Freedom in Eastern Europe

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It has been twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the question remains whether countries such as Ukraine or Belarus are truly free. The writings of Václav Havel, Czesław Miłosz and György Konrád may provide clues to the answer.


In the early 1990s, Václav Havel wrote in one of his essays that after 1989, the European mentality had changed. As president of the Czech Republic, Havel sympathised with his colleagues in the West who suddenly found themselves in an entirely new situation. In an instant, they had to learn how to cooperate with the post-communist countries, then labelled “newly independent states”, which they hardly knew.


The problem at that time was not really that the architects of Europe knew nothing about countries such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but rather that not many in the West had a clear understanding of all of the traumatic experiences these countries underwent during the 20th century. These experiences had been a result of short-sighted political decisions made by the world’s superpowers. Hungary’s fate, for instance, was sealed by the treaty of Trianon; Czechoslovakia’s by the Munich agreement; and Poland’s through the “phoney war” and the partition of the whole region at Yalta. Reflecting on the 1990s, as the first decade of the political transformation in Central Europe, Havel wrote: “in such moments I realise how much easier it must have been for Western politicians when they were faced with a homogenous Soviet mass and didn’t have to worry about distinguishing one nation from another”.


Havel, a broadly recognised European thinker, believed that unless the West assumes its share of the responsibility towards the East an agreement between both sides of the European continent will not be feasible. For Havel the main element of freedom and independent development was a sense of responsibility.


The dissidents


How can one develop a sense of responsibility while allowing space for independent existence in an interconnected world? There is only one answer – through a critical reflection on the actions that were taken and the effects that they brought. This was the starting point for the post-Second World War development of intellectual thought in Central European countries.


It was a topic of many discussions published on the pages of the leading émigré political-literary journal Kultura. Later, the same debate was echoed among those involved in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. These extensive discussions were often described as a debate on the sense of history or common guilt. Regardless, the truth is that these discussions built for the countries of the former Eastern Europe (referred to as Central Europe since the mid-1980s) a framework for contemplation on their fate as independent states. Further, these great debates prepared a strong intellectual point of reference for the countries which were about to become democratic in 1990.


Today, it is still prudent to ask the question – how well do Europeans still remember these intellectual debates? The answer is that, outside academic circles, probably not very well. And yet an understanding of these debates may help explain the different course of the transformation that characterise both the countries who joined the EU in 2004 as well as those which have yet to join.


The most relevant text is Havel’s Power of the Powerless (1978). In this text, the main focus is on the role of the government in a post-totalitarian state; in other words, a government that creates its own ideology and tempers a new reality. It is also about a government which lies about the past, the present and the future in order to maintain power, and a government which deceives in its claim to believe in the rule of law.


Following the path set out by Havel, we enter into the worldview of a man who functions in the system once created for him. We agree with the Czech thinker that people don’t have to put their faith in all the mystifications imposed on them by the government. They need to act as if they did not believe in them, or at least silently tolerate them – if nothing else, not oppose those who use them. Again we concur with Havel that people living under an oppressive system are often forced to lie. Havel, a dissident himself, tries to navigate through a complicated matrix of an authoritarian regime.


The next question emerges – does accepting government lies just because someone lives under an authoritarian rule mean that this person “accepts and implements the system”? What should we say about people who, as Havel would state, live in lies only because they were created for such a life? Are these people, these “opportunists”, deprived of their own individuality? Are they deprived of free will?


Is this a dead end or is there another dimension, another experience? Havel talks about living in the truth. In fact, there are many ways to disagree with the government’s manipulation: open letters, workers’ strikes, rock concerts, student manifestations, refusals to participate in non-free elections and hunger strikes. Such acts of resistance can help people overcome the barriers imposed on them by the system, especially those that are aimed at limiting independent and critical thinking. Just think about role of culture: literature, art and music (the rock music of the 1960s became the music of the free people).


More than anything else, it was the culture that started to break the system apart and finally led to the collapse of communism in 1989-1990. What to call the people who become the messengers of cultural codes? Havel names them dissidents, people who became close to each other. If any of them were separated, it was only from the things that were false and isolated. A dissident became a channel of the truth that nobody else wanted to spread. A dissident is a messenger broadcasting to the world news of the system’s victims; as Alexander Solzhenitsyn informed the West about the Gulag. A dissident is also a co-architect of the parallel polis (a theoretical concept developed by Václav Benda – editor’s note), which is based on human solidarity and an aspiration for freedom. Havel reveals the structure of this parallel polis by constructing his own contacts with the foreign world.


This world is to become what Havel desires; the messenger of the spirit of change, who again will teach people how to use such values as trust, honesty, solidarity and responsibility. These texts poignantly illustrate the choices that were put before the Czechs and the Slovaks as they made a decision to transform Czechoslovakia into two independent states. The foundation of such a decision was the clear recognition of the importance of one simple fact – a departure from the life in lies.


The uniqueness of Eastern Europe


Havel’s writings bring us to another seminal European thinker, a Polish poet of Lithuanian origin, Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004). Two of his essays from the collection entitled Captive Mind (1953) are particularly relevant. These two essays are The Pill of Murti-Bing and Ketman. Characteristically, they both reveal the uniqueness of Eastern Europe – unless the intellectuals cease serving the governments of their countries, the region will not fully understand the meaning of the word “freedom”.


The Pill of Murti-Bing is a story of a pill from the East that by simply ingesting it can make people happy (Murti-Bing is a Mongolian philosopher who produced pills which can instantaneously and painlessly change people’s “philosophy of life”). In this essay, Miłosz touches upon issues that go beyond Eastern Europe. These issues refer to the “system of thinking of the whole social organism” and its language, a platform of understanding between intellectuals and their readers – a problem of the “painful sense of detachment”. However, once free, an intellectual becomes a preacher, switching to the government’s side and involved in the ideological discourse of the ruling elite. What are the dangers that such a conveyor of the public word could bring in a non-democratic world? First of all, the readers would be deprived of the “tortures of thinking” and develop an uncritical attitude towards the façade of the new world.


In his text Miłosz often reflects on the clash between two cultural codes that characterise Eastern Europe – the culture of the pre-Second World War period and the culture that came from the East. Clearly, it was more than the Murti-bing happiness pill that came from the East. In the writer’s view, the East also offers an antidote which is a practical experience of conspiracy and camouflage.


Ketman, another essay, refers to a highly developed craft that places a premium upon mental awareness. Everything needs to be reflected on: all words and their effects. That is why, it was possible to cheat the communists by taking some elements of the system while leaving a little bit of internal freedom. Thanks to such survival methods, the communist system maintained itself for such a long time but also fell so easily once the people started asking Miłosz’s question, “If I lose, won’t I regret?”


Free, meaning healthy


No analysis on intellectuals’ life under authoritarian regime should neglect the voice of the Hungarian dissident, György Konrád. Konrád’s works are characteristic of a distance to both the ideology and the roots of the author’s own culture.


Konrád takes the position of a person who follows and registers the events, but whose personal life is not influenced by the times. He believes in a fight with devotion. In Konrád’s case, it was writing, which he believed to be an activity for extraordinary times. In Hungary, Konrád would say, such times came when almost every word was potentially regarded as anti-state agitation, trespassing the framework of imposed norms.


Konrád’s personal choice led him to emigration. For 15 years of his adult life, (from the age of 40 to 55), Konrád was persona non grata in his own country. And what was his reaction to the outlawing of his work and publications? He felt an unrestrained personal freedom. His works were published and distributed as samizdat copies. Konrád also gives us a choice on what freedom is – a valuable lesson after twenty years of independence. “Only free people are healthy and only healthy people can decide for themselves. Sick people are steered by others, are dependent on others and cannot take care of themselves. They cannot stand on both legs, make decisions, or see things as they are. They see what they want to see or what they are scared of”.


It is thanks to Konrád’s writings that we can better understand what life in Eastern Europe was about. Again, a question arises; what did it mean to live in a system where so many were oppressed and distrustful? An answer to this question also required individual attempts of self-fulfilment, something Konrád could not imagine outside Hungary. “When I was twelve years old I experienced national socialism, when I was fifteen I witnessed the communists coming to power. Communism and I grew up together. Twenty years have passed in an active and disciplined resignation,” writes Konrád.


What does the reading of the texts of Václav Havel, Czesław Miłosz and György Konrád teach us about freedom in Eastern Europe? First of all, in the last twenty years, the region has lost one important element, namely being Eastern and related to Russia. The countries once known as Eastern Europe became Central Europe, which is now understood as an area of common fate and different cultures. And these Central European countries have already shown their political vision in creating the Visegrád Group, an entity envisioned for their faster integration with the European Union. However, there is also the flipside to the coin. At times, Central European countries look back at their past and introduce some of the most non-democratic procedures. Consider the process of lustration (a process of investigating public officials’ involvement in the previous communist regime – editor’s note).


What has happened to Eastern Europe during this time? Its borders have clearly moved to the East to include the territory of Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus. It has again become a name for a political system dependent on Russia and economically backward. This is a territory in which elements of the socialist system are still visible and the methods of Soviet-style government are still being applied.


What has the level of freedom been in this Eastern Europe during the last twenty years? If freedom is to be understood as Konrád taught us, then we cannot say that the minds of Eastern Europeans went through any revolution. Even today, in this part of Europe, many people prefer to delegate the responsibility of their fate to the state. They prefer that bureaucrats decide on their lives. They prefer to remain oppressed in their thoughts and actions. People who experienced the “be like everyone else” mentality of the previous system are not capable of starting a resistance against the political order that has been instituted in their countries since 1991. It is the humility of being a beggar in one’s own country and the ability to show solidarity only to maintain the country’s external image. Just consider the Ukrainian experience with the Orange Revolution.


What specifically does this solidarity translate into? It translates into a common acceptance that it is the sick who finance the health system and the parents who finance the schools. It is also the drivers who pay the traffic police and the criminals who, to a large extent, support the police and the courts. It also means that the political elites feel immune to any punishment. Can such a country be called free? And what about its citizens? Do they understand the meaning of the word “freedom”? The answer is: no. And this is because today, just like it was twenty years ago, one of the main principles of survival is pretending that democratic institutions work, that the state takes care of its citizens and that the constitution is binding. Neither would we say that the remote world of the 1920s and 1930s that was based on special agreements and black markets has disappeared.


Who are the intellectuals of today’s Eastern Europe? Where are they? It is difficult to find an answer to such a question and point to those who, like Václav Havel, would show that a life in lies does not allow for an emergence of universal values.


If today in Belarus, writers and journalists have been forced to live just like the dissidents described by Havel, Miłosz and Konrád did and by doing so they carry the legacy of the first generation of Eastern European dissidents, then in Ukraine, a lack of such voices is rather a sign that the country itself has been a great victim of lies. It does not mean that there are no people ready to follow in Havel’s footsteps. It only means that their voice is weak and unheard. They may live in a parallel, but closed polis.


The case of Ukraine illustrates how difficult it is to implement the Western ideals of freedom among those who had been kept in the dark for too long. That is why, twenty years after independence, Ukraine’s only pride is that it has lost an internal battle aimed at creating a national awareness (all based on a 19th century model of territory, language and ethnic background) as well and experienced a catastrophic end to the project of internal integration.


Can we even talk about freedom in Eastern Europe, if, by definition, freedom is an alien concept here?


Olena Betliy has a PhD in history and is an Associate Professor of history at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Since 2008, she has been the Director of the Centre for Polish and European Studies.


Translated by Iwona Reichardt


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