While terrorism and Iraq compete for Page One news, the transformation of postcommunist Central Europe into America’s ally is proceeding apace. Poland, the largest of the eight postcommunist countries admitted to the European Union in 2004, supplied 2,500 troops for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq (now reduced to 900), and sent 124 soldiers to Afghanistan.
In 1989-91, Central Europe got rid of the Soviet military presence. Poland was the leader in holding semi-free elections in June 1989, Hungary and Czechoslovakia followed. The Berlin Wall fell in November.
A June 2006 visit to Central Europe traced the follow-up to these events. Was it worthwhile to rock the boat and allow some 75 million people in Soviet-occupied Europe to try their hand at becoming First World countries, warts and all?
The answer is an emphatic yes, one more confirmation of the differences between the now-authoritarian Russia and increasingly westernized Central Europe. Post-Orthodox Russia has always been an alien element here. For all the attempts to engineer human souls according to Maxim Gorky’s model, even the once-reliable East Germans grudgingly distanced themselves from their erstwhile Russian masters.
What was the most destructive feature of Soviet-bred communism? Anne Applebaum and Alexander Solzhenitsyn showed its atrocities, but it could be argued that other political systems also produced a harvest of killings. What seems to have been the most profoundly disturbing factor of the communist system was its abnormality, its going against human nature as it were, the pervasive fear and artificiality of social life on all levels. The fear that one might say an unnecessary word, make a wrong facial expression, fail to show up in time at the First of May parade, forget to close windows while listening to a foreign radio, be seen carrying a forbidden book, turn out to be related to a political prisoner.
A profound sense of abnormality permeated the entire society: the air was thick with distrust, pretense, make-believe, “dead speech,” to translate a Polish expression [dretwa mowa]. Reality was submerged in the lie and it became invisible to many. Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz said that under communism, certain feelings and thoughts were banned from public and even private display, and they atrophied in the minds of many. Vaclav Havel’s appeal to “the power of the powerless” referred to the rare exceptions when individuals risked their lives to oppose “dead speech.” Nearly everyone dissembled, and many came to see this make-believe reality as the only one in existence. Human relationships were distorted by it, not to speak of literature, the arts, and the public debate.
Therefore, in June, I anxiously looked for traces of these phenomena in today’s Central Europe. I found none. What I found was a profound sense of normalcy. No one ran out of his miserable mountain hut on the Polish-Slovak border to surreptitiously change money for foreigners traveling by car (this was routine in the 1980s). Money changed hands in a normal fashion, in banks and in the money changers’ shops. People did not stop us in the streets asking where we bought our shoes or baby carriage. They did not have to waste mental energy on devising ways to outwit draconian laws.
The newspapers did not resemble George Orwell’s “1984,” but displayed a range of views normal in free societies, from the far right to the far left, with a solid middle. Reliable dailies are sold in hundreds of thousands of copies in Central Europe today, and not for the purpose of serving as substitute toilet paper (which is now in abundant supply). The people who want to move to a bigger or better apartment do not have to practice economic acrobatics by bribing officials (to get the proper signatures), the former apartment occupiers (to allow the new inhabitants to move in), or truck drivers (to carry their belongings). Admittedly, decent dwellings are still unaffordable to many.
In Central Europe, the EU-U.S. competition is not a major subject of public debate. For the Central Europeans, the difference between America’s laissez-faire-ism and the EU’s overregulated economy is not a pressing issue. The multibillion-dollar companies that routinely change hands in the EU and U.S. stock markets are not in prime view either. The postcommunist EU members were stripped bare for the sake of needs of the Soviet military. Now they are catching up, a thousand dollars at a time.
The absence of the once-pervasive double-dealing is the most precious achievement of postcommunism, in my view. Political freedom is of course a necessary condition, but a free economy does not eliminate economic misery in the short run. A Polish expatriate, Leopold Tyrmand, once said that being a citizen of a country on which Soviet communism was imposed by military means is an existential experience that cannot be fully shared with outsiders, just as the experience of pain cannot be communicated.
As Tyrmand’s compatriot in Poland and in the United States, I heartily agree. The sense of make-believe that permeated Soviet-run societies made their poverty different from Appalachian poverty. A narcissistic streak has been a key ingredient of Russian culture, and in combination with communist dogma, it had a stifling effect on the peoples ruled by Moscow. Another Central European expatriate, Milan Kundera, remarked that human development requires a measure of truth: living the lie handicaps the human soul. This handicap is totally gone. Poles, Czechs and Hungarians born in the 1980s and later do not even know that it existed.
Ewa Thompson is research professor of slavic studies at Rice University. She is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Modern Age.