"Life seemed fairly free. After all, I could walk out of my hotel at any time and no one seemed to care. There was no look of continual terror in the eyes of Soviet citizens."
These words, written by one of my students at Franklin College, a small American school in Lugano, Switzerland, voice the sentiments commonly heard from sympathetic visitors to the Soviet Union. But even he cannot ignore signs that this "fairly free" life is not, after all, so free.
He goes on: "Yet I felt something, a force that was strong but very much invisible. I slowly began to see the mysterious face of this force. But these images were fleeting. A boy stops to talk to you; a man approaches; the boy runs. A man grips your Soviet guide by the arm after an embarrassing scene committed by your group. He whispers quickly in her ear; her expression becomes submissive and frightened. And then he is gone as quickly as he had arrived. Encounters like these made me realize that the imagined force was very real."
Many Franklin students have such experiences; the college requires two weeks of academic travel in Europe each semester, and many people choose to visit countries in the Soviet Bloc. On their return, many for the first time find reason to consciously choose life in the West.
The preparation for Franklin's academic travel has an apolitical, amoral flavor; professors play down political acrimony. In briefings before the trips to the East, they give students pointers on how to cope with the extensive bureaucracy at the borders, advise them to avoid offensive questions or actions, and tell them to respect security prohibitions and national symbols in these countries.
The theme of these briefings—for prudential if not ideological reasons—tends toward conciliation. The trip itself aims mainly to acquaint and inform, not to engender political convictions. Students are discouraged from focusing on what might be morally offensive in Soviet Bloc countries; they are going to a different part of the world and should be prepared to observe the culture more as amateur anthropologists than as critical inspectors. Special emphasis is placed on observing ordinary life and activities. The college's excellent contacts throughout the Eastern Bloc make it possible for students to leave the usual tourist path and at least look in on everyday life under communism. What they find, however, usually leaves them with a low regard for life in these countries, however tolerantly viewed.
The atmosphere in the Soviet Bloc leaves a special impression on students. It is not so much the dire poverty—the sort one can see in Mexico City, New York, or Hong Kong. Rather, it is the grayness, both psychological and literal, that pervades everything. Joy is rare on the faces of the people—despite occasional laughter. Even the more lively eastern states, such as Hungary and Yugoslavia, lack cheerfulness. The moroseness of the officials, the predictability of monuments celebrating the socialist system, the banality of the slogans that hail the state for good deeds—all these, and more, leave the students with an impression that life cannot be promising in these societies.
"We rarely saw any genuine luxury and casual elegance, such as we see in even the worst spots of the West," noted one student. A visitor to the Soviet Union wrote that "Leningrad was beautiful—but the audience at the ballet smelled drunk." Said another: "Of course life is fairly calm in Prague, but it's bleak and unwashed. And most people look weather-beaten. They seem to have all lived rough lives." The absence of inventiveness, entrepreneurship, vivacity and enthusiasm for life simply could not be missed by even the most distracted students.
For a few, it was news that citizens in these countries didn't seem to hate Americans or the West. Apart from the official slogans, little evidence of ideology could be found. "The people of East Germany seemed eager for news from the West. They greeted us with curiosity in their eyes, as if we held out some promise for them, even though they knew we would simply look around, talk with them briefly, and then leave."
Brief visits to cultures don't suffice to produce understanding, a point stressed by the traveling professors at Franklin College. Some students dismiss their impressions; others, however, cannot shake them and sometimes even begin to see cause for the East/West conflict.
In a contemporary political philosophy class at Franklin College, during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva and the U.S. conflict with Libya, I was explaining the Marxist conception of the socialist stage of humanity's progress and the Soviet interpretation of Marx.
"But," asked one student, "why are dissidents in the Soviet Union regarded as insane or traitors?"
"Because from the idea that humanity is an organic body—a whole and integrated unit (like a team), not a mere collection of disparate individuals as some Western theorists would see the matter—the position makes perfectly good sense. The dissident is quite logically treated as an obstacle to progress."
One student just back from the USSR patiently heard out this explanation, but at the end of the presentation another shook his head, saying: "Whatever the fancy reasons, there just can't be excuses for such policies by any regime, South African or Soviet."
Senior Editor Tibor Machan now teaches philosophy at Auburn University.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: What's Red on the Outside and Gray Inside?".