The Empire Strikes Back? Petr Beckmann
I continue to be exhilarated by the news from Czechoslovakia and the other colonies of the Soviet Empire, particularly by the abundance of young faces in the demonstrations and in the political action committees. It was gratifying to see Czechs born in the 1960s marching under signs declaring "Truth Shall Prevail." That was the motto of T.G. Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's legendary founder, dead since 1937, turned into an unperson by the communists, yet enduring in unfaded memory.
Czechoslovakia is the only Soviet colony that has known democracy for a considerable time (1918 to 1938). It is therefore possible that democracy and free enterprise will succeed there more vigorously than in other colonies—but for how long? I feel it necessary to throw a little cold water onto the general euphoria.
A minor reason is that while everybody hates the secret police and the enthronement of stagnant imbecility, many have gotten used to "army life," in which food, shelter, and medical care are provided at the price of keeping in step and following orders. (Why do you suppose 71 percent of East Germans initially opposed reunification?) Many have become accustomed to a leisurely pace of work: "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work" has become a way of life.
Another reason is the attitude that capitalism, though a good system for providing quality goods in abundance, is immoral in its greed and ruthless use of elbows. The idea that the foremost virtue of capitalism is its morality of noncoercion, and that it is a system favoring the consumer, not the capitalist—well, that idea is not very well known in the United States, so don't expect a Czech, let alone a (more economically backward) Bulgarian to accept it overnight.
But mainly it seems unlikely that Gorbachev's regime, which has made these incredible revolutions possible, will last. As in the Roman and Ottoman empires, the homeland of the Soviet Empire is far more backward than many of its colonies in everything but military power. As the fate of the Greeks was decided in Rome and Constantinople before their final debacle, so the fate of the Czechs and Hungarians is still ultimately decided in Moscow. And in Moscow, the KGB, the army, the party apparatus, the bureaucracy—those who have everything to lose and who have guns—are waiting to pounce on Gorbachev. So are the czarist-Russian chauvinists, and so are the Islamic religious fanatics in Asia. Their day is approaching as the economy grows steadily worse, as ethnic unrest tears at the fabric of the Soviet Union, and as the forcibly annexed Baltic republics seek secession from the empire.
The economy is deteriorating because Gorbachev's perestroika ("reconstruction") is not perestroying anything. He is patching up and tinkering with central planning; he is not abolishing it. Like a cannibal willing to comply with all the standards of civilization except in the matter of consuming human flesh, Gorbachev is willing to experiment with all forms of freedom except in the matter of socialism and private property.
The West is blind not only to these domestic issues, but even to the fact that not a single Soviet soldier of the occupation armies has left the colonies (except Afghanistan, where their job is being done in part by Soviet surrogates, in part by Bush's wimpish withholding of arms from the freedom fighters). Nor has a single Soviet adviser been recalled from the imperial outposts in Africa and Central America. The flow of arms to Cuba and Nicaragua has not stopped. While the Soviet people are ever shorter of food and other necessities, the military is in better shape and better equipped than when Darling Gorby came to power. The ratio of Soviet to U.S. military expenditures (20 percent and 6 percent of the respective national budgets) is steadily increasing.
For the colonies now trying to break away from the tottering empire, these are life-or-death issues. Should the worst happen, and Soviet tanks once again roll into Budapest, Prague, and Berlin, the Soviets can be sure that the West will send protest notes, followed by credits, trade agreements, and disarmament negotiations. Even now the United States and the West, like an imbecile who trades his fur coat for a swimsuit in a January thaw, are quarreling over how to spend the "peace dividend" and pouring more credits and technology into the bottomless abyss of communist mismanagement.
Can the captive nations break out by themselves, then? Perhaps; but the Greeks and Egyptians did not break away from Roman rule by themselves—their captivity ended when Rome was overrun by the barbarians. And Turkish rule ended only after a long and debilitating illness of the Sick Man of Europe.
"But it simply cannot ever go back to the old ways!" I cried in exasperation in a discussion with a Hungarian friend in Budapest five months after the 1956 revolution.
I have never forgotten his answer. "You hope, or you believe?"
And yet and yet and yet—it seems almost sinful to be so pessimistic in face of the ecstatic elation of the crowds in Wenceslas Square. And I do believe there is hope. There is hope that the colonies can peel away before Gorbachev is replaced by Comrade Stolypin (the name of the czar's minister in charge of repression after the 1905 revolution). There is hope that Soviet intellectuals will be joined by a disgruntled class of blue-collar workers. There is the fact that that the morons of stagnation—the Brezhnevs, Jakeses, and Honeckers—blunder even more than their opponents do. Perhaps freedom and truth will prevail.
You hope, or you believe?
Petr Beckmann emigrated from Czechoslavakia in 1963. He is publisher and editor of Access to Energy and professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado.
A Series of Surprises
Whatever happens next, one thing is certain: communism is bankrupt, and the process of disintegration is irreversible. Those in power would like to hang on to office by any means, but advocates of the Chinese solution—a new wave of imprisonments, executions, shootings of protesters—suffered their final defeat in Romania. I think we can stop worrying about Gorbachev being overthrown by a neo-Stalinist coup d'état. What the successful revolution in Romania proved beyond a shadow of a doubt is that shooting does not work, at least not this side of Mongolia. The last shots in defense of the communist system in Europe were fired by the cornered and crazed members of Ceausescu's Securitate.
Future fights and convulsions will erupt from nationalist feelings. The revolution of December 1989 in Romania had its origins in the Trianon treaty of 1920, which cut away more than two-thirds of Hungary's territory and more than a quarter of its population and gave them to Romania and the newly created states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. The same borders were thoughtlessly reimposed at the end of World War II, reestablishing a Romania of irreconcilable cultures and interests—one of those combinations which tend to breed the bloodiest regimes.
The revolution started on December 17 in the ancient Hungarian town of Temesvár, now known by its Romanian name of Timisoara, with the arrest of a Hungarian Protestant pastor, László Tökés, the best-known representative of the oppressed Hungarian minority which in 1945 numbered around three million and has since been reduced to around two million. These people were deprived of all their schools, theaters, newspapers, radio stations; the churches were the last bastions of Hungarian culture, religion, language, and national consciousness, and the priests were the Hungarians' last spokesmen—which is why the Securitate kept arresting and murdering them.
The parishioners of László Tökés were determined to save him from this fate. They formed a human chain around his house in a vain effort to prevent the police from taking him away, and when they marched to the main square of the town to protest his abduction, the Romanians joined them. They were shot down from helicopters and run down with tanks; 3,500 of the 7,000 people who died in the whole country during the revolution were killed in the town of Temesvár/Timisoara.
There is of course great sympathy and solidarity in the aftermath of the revolution, and the Romanian authorities have referred on the radio to "our Hungarian brothers," but I doubt that they will be so eager to give them back their universities, their newspapers and radio stations, their right to live as Hungarians. In light of the historical record, it seems unlikely that Romania will grant equality to its various nationalities, and if it does not, some kind of explosion will follow.
This is even truer of the Soviet Union, the name for Russia's latest and possibly last empire, which is bound to be transformed beyond recognition or disintegrate into chaos within the next decade. Lithuania is a small country, but to crush a small country the Red Army would need to use Russian soldiers when Russians themselves no longer believe in the empire, or soldiers brought from Armenia, the Ukraine, Moldavia, or Azerbaijan, who want exactly the same thing as the Lithuanians want—national independence.
Since the last thing we need is for Gorbachev to be unseated by nationalist revolts, there is a tendency among so-called foreign policy experts to wish away the problem of nationalism, to downplay its importance and whistle in the dark about the end of history, the victory of liberal internationalism. But nationalism is as deep as the ego, as ineradicable as pride in one's own kind. It could be suppressed in the past by a Russia which faced largely ignorant subject populations, exhausted by recent wars and knowing nothing of their strengths. None of these conditions apply after decades of peace, the increase in literacy, the advance of technology, and the general dissemination of political news through the mass media.
I don't see what the West can do about the Soviet Union except to support peaceful reformers like Gorbachev. Nor do I think it matters much what the intentions of Russia's present leaders are. The situation is so complex that no policy, however intelligently formulated, is likely to have the intended result. Events in the Soviet Union are going to be a series of surprises, to the Kremlin as much as to everybody else. But it can be said with some certainty that the Soviet Union, torn by its own gigantic problems, will represent no danger to the rest of the world—unless some mad Russian chauvinists seize control for long enough to nuke the rebels in Tbilisi or Kiev and we all have to live or die with the fallout.
What will happen in the rest of Eastern Europe is easier to predict. There will be a united Germany within a couple of years, whether we like it or not; the borders mean less and less by the day. The only way to make sure that this new Germany is not going to be a menace to the world is to help create strong democracies as buffer states between Germany and Russia. One way to do this is to help them to solve their not-insoluble national grievances. For example, Norman Stone, professor of modem history at Oxford, has proposed a separate state of Transylvania in which Hungarians, Germans, and Romanians would be more or less equal in numbers and thus could form a federation like Switzerland without the danger of oppressing each other. Insisting on the wisdom of the Versailles borders, which have already caused a world war, is not a sensible option.
Apart from their nationhood, language, and (in varying degrees) religion, people in the Warsaw Pact countries believe in nothing so much as in America. Last summer I spent two months in Hungary, where the handsome and brilliant American ambassador to Budapest, Mark Palmer, has become one of the most popular men in the country. And David Funderburk, the former U.S. ambassador to Romania, is actually loved. People remember that when the Reagan administration was supporting Ceausescu, Funderburk spoke out against him and spoke up for the persecuted Hungarians. He is certainly a man whom the State Department needs today in Eastern Europe.
As for the kids, they believe in nothing but Hollywood. My 14-year-old niece has at least a dozen magazine covers and posters of Tom Cruise on the walls of her room and constantly pesters me to find out where she could write to him. Whether one considers the universal desire to learn English or the popularity of American food, clothes, films, television series, and pop music or the huge sale of American posters and T-shirts—the craving for everything American—it is clear that the United States exercises a stronger attraction on young Hungarians than any other Western country. And I hear that feelings and attitudes are similar in neighboring countries.
All this means that the United States has an immense opportunity to help to build strong democracies in Eastern Europe, leaning toward America rather than Germany. Such democracies between Germany and Russia are the only guarantee of peace in Europe, and their creation could cost less than a dozen superfluous missiles and a couple of bombers.
Money is all-important, for these countries are burdened with immense debts and higher interest rates than those charged by Western banks to far richer countries in Latin America. This means higher rents, heating costs, food prices. As the government subsidies which kept living costs artificially low are removed, people will be poorer and more miserable than they were under communism. Extreme poverty and the ensuing political chaos would be bound to turn these countries from Soviet colonies into German colonies, creating an Eastern Europe very much like the one we had before World War II.
This situation has arisen through no fault of the citizens of the region. The truth is that the Soviet colonial system went bankrupt decades ago and was irresponsibly and callously sustained by Western and Japanese banks. They lent the money that kept the inefficient state-owned industries afloat and paid for the Mercedes-Benzes and villas and high living of the secret police and ministers and functionaries, of all the quislings who served Moscow. The Kádár regime in Hungary, which hanged and imprisoned everybody who was not content to live under Russian rule, received $17 billion in loans from German and Japanese banks to buy popularity, or at least the tolerance of the people, with "goulash communism."
Without these loans, the communist system in Eastern Europe would have collapsed decades ago. Moscow's most helpful allies in the West were not the leftist intellectuals or anti-Vietnam War protesters, but the banks. They lent billions to make communism tolerable, and now they appear bent on destroying the chances of democracy and free enterprise by asking for their money back at the highest interest rates. It seems to me that only if they give the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe the same sort of breaks they have given to Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil can the chaos of extreme poverty be avoided.
In short, the future face of Eastern and Central Europe no longer has much to do with the Soviet Union: It will be decided by the Western powers. And their first task is to stop wasting time and brainpower on the vanishing communist threat and to start concentrating on the problems and dangers arising from the collapse of the Soviet colonial system.
Stephen Vizinczey, the Hungarian-born novelist, escaped to the West after fighting in the 1956 revolution and now lives in London. He is the author of An Innocent Millionaire and In Praise of Older Women.
Aid From the Heart
"We are free, Aliosha. The nightmare is over," says Lidyia's faint voice at the other end of the line. After a few moments of silence, during which I hear sobbing, she adds, "I didn't think I would see it during my lifetime."
It had been a young Lidyia who saw me and my family off on that windy, snow-covered railroad platform 28 years ago, the day we left Bucharest forever. For us, it has been a quarter-century of freedom and prosperity; for her, like the others we left behind, the nightmare that would become the Romania of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Now, at the threshold of the final decade of the 20th century, middle-aged and somewhat broken by an ordeal few of us can imagine, she is overcome by joy, relief, disbelief. Like 20-odd million other Romanians, her capacity for absorbing the changes of the previous three weeks has been taxed to the limit.
What next? She doesn't know, but the future must surely be better than the past.
Romania presents what may be the extreme case of the dilemma faced by the newly liberated peoples of Eastern Europe. United for a brief moment by hatred for the system that has oppressed them for two generations, they have managed, against all expectations, to topple even as cruel a dictator as Nicolae Ceausescu. But what lies ahead may be even more difficult. How do you build a modern industrialized society in a country whose industrial base has been reduced to rubble through decades of destructive centralized planning? How do you establish a democracy among people who have never, in their lifetimes, participated in democratic government? How do you keep a lid on centuries-old ethnic and regional rivalries to build a workable economic and legal system?
These are the very real problems the people of Eastern Europe will have to grapple with as the flush of victory passes and the reality of self-governance sets in. In Romania the problem is made even more difficult by the absence of any experienced leadership, a result of Ceausescu's ruthless elimination of anyone who might have challenged his iron-fisted domination over his fellow citizens.
They will surely succeed, but the degree and speed of their success may vary dramatically, depending on the choices they make in the next two or three years. Some in the West have sniffed that Romania has already taken a wrong turn by executing Ceausescu under circumstances reminiscent of his own tactics. In light of the unprecedented events of recent weeks, this is a misperception. While, under more sedate circumstances, a secret trial and execution would certainly have been unacceptable, we are in no position to pass judgment on a people in the midst of a revolution whose outcome was, at the time, still in doubt.
The number, training, and fanaticism of the Ceausescu loyalists, even after their leader was killed, attests to the real danger—to say nothing of the perceived danger—in which the fledgling freedom movement found itself. As Aristide Buhoiu, editor of the U.S. Romanian language paper Universul Liber noted, "When you are battling a dragon, you must cut off the head." Of far greater significance is the fact that, order restored, the new government has refrained from any acts of revenge against captured members of the Securitate, who kept the country in Ceausescu's clutches for almost 25 years.
Mistakes will be made; early American leaders certainly made their share, the most serious of which—acceptance of slavery—we are still paying for today. But the Romanian people, like the other peoples of Eastern Europe, have far too vivid a memory of the evils of despotism; they are unlikely to sink into the same morass. The societies they build may not resemble ours in the short run, but surely they will far less resemble what has just passed.
There is much we in the West can do to help Romanians and the other peoples of Eastern Europe find their destiny. I don't mean by way of government aid, although that may have a role to play. Far more important is the aid that comes from the heart, as our citizens and private institutions reach out to embrace the newly liberated peoples of Eastern Europe. What Romanians now need most is an influx of Western ideas from which to choose in molding their own destiny. The ability to communicate with someone from the West—freely, without fear—is something most Romanians have never experienced. American universities can contribute immensely to the development of that country by making room for Romanian students; private institutions and individuals can help by making financial aid available. For the great majority who cannot travel outside the country, visits from American scholars, businesspeople, and tourists can provide an invaluable opportunity to exercise the newly found freedom of debating ideas with individuals from other societies.
And, in the short run, a letter or card, together perhaps with a few dollars, from someone in the United States can provide an immense measure of relief and encouragement to a people just waking from a very long, very horrible nightmare.
Outside my home in Los Angeles flies a tricolor Romanian flag, with a large hole in the center where the Communist insignia once was. Every day a few people stop to give a word of encouragement, to say they are with us. Unfortunately, most Americans don't know how to convey their sentiments to the people who most need to hear them: the rank-and-file Romanians in Romania.
To those who wish to help, I suggest they contact members of the organized Romanian community. Buhoiu's paper is one: Universul Liber, P.O. Box 529, North Hollywood, CA 91616. There are others, I am sure, in every large city. It is difficult to explain the good that individuals can do by taking the time and trouble to make a personal contact of that sort. And in doing so, they may well find a friend and become part of history.
Alex Kozinski is a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He left Romania in 1961 and came to the United States in 1962. His friends in Romania know him as "Aliosha." This article is reprinted from the Los Angeles Daily Journal.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Reflections on the Revolution".