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Eastern Europe: Après Le Déluge, Nous


I telephoned Jacek Kuron, the veteran dissenter, now Poland’s minister for labor and social affairs. A woman answered the phone.

Could I speak to pan minister Kuron, please?”

But this is the censors’ office,” the woman politely replied. (The telephone numbers differ only by one digit.)

I thought censorship had been abolished?”

Yes, it has, but our contracts run until the end of July so we’re still here.”

Well, I wish you pleasant inactivity.”

Thank you, and all the very best to you.” She sounded charming.

Former censors, former border guards, former apparatchiks, former secret policemen: What is to be done with them? Or rather, what is to be done with Them—Oni—as the Communist power holders, great and small, were universally known. There is the question of justice. At the highest level, this is the Nuremberg question. Should the men at the top be brought to trial for the evil they did, or that was done under them? If so, on what charges and by what laws? At a lower level it becomes almost a question of social justice. Is it fair, people ask, that those who had comfortable office jobs under the Communists should still have them today, when ordinary people are having to tighten their belts yet more? Is it fair that members of the nomenklatura are exploiting the unclear legal conditions of privatization to take over as capitalists the enterprises they had previously commanded as Communists?

Yet the requirements of justice can clash with the requirements of efficiency. If the choice is between a compromised, incompetent person and an uncompromised, competent one, then the decision is easy. But what if the choice is between a compromised but relatively professional person and an uncompromised but wholly amateur one? I dine with the new ambassador of an East Central European country, a charming person, Catholic, brave, honest, proud. The number two man at the embassy, by contrast, is plainly from the old guard, at best an unprincipled careerist, complete with regulation dandruff and greasy smile. He starts telling me how this year he hoped they would lay a wreath at a monument to the American rather than the Soviet liberators. A perfect turncoat. Yet at least he has some rudimentary professionalism in foreign affairs, whereas the ambassador tells me that “our foreign minister has introduced a new element into international relations—it’s called trust.” Oh dear.

There is the problem of Them, but there is also the problem of Us. “We Are Not Like Them,” chanted the crowds in Prague during last November’s revolution. Six months later some of those same people can be heard muttering about how the new power holders resemble the old. In Poland, the disgruntled now speak of a “new nomenklatura.” The regional Civic Commitees, originally set up to fight the elections for Solidarity last summer, are, they claim, beginning to work like the Party Committees of yore. As in the old days, they say, a telephone call from the Committee decides the issue.

Many things contribute to this inchoate discontent. Partly it is that, having known no other power holders than the Communists, people do not distinguish between what is common to all power holders and what was peculiar to Communist ones. Partly it is that in the first postrevolutionary phase these countries’ new would-be democratic leaders are almost bound to resort to the method of placing “one of Us” instead of “one of Them” on the commanding heights, whether of the secret police or the press, by nomination rather than election or free competition. This has been true of Havel’s Czechoslovakia—one writer called it Havel’s “anti-February,” referring to the Communists’ February 1948 coup—and of Mazowiecki’s Poland, although the nominations are often the outcome of complex negotiations, and in no case imposed by force or the threat of force.

One may have some sympathy with those at the top, for they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they leave old Communist appointees in place, people say it’s not fair and nothing has really changed. It is like the Polish police cars: same vehicles, same colors, same people inside, but where before it said Milicja it now says Policja. If, however, they replace the Communist appointees with their own, then people cry “foul!” and “new nomenklatura!” On the one hand, they are required to make changes fast and effectively, on the other hand, democratically and constitutionally. As one speaker remarked at a stormy session of Lech Walesa’s central Citizens Committee in June, the trouble is that there are no generally accepted “rules of the game.” This leads into temptation.

Visiting old friends catapulted from jail to cabinet, from stoker to parliamentarian, from being a victim of the secret police to being the head of it. I was interested to see how the acquisition of power had changed them. Could they prove exceptions to Lord Acton’s universal rule that all power corrupts…?

Everyone, but everyone, is changed. It is not just the externals, although these are important. Offices with secretaries—most of them women of a certain age taken over from the ancien régime. Chauffeur-driven cars—avoiding, if at all possible, the old black Tatras in favor of Volvos, Mercedes, or, as in Havel’s new presidential motorcade, super-sexed BMWs. Suits and ties instead of the regulation dissident sweaters. (With the exception of Adam Michnik—still defrantly wearing blue jeans and open-necked shirts—and the Hungarian Young Democrats, who, even in the sumptuous, gilded Budapest parliament have a quite distinctive line in casual summer wear. “Yes, they discuss it in their caucuses,” an MP told me.) The unaccustomed press of business, exacerbated by deep tiredness, poor institutional backup, and the ceaseless flow of Western visitors. Changes in bearing, manner and manners. When Havel became president he adopted a ramrod-straight posture and a rather gruesome imperial stare that I had never noticed before. One sees it often now, far away, on television. Just playing the part?

Many others exhibit the same features to a lesser degree. “I feel as if I’m two different people,” says one. “My old, private, writer self, and a new public self.” There is an irony here. Against what did they set out to do battle? Why, against the double life, against the split between public and private selves, the daily toll of public conformity and mendacity which, as Havel demonstrated in his essays better than anyone, played a vital role in sustaining the previous system. Yet now they are themselves condemned to live a sort of double life. Not that the new public language is comparable with the old. Havelspeak, in the version used by Czechoslovak television commentators, is quite depressing, but it is still a world away from Newspeak. Nonetheless there is, also in Poland and Hungary, a certain incipient divergence between the public and private language of the new elites.

Corruption by power? The germs of it, in some cases, yes. A little too much enjoyment of the new privileges. Perhaps a few too many trips abroad—“for the good of the country,” of course. (Oh, the hard life of luxury.) The arrogance of power, subtly reinforced by the feeling that you have deserved it after so many long years of struggle. “Where were you in November?” Havel recently retorted to a crowd of Slovak hecklers. “Where were you in August?” “Where were you in ‘68?” “Where were you in ‘56?” Explicitly or implicitly, these are also the challenges made in Polish and Hungarian politics. But this is a line of argument as dangerous as it is understandable. When the writer Wiktor Woroszylski attacked the Polish parliamentarian Ryszard Bender for having been a member of parliament under the Jaruzelski “normalization” regime, Bender retorted by recalling Woroszylski’s own Communist past. Where do you stop with the reckoning? Where do you draw the line?

Everyone finds it difficult to come to terms with the loss of the common enemy. Of course there were personal conflicts inside the opposition movements, and deeper differences of tradition and ideology. But sooner or later people pulled together against the common oppressor. This was true, at a rather basic level, of all the East Central European societies under Communism. In your circle of friends, you could always find common ground in grumbling about Them. A young Dresdener described to me his shock at discovering, during the election campaign, that his friends could actually think differently. Unerhört! What was true of the majority of the population in a mild way was true of the politically engaged minority in a much stronger way. (Hungary is the exception to this rule.) For all the tensions and conflicts, the emotional experience of Solidarity in Poland was, indeed, that of solidarity. The heyday of the Civic Forum in the Czech lands was a shorter but no less intense experience of triumphant social unity. Yet, to put it in Hegelian terms, the triumph of unity was also the beginning of its negation.

The one great conflict is succeeded by many small conflicts. However much you may rationally appreciate that there is no pluralism without conflict, the mere fact of these conflicts is somehow felt to be abnormal and disturbing. Often they involve the severing of old friendships, with sadness and bitterness. There is a lack, not only of the forms and procedures in which to regulate these conflicts, but of the language in which to express them. In Poland and Czechoslovakia the opposition civic movements came to power with a rhetoric derived from the antipolitical language of the democratic oppositions, a language of philosophic and moral absolutes, of right against wrong, love against hate, truth against falsehood. To communism as a monopoly system of organized lying they counterposed the antipolitical program of “living in truth.”

Now we expect many things of politicians in a well-functioning parliamentary democracy. But “living in truth” is not one of them. In fact the essence of democratic politics might rather be described as “working in half-truth.” Parliamentary democracy is, at its very heart, a system of limited adversarial mendacity, in which each party attempts to present a part of the truth as if it were the whole. When Václav Havel was asked at a public discussion in London earlier this year whether he thought it would prove possible for the new politicians to continue to “live in truth,” he replied: “Either yes or no. If it proves not, I certainly won’t go on being one.” Now it may just be possible for the president, as moral father figure, to go on “living in truth”—although some might think that campaigning in the election for Civic Forum while protesting that you are not campaigning at all comes pretty close to the line. But it is certainly not possible for any lesser mortals who actually have to compete for power.

Partly for tactical or strategic reasons (“Unity Is Strength,” as the crowds chanted in Prague), but also for intellectual and emotional ones, there is a reluctance to move from antipolitical to explicitly political language. Instead, there is a tendency on all sides to Manichaean overstatement. Having lost the communist devil, says Adam Michnik, we find the devil in each other.

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