Opening Former Communist Societies

  • Overseas
  • 1984

Born in Hungary in 1930, George Soros endured Nazi occupation as a child and then communist oppression under Stalin. In 1947, he escaped to London and attended the London School of Economics, where Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies shaped his thinking. After his work as a financier made him one of the wealthiest men in the world, he took up philanthropy on a large scale, beginning in 1979.

Soros’s initial philanthropic crusade aimed at bringing down communism in Eastern Europe. In 1984, he created Hungary’s first foundation. It funded cultural exchanges with the West, supported individual scholars, underwrote youth groups, and encouraged independent journals—all of this in the face of resistance by the government. It distributed copying machines across the country to overcome censorship and circulate alternate points of view. Aid was provided to improve the lives of stunted social groups like Eastern Europe’s Roma people (gypsies).
The region’s first major new private university was created in Budapest (see nearby 1991 entry).

Open Society Foundations similar to the one in Hungary were created across the East-bloc countries, funded by hundreds of millions of dollars from Soros. These were eventually important in introducing a generation of opinion-makers in communist lands to democracy and Western views. The Solidarity movement, for instance, received Soros support when it was still illegal and underground, as did Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. By some estimates, one out of ten members of the first post-communist Parliament in Hungary had some connection to Soros philanthropy.

At the fall of the Soviet Union, Soros dramatically expanded his philanthropy in Eastern Europe. He poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Russia—more than the U.S. government in many years—in an attempt to encourage privatization of industries and liberalization of the economy. When anti-capitalist hardliners blocked free-market reforms, he eventually dropped most of his assistance there. Soros likewise shut down his three-year-old Chinese foundation in 1989 upon learning that instead of promoting tolerance of dissent and democratic governance, it was controlled by the Beijing security apparatus.