|Photos by Anne Fishbein|
A little over 16 years ago, I flew to Budapest for the Hungarian Film Week and received my first taste of Eastern European communism. Although Hungary had long been reckoned one of the Soviet bloc’s more pleasant countries and Budapest one of its few jewels, the city was gray, dank, dispirited — like a far lovelier but infinitely more hopeless version of Cleveland. Bored by the festival’s movies, I passed several days trying to meet a personal hero: Miklos Haraszti, a dissident intellectual whose book, The Velvet Prison, offered a withering anatomy of how creative people become complicit in their own censorship. Naturally, he wasn’t in the phone book, and the Novotel’s concierge proved no help. I did everything I could to reach him — calling his publisher in New York, enlisting the Film Week’s officials — but he proved absolutely impossible to find. Worse than impossible: unacceptable. When the film festival’s Madonna-faced publicist finally learned exactly who I was looking for, she scorched me with her sense of angry betrayal. Was I so stupid that I didn’t know she would get in trouble for hooking up a Western journalist with a troublemaker like Haraszti?
Fast-forward two and a half years. It’s the spring of 1990, and I’m back in Budapest as a tourist. The caf√©s are cheery, the shops filled with Western goods, and when you step into one of the many newly opened bars, you hear the affectless yearning of the Pet Shop Boys, who are momentarily popular in Eastern Europe:
All day, all day, watch them all fall down
All day, all day, domino dancing.
The city feels amazingly different, and the most amazing change is this: The lampposts are plastered with political posters for . . . Miklos Haraszti. You can’t go more than a few yards without seeing his name. Certain that I’ll finally be able to talk to him, I get in touch with his newly legal political party, the Alliance of Free Democrats, and learn that, yet again, I won’t be able to meet this man I spent so much time fruitlessly pursuing. Why not? He’s over in America giving speeches.
What separated these two visits was, of course, the sudden, breathtaking collapse of communism. In a delectable reversal of the domino theory, the Soviet-bloc states, starting in the summer of ’89, fell one by one: Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, with the Soviet Union itself to follow within the next two years. Shocking in its speed, this was the most important historical event of my lifetime, and unlike such canned events as the toppling of that Saddam statue, its enduring symbol was an explosion of mass joy — ecstatic souls dancing atop the Berlin Wall. When this happened, my incomparable Weekly colleague Michael Ventura wrote that
this celebration was Rosa Luxemburg’s triumph over Lenin. Freedom and spontaneity had conquered the rage for discipline and control.
A few months earlier, the opposite had happened. The Chinese government had slaughtered the protesters in Tian An Men Square, one final nail in the coffin of a utopian fantasy that, after 70 years of barbaric rule, had nothing left to offer but coffins and nails. The massacre proved not that communism was strong but that it was pathetically weak. Had all the Chinese soldiers refused to fire (many did), the regime would have fallen. Over the next several months that’s precisely what did happen in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Citizens reclaimed the streets, and the soldiers let them. Decades of tyranny were washed away, often with barely a shot being fired. To use Marx’s oft-quoted phrase, all that was solid melted into air. Onetime dissidents went on international lecture tours, former political prisoners took over governments, and tyrants wound up in the docket if not the graveyard.
For ordinary people in the ex-Soviet bloc, the sudden disappearance of Party rule was like tumbling headfirst through the looking glass. Traveling around Russia and Eastern Europe during those whooshing months of change, I could sense a shell-shocked giddiness as people tried to adjust to a new reality. It was as if entire countries had gobbled a handful of random drugs, and every reality felt askew. You’d wait in line for two hours to get a visa for Czechoslovakia, then when you reached the border, an exuberant Czech border guard would just wave you through with a huge smile and not even bother to look at your papers. You’d go to buy a copy of Gazeta Wyborcza, the new daily paper edited by the anticommunist dissident Adam Michnik, and find the kiosk festooned with skin magazines whose covers featured topless Polish babes proudly confirming Poland’s homegrown bodaciousness.
Naturally, not everything was sweetness and light. With the collapse of the Party fear machine, Moscow taxi drivers were reverting to gangsterism — often dropping you miles from your destination if you refused to pay $50 for a $3 ride — and East German border police maintained their reputation as the world’s biggest bastards. A mere two weeks before the two Germanys would be reunited after more than four decades, one of them slammed me against a wall for no reason — a final bit of bullying before he was forced to join the West. Perhaps he realized, even then, that joining the Free World wasn’t going to be a picnic. He already wanted his Wall back.