LIGHTING THE NIGHT

Revolution in Eastern Europe

By William Echikson

Morrow. 295 pp. $22.95

IN LESS than a year since the glorious and revolutionary autumn of 1989, Eastern Europe has changed in fundamental and startling ways which remind us that Friedrich Engels did not always talk through his hat. History is indeed a cruel goddess, who drives her chariot over heaps of the slain. And we can already begin to identify some of the less predictable victims of '89.

At the Catholic Church of St. Brygida in Gdansk, attendance is down at mass and Lech Walesa has shifted his office elsewhere. "I feel like a father when his child goes out into the world," says the Rev. Henryk Jankowski sadly. The congregations have also shrunk at Leipzig's Church of St. Nikolai where the regular Monday evening peace service began spilling over into the demonstrations in Karl-Marx Platz that finally toppled the East German regime.

Czechoslovakia's Jiri Dienstbier, a journalist who became foreign minister after spending 20 years as a stoker in a boiler room, was in Washington the other day talking glumly of silent factories and social unrest. The interdependence between East German and Czech industry had been so intense that German unification was threatening to derail the Czech economy. The Germans had canceled the old regime's contracts to buy Czech goods, and informed the Czechs that their debts were now to be calculated in hard currency.

In the introduction to this thoughtful and illuminating book, William Echikson notes that the West's media has a brief attention span: "We forgot about Eastern Europe as soon as one of its periodic eruptions cooled down." We seem to be in danger of forgetting again, but Echikson was always an exception, the Christian Science Monitor's correspondent in the region in the deceptively calm years before the storm broke. More than most, Echikson can claim to have seen what was coming, as the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow began slowly to widen Eastern Europe's room for political maneuver.

Instant books are a tricky genre, and a subject that sprawls through time and place like the revolutions of Eastern Europe is not easily constrained within 300 pages. But Echikson has organized his well. He begins with a quick sketch of the revolutionary year, and follows with a brisk history of the various countries. Then come five chapters on the main actors in the drama, the founding fathers of the Communist regimes, the Nomenklatura (those who had received Communist Party approval for important jobs), the intellectuals, the workers and the students. The second half of the book deals with the key themes around which political life began to organize, from the Church to the environment, from the economies to the various nationalisms.

So rather than simply a breathless account of the breaktaking year when Russia's European empire collapsed, this becomes a more ambitious attempt to dissect a social revolution that raged across several countries at once. Like most journalists, Echikson seems to have spent the bulk of his time in Poland and Czechoslovakia, where the churchmen and the intellectuals were so gallant and inspiring, and the literary culture relatively accessible. The plodding misery of the Balkans gets shorter shrift.

The strength of this book rests on the quality of the journalism, and on Echikson's eye for telling a story through its impact on individuals. His perceptive feature on the Polish church is based on the Rev. Stanislaw Waszynski's long and successful struggle to build a new church for the steelworkers of Konin. We peer through the foul clouds of Czech pollution with the housewife Marcela Malikova, who wants to get her baby of 17 months to a town with less toxic air. Echikson is particularly good on the less comfortable facts, like the frightful surge in suicides and alcoholism and street crime that accompanied Hungary's economic reforms. Neocapitalist competition and social insecurity produce their own victims.

On the deeper historical currents, Echikson's touch is less sure. There is little attempt to explore the effect of the 1970s era of detente, the increased trading and cultural contacts with the West and the post-Helsinki focus on human rights that began to loosen the totalitarian grip. At the high point, in 1976, Adam Michnik came up with his binding flash of realization that "the interests of the Soviet leadership, the Polish political leadership and the Polish democratic opposition are basically concurrent" -- all shrank from any new Soviet military intervention.

Echikson concludes optimistically that the countries are rather more likely to prosper like Finland than to sink like Latin America. He admits that his may be "sentimental idealization from a privileged Westerner"; certainly the new oil shock will delay and complicate economic recovery. And with our attention already turning to the Middle East, the miracle of Eastern Europe may look like yesterday's story. But these troubled frontier marches between the Germans and the Russians were the vehicles and the occasion for the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold War. We forget at our peril these lands where the wheels of history's chariot still grind so deep.

Martin Walker was Moscow bureau chief of the Guardian from 1984 to 1989 before becoming the paper's U.S. correspondent. He is the author of "The Waking Giant," a study of Gorbachev and perestroika.