|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 cafés 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.
Like many American kids, I’d been weaned on ghastly tales of godless communism. As I grew older and read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Deutscher and Robert Conquest, I realized that such childhood scare-stories had been, if anything, far too mild. For all the utopianism of its origins, for all its commitment to brotherhood, communists killed far more people than the Nazis (see, for instance, The Black Book of Communism) and every bit as ruthlessly. Yet by the time I visited the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, and though I didn’t meet a soul who trusted him — “He’s a son of a bitch just like the rest of them,” a man told me, after carefully checking to make sure nobody else was in earshot — his good sense had made the whole Eastern bloc feel like a less sinister place. You didn’t feel like you were one step from the gulag.
Still, even without constant state terror, communism was a calamity. Everywhere you looked there were signs of the niggling, small-souled despotism that made daily life hell. One gorgeous weekend afternoon in 1990 I went to Gorky Park, whose entrance has (as I recall) 10 large wrought-iron doors. Even though crowds were rushing to get in, the authorities only opened one of the doors. Just to enter the park, people wound up pushing and shoving and cramming themselves together, like a crowd being crushed at an English soccer riot. Why didn’t the authorities simply open the other doors and let people flow through freely? To remind everyone, even
families out for a pleasant stroll, that the Party was still in charge.
We often talk about the absurdity and wastefulness of American capitalism, yet for sheer fatuous human waste, decade after decade, the communist system produced the purest absurdism: “We pretend to work,” they used to say in Eastern Europe, “and they pretend to pay us.” One day, on my trip to Eastern Europe that spring, a Polish businessman I’d met on a train drove me around Mazuria, a beautiful land of forests and lakes. Late in the day, we stopped by a state-owned farm whose huge region was surrounded by magnificent pines. After we wandered around for a few minutes, he gave me one of those glinting, ironic smiles that are a Polish specialty:
“What do you think they produce here?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Timber?”
“Artificial Christmas trees!” He cackled with bitter triumph. “The genius of communism!”
If you live in the ex–Soviet Empire, communism’s collapse is a historical reality whose rubble you stumble over every day, even if you’re walking to the new Burger King. If you live in Los Angeles, the very west of the West, it all seems like something that happened long ago, a smeary videotape from the days before immaculate digital transfers. The Berlin Wall fell less than halfway through this newspaper’s 25-year history, way back before Bill and Hillary, Quentin and Eminem, broadband access and the inescapable SUV — not to mention the War on Terror. For anybody under the age of 25, the Cold War must feel as distant as World War II did to me when I was young.
But as William Faulkner once commented, “The past is not dead, it isn’t even passed yet.” We’re still living with the daisy chains woven during the Cold War. Al Qaeda found a safe haven in Afghanistan because that poor beleaguered country was a Cold War sideshow. Saddam Hussein received American aid because he was fighting Iran’s militant ayatollahs, who came to power because the U.S. supported the repressive shah, who himself seized the throne after the CIA helped topple the elected leader, Muhammad Mossadegh, lest he take his country (and its oil) out of the Western orbit. For decades, the U.S. supported corrupt regimes in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia to keep them on the side of “freedom,” a political decision for which the bill is now coming due.
We’ve paid another huge price, too. The struggle against communism led to the creation of what Gore Vidal calls the “national security state.” No matter which party has been in office, the government has stockpiled weapons, built up a huge conventional army and spent billions to pay for vast Pentagon budgets. Exercising the droit du seigneur claimed by every great power, we have used military action as a routine tool of foreign policy: Since 1945, the U.S. has engaged in 200 such actions, some vast (the Korean War), others comically dinky (Reagan’s epochal invasion of Grenada). And astonishingly, the fall of communism did nothing to diminish the Pentagon’s appetite for money. Today, with a military budget of $401 billion, the U.S. spends more on defense than the next 15 countries in the world combined. The post–Cold War “peace dividend” provided neither peace nor dividends.
And yet, the irony is that communism was far better for Western workers than for those who supposedly were getting the benefits of a Workers’ Paradise. Where ordinary people in the Soviet bloc had to suffer the Party’s barbarous incompetence, American labor made its greatest strides when communism’s socialist ideas posed a genuine alternative to the barbaric workings of unchecked market forces. Not only did socialist ideals inspire labor leaders to create unions and demand social justice, they filled the ruling elite with fear of radical change, cowing them into social reforms like the New Deal that saved capitalism. Many government programs that we now think of as “normal” were born of the fear of communism, and now that this fear is gone — replaced by faith in untrammeled free-market globalism — it’s small wonder that we’re seeing discrepancies of wealth that rival the Gilded Age and conservatives dream of privatizing every public service you can think of. When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, it brought down with it the dream that there could be a positive alternative to American hypercapitalism.
These days, of course, the most potent alternative to our way of life is militant Islam, whose leaders have declared jihad against America. Their attacks on the West always make me think of the boxer Joe Louis’ immaculate reply when asked, during World War II, why he would fight for a country that treated African-Americans so badly: “There ain’t nothing wrong with this country that Hitler can fix.”
But there were plenty of things about the country that Hitler could have made a whole lot worse. And so it is with the Islamic terrorists, whose ultimate power lies less in their ability to kill and maim us (though they are eager to do so) than in their ability to scare us and change us, to make our own rights begin domino dancing. We’ve begun whittling away at the Constitution in the USA Patriot Act, and should another attack occur, one can picture the government taking even more radical steps. In the current issue of Cigar Aficionado, General Tommy Franks suggests that if the U.S. suffers mass casualties from a weapon of mass destruction, a military form of government will probably replace the Constitution. In such a scenario, the “Western world, the free world, loses what it cherishes most, and that is freedom and liberty we’ve seen for a couple of hundred years in this grand experiment that we call democracy.” One hopes that Franks’ words help forestall such an eventuality rather than merely put it into the realm of the dangerously thinkable.
After all, if the fall of communism should have taught us anything, it’s just how fragile even the mightiest social system can turn out to be. In the blink of an eye, the unthinkable can turn into a thought that brings the walls tumbling down.