and Civil Society in Eastern Europe.'' Incisive country studies of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia also are included.
It adds up to a clear reminder that - Mikhail Gorbachev or not - discontent is bubbling beneath the surface in Eastern Europe. Indeed, anyone who starts with Gorbachev in analyzing the bewildering East European vista is mistaken. Every new development in the far-flung Soviet empire cannot be treated as a function of - or as a challenge to - Soviet glasnost and perestroika.
A serious analysis of Eastern Europe's present-day crisis could begin almost as well in the Middle East as Moscow. The Middle East, after all, produced the oil, which earned the petrodollars, which the East Europeans borrowed during the 1970s, which created the debt, which precipitated an economic crisis, which in turn created the pressure for reform.
Of course, the Gorbachev factor is important, even crucial. Before, no satellite dared deviate too far from the status quo. Fear of a Soviet reprisal remained too strong. Gorbachev removed much of this fear.
Now it is the West that seems fearful. In perhaps the most original and insightful of the essays, Mark Palmer offers a pertinent prescript. Palmer is the American ambassador to Budapest, and his high profile in the Hungarian capital has turned him into something of a celebrity.
The West, Palmer writes, should close the East-West divide with all kinds of links - between governments, businesses, churches, environmentalists, students, and journalists. The United States, for example, could send 1,000 English teachers to Eastern Europe - a bargain way of propagating Western ideas.
``The key issue is whether the West has the will, energy, and financial resources to realize these opportunities,'' Palmer concludes. ``The current level of Western effort is far from meeting the challenge of Western strategic interests.''
THE crumbling of cold war assumptions inevitably opens all kinds of difficult new military, strategic, and political questions. Timothy Garton-Ash's fine book, The Uses of Adversity, tackles them. Garton-Ash is a genius mixture of academic-journalist, an Oxford don who also edits The Spectator and writes for The New York Review of Books. Most of the essays in his present book previously were published between 1983 and 1989 in these publications.
Neither Garton-Ash's observations nor his analyses have fallen out of date. He is good at showing, in concrete terms, the revival of Eastern Europe's small nations, breaking loose of the Soviet stranglehold to regain their own identities. He also is good at reminding us that being serious about the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet domination also means being serious about overcoming the division of Germany.
These four books all show how the bipolar superpower world is fading. Perhaps it is only natural that the Bush administration seems ambivalent about these changes. Fear of the Soviet bear made it easy to keep the Atlantic alliance together. Once this fear vanished, the alliance's glue, and with it American hegemony, could come unstuck.
MAD DREAMS, SAVING GRACES, POLAND: A NATION IN CONSPIRACY by Michael T. Kaufman, New York: Random House, 270 pp., $19.95
POLAND CHALLENGES A DIVIDED WORLD by John Rensenbrink, Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press 256 pp., $19.95
CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE: THE OPENING CURTAIN? Edited by William E. Griffith, San Francisco: Westview Press, 458 pp. $35 cloth; $16.95 paper
THE USES OF ADVERSITY: ESSAYS ON THE FATE OF CENTRAL EUROPE by Timothy Garton-Ash, New York: Random House, 324 pp., $19.95