• Email
  • Print

Journey to the Post-Communist East

Vienna, March 11—Driving into town from the airport, I pass a café called the Espresso Ilidza. On the radio, a reporter discusses the arrangements in Austrian schools for teaching in Croatian. Then comes the weather forecast: for Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Northern Italy. I read the diminutive Neue Kronen Zeitung, clipped to its Zeitungshalter (newspaper stick) like a little flag. In a fighting interview, Frau Klestil, the jilted wife of Kurt Waldheim’s successor as president, tells us she is determined to remain Austria’s first lady. The operetta continues. I am back in Central Europe.

Later, at the editorial meeting of a more elevated journal, a German feminist exclaims: “Eastern men are such pashas.” Yes, a colleague agrees, they could do with some “re-education.” I glimpse a new Central Europe, where Polish men are to be “re-educated” by German feminists.

Then to the fellows’ meeting of the Institute for Human Sciences, a meeting place to rival even the Café Landtmann. Bronislaw Geremek, the Polish medievalist turned Solidarity adviser turned parliamentarian, lectures on The Collapse of Communism and European Security. He makes a politician’s speech, mustering every argument for Poland to be admitted to NATO. Eloquent, as always, but some in the audience are disconcerted. Somehow they had expected him to speak as an intellectual to intellectuals. But times and roles have changed, and Geremek, unlike many from the anti-Communist oppositions of the 1970s and 1980s, has made a clear choice: while he is a politician he will be a politician.

I’m sure he’s right. All we’ve seen in Central European politics since 1989 confirms an old truth. You may, in the course of your life, be both intellectual and politician. Try to be both at once and you’ll be neither.

Bratislava—Before the wars—second and cold—you went by tram from Vienna for an evening at the theater in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, or vice versa. Now you could do so again, if the authorities would only re-lay a few miles of track. Meanwhile, it is just over an hour by train, and you slide across the border as if the iron curtain had never been. Amid the seemingly endless, dusty allotments—small plots of land on which people grow vegetables—I spy garages flying the flags of Volkswagen and Audi, like crusader castles. Giggly Slovak schoolgirls scream pop songs out of the train windows, startling the people digging in their gardens below. But the nice girl sitting next to me demurely studies a German textbook on Betriebswirtschaft (management economics). She hopes to work in the hotel trade.

As I arrive, the government falls. The populist prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, has been ousted by a parliamentary vote, following outspoken criticism of him by the president, Michal Kovác.

On the evening television news, the chubby, avuncular president is shown sitting beside a carefully polished tile oven, with a large bunch of flowers in a vase on the table before him. At one side of the screen, you see a large microphone, held motionless by a female hand with brightly painted fingernails. The President talks about democracy, constitutionalism, civic engagement, on and on, but the more he talks the less he convinces me—because of that painted hand. After about five minutes we briefly catch sight of the lady interviewer. Her feeble “question” gives the cue for another five-minute sermon, delivered to the long-suffering painted hand. President Clinton, or President Mitterrand, or, for that matter, President Klestil, can only dream of such a complaisant medium; but then, they work in a fully fledged democracy.

My acquaintances are divided over whether Meciar’s fall is a good thing. All sigh with relief that the vulgar, nationalist rabble-rouser has got the boot. But some fear this ouster gives him the perfect chance to bounce back—as self-styled victim—in the elections that are due to be held in September. After all, he did it once before, in 1992, after being ousted by the parliament in 1991. Well, we shall see.

Meanwhile, I am in search of old Bratislava—that is, the German-Hungarian-Jewish-Slovak city of Pressburg, and before that the Hungarian royal capital of Pozsony. As I walk the dilapidated streets of the old town in the company of a local journalist, we meet an elderly gentleman in a black felt hat and formal gray coat, with a semi-precious stone on a ribbon round the collar of his slightly grubby white shirt. “Ah, here is the oldest Pressburger!” says my acquaintance, and makes the introduction. This is Jan, Hans, or “Hansi” Albrecht, a retired musicologist and son of a celebrated local composer.

Later, over coffee and cognac in the inspissated gloom of his cluttered apartment, Albrecht tells tales of old Pressburg, while kids smash out the window glass from a derelict house across the road. (“Yes, that house belonged to the Esterházys,” he says; crash goes another window.) He shows me a program for one of his father’s concerts: printed in German, Hungarian, and Slovak. The Pressburg of his youth really was trilingual, he says. Someone would address you in Hungarian, you might reply in German, another would interrupt in Slovak.

Even after the first wave of Slovakization, which began with the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the statistics still show a population of some 15,000 Jewish, 20,000 Hungarian, and 30,000 German citizens of Pressburg, as well as 60,000 Slovaks. It was only the next two waves of Slovakization which effectually purged the city of all but a very few survivors of the other nationalities. First came the proclamation of Slovak independence under Hitler’s protection, in March 1939. (Outside the Slovak Philharmonic’s concert hall, a pathetic gaggle of old men in shabby suits and cheap ties can be seen gathering to celebrate the anniversary.) The fascist puppet state of Father Jozef Tiso got rid of the Jews, and made the Hungarians unwelcome too.

After 1945, the new Czechoslovak government got rid of the Germans. Finally, to celebrate the enhanced status which Slovak Bratislava received after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Communist authorities drove a huge suspension bridge, the “Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising,” across the Danube and through the heart of the old town, destroying the synagogue and much of the old Jewish quarter. On a high wall they inscribed in large letters: “Bratislava, City of Peace.”

Alas, poor Pressburg. Hansi Albrecht, the musicologist, argues that there has also been some cultural gain—the effete, decadent bourgeois culture of the late Habsburg empire has been reinvigorated by an injection of raw Slavonic folk spirit—but one feels an overwhelming sense of loss. Alma Münzová, another charming survivor of old Pressburg, well-read, multilingual, soignée, gives me the text of a talk she recently delivered (in German) on the history of the city. In it, she quotes a wry old joke: “When will things finally get better?” “What do you mean? They already were!” In many ways, to propose multiculturalism in Central Europe really is to suggest going forward to the past.

However, one must beware the siren song of nostalgia. The balance was never even. Before the Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich, or compromise, of 1867, the Austro-German element dominated Pressburg life. After the Ausgleich, the Hungarians there launched a program of systematic Magyarization. At the end of the century, this would arouse the sympathy of visitors such as the historian R.W. Seton-Watson, who described it, under the pseudonym “Scotus Viator,” in the London Spectator. So at the end of the First World War he was among those who advocated that Slovakia—“Northern Hungary,” as it then was—should be taken away from Hungary and joined with the Czech lands, in the newly independent state of Czechoslovakia.

All this is not just history. It has immediate political relevance. For, as a result of the post-1918 territorial settlement, reaffirmed after 1945, and again in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, some half a million Hungarians now live just inside the Slovak frontier, on the north bank of the Danube. In Czechoslovakia, they were a small minority: about one in thirty of the population. In Slovakia they are a much larger minority: about one in ten.

The Slovak government, under Meciar, has been a model of nationalist stubbornness in resisting even the most reasonable demands for bilingual road signs, the restoration of the Hungarian forms of personal names, and so on, despite pressure from, among others, the Council of Europe. On the other hand, it was the now-deceased Hungarian prime minister József Antall who famously declared that he wished to be the prime minister of 15 million Hungarians (that is, roughly 10 million inside Hungary’s frontiers and 5 million beyond them). When Czecho- and Slovakia were splitting up, radical Hungarian nationalists even argued that what was laid down by the Allies in 1920, in the Treaty of Trianon, was the new frontier of Czechoslovakia, not of Slovakia—which would therefore have to be negotiated anew. Incredibly, though Slovakia and Hungary are both members of the Visegrád group, together with the Czech Republic and Poland, Slovakia currently has no ambassador in Budapest.

Slovakia’s Hungarians are represented in the Slovak parliament, by their own Hungarian parties. Except on a few tactical votes (and to some extent, interestingly, in the ex-Communist party) they do not mix with the Slovak parties. Regrettably, the Hungarian and Slovak sides seem to be getting not closer together but further apart. I am told that in a recent poll, 35 percent of those asked thought the Hungarian parties should not be represented in the Slovak parliament.

It is a worrying state of affairs.

Budapest—I cross the Slovak-Hungarian border on the so-called Balkan-Orient Express. Its Romanian carriages provide a very credible setting for a murder. The old peasant woman sitting opposite me puts the Hungarian-Slovak conflict in its proper place. To the Slovak passport officer she says, in Slovak, “I’m Slovak.” To the Hungarian passport officer she says, in Hungarian, “I’m Hungarian.” To neither does she show a passport. Maybe there’s hope for Central Europe yet.

I tell a Hungarian friend that I’m staying at the Hotel Gellért, that splendid art nouveau blancmange on the right bank of the Danube, with its majolica-walled thermal baths and granite-faced masseurs. “Oh,” she says, looking disapproving, “it’s a Forum hotel.” Thinking of the (rather good) Forum Hotel on the Pest side of the river, I’m about to exclaim: “So has the Forum taken over the Gellért?” Then I realize that she means the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the conservative nationalist party which has been in power since 1990 and now faces an election in which the former Communists are favored to win. How out of touch can you get?

She’s right too. I had forgotten how the tone, the decor, the very smell of the Gellért exude that particular aesthetic of populist Hungarianness. Even the “Do Not Disturb” signs to hang out on your doorknob are done in the national colors of red, white, and green.

Meanwhile, the modern Forum Hotel is bursting with Western consultants, most of them wasting large sums of our (that is, Western tax-payers’) money which is meant to be going to the struggling new democracies of post-Communist Europe. In German, one talks of Spesenritter: expense-account knights. O brave new world, that has such people in’t.

This evening, however, something of the old world—almost a flashback—can be witnessed just along the embankment. A large crowd gathers at the invitation of the Democratic Charter, a liberal civic initiative, or anti-Forum forum, to protest the recent sacking of 129 state radio employees. This was the latest act in the so-called “media war,” and a quite blatant attempt by the government to skew the radio still further to its side during the election. As dusk falls, the crowd, in which I meet several old friends, moves picturesquely down the left bank of the Danube, flaming torches held aloft, to reassemble at the statue of the poet Sándor Petöfi.

It will be 146 years ago tomorrow, on the 15th of March 1848, that Petöfi led a Budapest crowd in what is generally taken to be the beginning of the country’s “lawful revolution,” Hungary’s 14th of July. And tomorrow it will be celebrated as a national holiday, with all the fetid pathos of which the Forum is capable. But this evening, the liberals have stolen a march on them. At the feet of the poet, fine speeches are delivered by flaming torchlight: for democracy! for civil rights! for freedom! O brave old world, that had such demos in’t.

As we watch the march, a publisher friend explains to me his worry that Hungary is once again being polarized into two nations, locked in a Kulturkampf. If someone talks of “structural problems,” of “this country” or “this agricultural country,” you know at once that they come from the camp known before the war as urbanist. If someone talks of “fate issues,” of “my land” or “our homeland,” they belong to the camp known before the war as populist. He fears history is repeating itself.

Another friend puts his personal dissatisfaction, frustration, melancholy, in a different way. I grew up, he says, in what I knew was an “abnormal” state. I thought that if the Communists and the Soviet Union went, Hungary would be a “normal,” that is, a Western country. Now they’ve gone and it isn’t. We’re governed by the Forum, and I have to accept that Hungary is in some ways an Eastern country.

He gropes (in German) for an image, and finds it. There was a statue, covered by a heavy sheet. We believed it was beautiful. One day, miraculously, after forty long years, it was uncovered. Our hearts rose, great were our hopes. But then we found that the statue was chipped and dirty, and not so handsome after all.

Prague—The sleeping beauty of Central Europe has not merely been awakened by a prince’s velvet kiss. She has put on black tights and gone off to the disco. (That is, after all, what contemporary princesses do, whether in Monaco or Mayfair.) While Budapest has gradually developed into a modern consumer city, starting already in the 1970s, Prague has emerged from its time-warp suddenly and explosively. Instead of the magical museum, lovely but decaying, there is color, noise, action: street performers, traffic jams, building works, thousands of young Americans—would-be Hemingways or Scott Fitzgeralds—millions of German tourists, betting shops, reserved parking places for France Telecom and Mitsubishi Corporation, beggars, junkies, Spesenritter of all countries, car alarms, trendy bars, gangsters, whores galore, Bierstuben, litter, graffiti, video shops, and Franz Kafka T-shirts.

I have mixed feelings about this transformation scene. But I am quite won over by walking the streets with my friend Jáchym Topol, a young poet, novelist, and editor of the (formerly samizdat) journal Revolver Revue. Jáchym, long-haired, chain-smoking, deeply Bohemian in both senses of the word, stalks along simply fizzling with enthusiasm for the way Prague has come alive. “Look at it, it’s great!” he exclaims, as we are nearly run down by a speeding car. The rock groups now write their lyrics in English, he says. Street kids use the Albanian word for prison, because there is now a strong Albanian “mafia,” besides the Russian and local ones. And there’s a new kind of savory bread roll. It’s called crazy chleba, a grammatically eccentric name translatable roughly as a “bread crazy.”

Jáchym’s new novel, out of Döblin and Joyce by way of Hrabal, is to be published next month, and he’s dashing around trying to arrange publicity for it. But he has to do almost everything himself. The publicity department, so important a part of most Western publishers, is still almost unknown here.

The cliché is that the Czechs are the Prussians of the Slavs. Certainly the orderly, Western qualities of Bohemia, its prewar industrial record, the economic credibility of Premier Václav Klaus, and, above all, its cheap skilled labor have combined to attract foreign, and especially German, investment. (An hour’s skilled labor costs the employer about thirty-five Deutschmarks in Germany compared to just four Deutschmarks in Bohemia.) Yet even here there is the characteristic post-Communist mixture of enterprise and corruption: large kickbacks paid in the course of privatization, mysterious enhancement of party funds, the dubious involvement of ex-nomenklatura, criminal, semi-criminal, and corrupt official elements, all combining to give many ordinary people a slightly jaundiced view of both capitalism and the politicians who preach it.

The frequently encountered and loosely used term “mafia” points to the ubiquitous element of organized crime. The Russian word prikhvatizatsiya, that is, roughly, pritheftization (khvatat‘ = seize, grab), catches another aspect of the post-Communist scene; as does the phrase “the privatization of the nomenklatura.” Alfred Stepan, the American political scientist and new rector of George Soros’s Central European University, reminds me of the term “kleptocracy,” already used in Latin America and Africa. The former foreign minister Jirí Dienstbier talks of an “Italian-type political system.” And finally, there is the special part played by the consultants and the Spesenritter. German businessmen, I am told, are particularly free with the bribes. What we need, however, is a term that encompasses the whole distinctive post-Communist combination of all of these.

A friend who works for the Helsinki Committee for Refugees adds another colorful chip to the post-Communist mosaic. She tells me the story of a former Afghan police chief who had fled with his family to Moscow. There he was told that he could get to Germany, at the cost of $12,000 per head. He paid up for himself, his wife, and their two youngest children, leaving two older children behind. (How an Afghan police chief had collected $48,000 one can perhaps imagine.) They were given false (Russian) passports, traveled for many hours by train, by bus, by train again, until they finally arrived. “Well,” said the Russian who escorted them, “here you are, in Germany.” Setting them down in the station buffet he asked for their false papers back, and then went, as he said, to get some cash. Of course he never came back. So there they were, without papers, money, or a single acquaintance, in “Germany.” That is, in Prague.

Walking along Národní Street, I suddenly notice a black metal plaque inscribed simply with the date November 17, 1989. It marks the student demonstration which began the velvet revolution,1 but you feel that event is already almost as remote as the resistance to Nazi occupation commemorated by other plaques around the city. Here more than anywhere else the forty years seem just to have evaporated, almost as if they had never been. Certainly no one, except a very few historians, is interested in the Communist past. Inasmuch as anyone is interested in the past at all, it is that of TomᚠGarrigue Masaryk’s first republic, before 1939.

Next day I am driven out to Masaryk’s country house at Lány, to see President Havel. Recovering from the flu, he sits with a small group of friends and counselors in a rather formal salon, while the rain buckets down on the park outside. Watched by the ghost of Masaryk, we talk about the idea and the reality of Central Europe. Masaryk’s definition of Central Europe, or Strední Evropa, elaborated during World War I in Seton-Watson’s journal The New Europe, included “Laplanders, Swedes, Norwegians and Danes, Finns, Estonians, Letts, Lithuanians, Poles, Lusatians, Czechs and Slovaks, Magyars, Serbo-Croats and Slovenes, Romanians, Bulgars, Albanians, Turks and Greeks”—but no Germans or Austrians. The German liberal politician Friedrich Naumann articulated a very different vision of Central Europe at the same time. His Mitteleuropa was all about the Germans and Austrians, with the others included only insofar as they were subjects of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires.

One of the great questions of the new “New Europe” is whether this old tension between Mitteleuropa and Strední Evropa can finally be laid to rest. Very much with this in mind, Havel has invited seven presidents to an “informal” meeting in Litomyšl, the birthplace of the composer Smetana. Besides the presidents of the “Visegrád four” (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia), and the president of Slovenia, a country with which the Czech Republic has developed its own miniature special relationship (some make jokes about Czecho-Slovenia), the “L7”—as Havel’s foreign affairs adviser Pavel Seifter wryly christens it—will include Austria’s President Klestil (I wonder: with which lady?) and Havel’s good friend the outgoing German president, Richard von Weizsäcker, whose birthday will also be marked by the occasion.

The inclusion of Germany in the group may raise a few eyebrows, not least in France or Italy, but I think it is vital. Even if Germany only stands in Central Europe “with one leg,” as Havel himself observes, it is the biggest leg in town. There is a lively debate about Germany inside East Central Europe: there is a lively debate inside Germany about East Central Europe; it is vital that the two debates should interwine.

At one point I ask Havel when he is going to write his fundamental essay about the intellectual and the politician. Only when I stop being president, comes the instant reply. Instead, he regales us with stories from the theater of high politics, including President Clinton’s recent visit to Prague. He particularly admired the American stage-management.

Back in Prague, I visit another old friend, Petr Pithart, a highly respected opposition intellectual who in 1990 became prime minister of the Czech Republic, but is now—with relief—an intellectual again, in way of thinking and speaking, by occupation, in manner, even in dress. (He reflects very interestingly on the experience of Czech intellectuals in politics in the winter 1993 special issue of Social Research.) After working hard to keep Czechoslovakia together, he now finds himself being invited to Belgium and Quebec, to tell them how you make a velvet divorce.

On Sunday, I drive myself out, along poor roads, through poor, dusty villages—no Prague transformation scenes here—to the castle of Castolovice, in northeastern Bohemia. Diana Phipps—née Sternberg—has had the castle returned to her, under the socalled “restitution” law. Not so many great families of the Bohemian aristocracy have in fact been eligible for this restitution, because the condition sine qua non is that they were still there at the time of the February 1948 Communist coup. Many, seeing the writing on the wall, had already left. Of those eligible, by no means all have reclaimed their property, which often requires a large investment for a very doubtful return. Diana has, with enormous difficulty, got back more than 3,000 hectares of the estate which originally sustained the castle, mainly forest, with herds of white deer and gruntles of wild boar. But, as for all but a very few country houses or castles in the world today, Castolovice’s future will depend on people coming to see it.

Castolovice will be well worth seeing. There is the breathtaking Renaissance Knight’s Hall, the dining room adorned with portraits of all the kings of Bohemia, the library left virtually untouched for forty years, like Miss Havisham’s boudoir in Great Expectations, the rusty old weapons, the furniture (much of it “restituted” from other locations), the ancestral portraits—Diana’s great-grandfather in the full splendor of a general in the service of Franz-Joseph, her father as a dashing dragoon galloping through some Ruthenian hamlet in World War I; then the “English” park and the boar-filled woods; and all this restored with Diana Phipps’s rare taste and imagination. If you stand with eyes half-closed you can almost see Count Leopold Sternberg’s hunting party lined up in the great courtyard, waiting impatiently for the American ambassador to join them, as described in her mother Cecilia Sternberg’s memorable (but, sadly, out-of-print) autobiography, The Journey.

Here as elsewhere in the Czech lands, the local people do not seem to be overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the return of the aristocrats. (There is perhaps a contrast to the traditional gentry nations of Poland and Hungary.) I personally find it not just fabulous, in the original sense of the word, but also moving. Like, at the other social extreme, Jáchym Topol’s street kids tossing off Albanian slang between bites of crazy chleba, this is all part of the larger return to diversity, to history, and to freedom; with all the tensions and conflicts that necessarily brings.

In the anteroom to the “museum” part of the castle, we contemplate a display, left over from the Communist period, listing the successive owners with their coats of arms. The Sternberg arms show a star with the motto nescit occasum—“It will not set.” Underneath, the Communist curators have written “Sternberk family (1694–1948)”—as if the star had set. We discuss how this entry should be amended. Perhaps the simplest and most eloquent thing would be just to add: (1992– ).

Warsaw—In the evening I fly, with a plane-load of screaming French teen-agers and wearily networking American, German, and British consultants, to Poland, where it is the ex-Communists’ star that has risen again. For me, this is really just a stopover on the way to Lithuania, but there is time to see a few old friends.

Konstanty Gerbert, who still sometimes writes under his underground pen name of Dawid Warszawski, takes me out to lunch in an unexpectedly good Chinese restaurant (culinary worlds apart from the old, state-owned Shanghai). He talks, vividly as ever, about Bosnia, where he now spends much of his time. But, I ask, what about Poland?

Sluchaj, nudnie!” he says. Boring! “Poland has become an ordinary, provincial country with ordinary provincial problems.” We both agree that this is a very great achievement indeed. After all, until 1989, boring, provincial normality was beyond all but the most far-fetched dreams. And the fact that this can more or less continue to be the case under a government dominated by the ex-Communists (or ex-ex-Communists) levered out only five years ago is a twist that nobody imagined. (Of course, things are not quite so secure and rosy as this sweeping judgment suggests, but the reservations must wait for another article.)

Everywhere jackets and ties, suits and ties—scarcely a trace of the old underground sweaters and jeans. I feel almost underdressed.

Grzegorz Boguta, once the tyro of the underground publisher nowa and now the smartly suited head of Polish Scientific Publishers (PWN), gives me the 1992 supplement to their dictionary of the Polish language. It contains words that have entered the language since the dictionary was first published in 1978 and those that had been excluded for political reasons (including reasons of Communist prudery).

This is a fascinating semantic register of fifteen years in which so much has changed: from aborcja (abortion, one of the most controversial issues in Polish politics over the last few years) to zydokomuna (a hateful new-old term for Communists of—or allegedly of—Jewish origin). The entries under “B” include beton (“concrete,” referring to Communist Party hard-liners), bingo, bioenergoterapia, bogoojczyzniany (one of my favorities, meaning literally “god-fatherlandized,” and used to refer to excessively pious patriotic persons), bolszewik, briefing, and broker. “V,” a letter not generally used in Polish, has just three entries: video (explained as “wideo”), video-(as prefix), and votum separatum.

Vilnius—Puttering along in yet another twin-propeller plane, across snow-covered fields, enchanting lakes, and enchanted woods, I arrive in Vilnius. Like Bratislava, this is a capital city which lies in one corner of its country and is in many ways quite untypical of it. Where Bratislava (Pressburg, Pozsony) was once German, Hungarian, and Jewish as well as Slovak, Vilnius (Wilno, Vilna) was once Polish and Jewish as well as Lithuanian. Memorably evoked in recent times by two of its native sons, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, Vilnius is a wonderful irregular composition of Baroque churches, small palaces, town houses, courtyard leading into courtyard—“a city of clouds resembling baroque architecture and of baroque architecture like coagulated clouds,” as Milosz puts it in his Native Realm.

However, Vilnius is Central Europe only from the knees up: the pavements and roads are full of Soviet-style potholes and slush. Near the university, I see a car with its rear wheel completely jammed in a three-foot-deep pothole. An acquaintance tells me you can actually get some modest compensation for the damage from the local authorities, but only if you land in a registered pothole.

A Lithuanian poet shows me around the Jewish museum, which goes by the curious name of the Jewish State Museum of Lithuania. The exhibition is striking because, even when you have found it (which is not altogether easy), there is almost nothing there. A few Torah scrolls and Hanukkah lamps, some prints (“Portrait of Sir Moses Montefiore, Lithograph, Warsaw”); that’s about it. Fragments of fragments from a lost world. “We rely on the visitors to tell us what we have,” says the poet. In the visitors’ book, a young German thanks the museum for this reminder of “our very, very bad history.”

Not far away, on Gedimino Boulevard, there is another exhibition. In the basement of what until just three years ago was still the KGB headquarters, you can visit the cells. I am shown around by a former inmate, Stasys Katauskas. Speaking Polish with the rolled Lithuanian “1,” he tells me how he was caught in 1946 after passing a radio set to the anti-Soviet partisans. Then he takes me through the cells as if I myself were being admitted—first the strip search; then locked up in a tiny, windowless cupboard; then the registration, photograph, and fingerprinting (the original equipment is still there); finally, into the cells. These were repainted by the KGB before they left, but the association of former inmates has paid a picture restorer to strip off the paint, layer by layer. On a small, two-foot square patch you have twenty carefully numbered layers: so many despairing messages, so much filth, so much blood have these walls seen. Down the corridor there is the freezing solitary confinement cell, and, most horrible of all, a cell heavily padded with stuffed canvas, still bloodstained. The torture room.

To sophisticated Western ears, Lithuanian nationalism often sounds strident and crude. But if you walk through these cellars, contemplate the catalog of occupation which this one building has seen over the last century—tsarist Russian courts, Polish courts, NKVD, Nazi Sicherheitsdienst, KGB—and look at the grainy photographs of the partisans on the walls, then you may have a little more understanding of the traumatic experience from which that raw, naive nationalism comes.

However, I am told that after the first, great wave of recollection and mourning and celebration in the independence struggle, most young Lithuanians, perhaps most Lithuanians altogether, no longer want to look back, whether in sorrow, pride, or anger. They have elected former Communists to the government after the anti-Communist patriots led by Vytautas Landsbergis turned out to be inept.2 They are more concerned with today’s chances, and today’s problems, such as the omnipresent mafia, with their car-theft and protection rackets; the biznes-men who buy politicians and a favorable press; the politicians enriching themselves from the public purse and the proceeds of privatization. (Once again, I feel the lack of a term to embrace this entire complex phenomenon.)

I visit some of the politicians in the parliament building which the people of Vilnius defended against Soviet forces in 1991. A section of the concrete and barbed-wire barricade has been left as a memorial, looking strangely like a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Inside, an adviser to the government of ex-Communists outlines Lithuania’s foreign policy options: to take the “northern” route to Europe, via Sweden and Denmark, or the “western” route, by way of Poland and Germany. Interestingly, many Lithuanians favor the northern route mainly because it does not involve going by way of Poland, which is still seen here very much as a historic oppressor.

Romualdas Ozolas, a small, wiry, bristling opposition MP, has a sticker on his office wall in the blue and yellow colors of the European Union. It proclaims “My Country Europe.” Is that his sentiment? “Ja,” he says, in his somewhat broken German, “genau!” And what is Europe? Strutting up and down, he barks a short and definite answer: “Europa ist…nicht-Russland!” Europe is not-Russia. Well, that is one definition, and far from just a Lithuanian one. (It’s just that the Lithuanians are naive enough to say so.)

Our wide-ranging geopolitical discussion is interrupted by a sharp knock at the door. A young journalist from the sensationalist newspaper Respublika comes in and, without so much as an “excuse me,” thrusts a tape recorder under Mr. Ozolas’s nose. Mr. Ozolas delivers a few well-chosen words, and the journalist exits as abruptly as he entered.

Playing on the popular theme of political corruption, Respublika has offered a large reward to any politician who can prove—against the best efforts of their investigative journalists—that he (or she) is not corrupt. Since politicians have not exactly been rushing to apply, the newspaper has started nominating candidates, allegedly on the basis of a poll of its readers. Mr. Ozolas has been thus nominated. He was now telling that probing young Lithuanian Woodward’nBernstein that he would not be accepting the kind offer. “Ich sage,” he explains, “ich nicht nehme, weil ich habe Auto gekauft!” After further inquiries I finally establish that, along with other MPs, he had voted himself a car at what was, in effect, a subsidized price.

My friend Edward Lucas, managing editor of the Baltic Independent (a weekly newspaper well worth investing in), drives a merry party north from Vilnius to visit what French geographers have determined to be the center of Europe. It is not very well signposted, but at what we think is the right turning we spy an old peasant woman in head scarf and felt boots. Excuse me, Edward asks politely in his Oxonian Lithuanian, is this the way to the center of Europe? Oh yes, comes the completely unfazed answer, it’s just over that hill.

Sure enough, trudging through ankledeep slush we reach a black granite slab on which is engraved the longitude (25° 19’) and latitude (54° 54’), and the words Europos centras. I stand on it, with what eighteenth-century travelers used to call sublime emotion, and nearly fall off. It’s slippery out there, on the center of Europe.

St. Petersburg—After a long, cold wait, the Lithuanian Airlines twinprop just starts up and goes—no safety drill, no “This is your steward speaking.” The emergency exit next to me rattles like a loose mudguard.

At St. Petersburg airport, however, I am met by a Volvo stretch limo, and swept into the Grand Hotel Europe—a Swedish-Russian joint venture and luxurious even by Western standards. “No detail has been overlooked,” says the room card, “in creating an authentic Russian environment with all the comforts and services of today.” Authentic Russian environment, my foot!

The contrast with the city just beyond the hotel doors is extreme. Here, poorly dressed crowds trudge grimly along the muddy pavements—although some stop to indulge in that curious Russian pastime of eating ice cream in the snow. The façades look more grubby than when I was last in (then still) Leningrad, but perhaps it is just the season. What is certainly new is the proliferation of street-traders, hawkers, spivs, and beggars.

I am here for what turns out to be a fascinating conference, organized by the Hamburg-based Bergedorfer Gesprächskreis with the participation of the German defense minister and the Russian deputy defense minister. Two things strike me particularly. One is that, whereas in Central Europe the central historical reference point is the period before 1939, here it is clearly the period before 1917. This extends even to details of dress and manner. The smart aide-de-camp to the Russian minister looks like an oil painting of a World War I officer. The German military men, by contrast, look like managers in uniform.

The other, more serious, thing is just how difficult even those whom I know to be very liberal Russians find it, emotionally as much as intellectually, to accept the loss of empire. Although the West in general, and the Clinton administration in particular, has done everything to avoid a Versailles-type humiliation, they still feel humiliated. In this as in other respects, it really is “Weimar Russia.”

The crucial psychological test case is not the Baltic states—although Russia’s relationship with them is difficult enough, especially because of the position of the Russian minorities there and the Russian military exclave of Kaliningrad. The test is Ukraine. With the best will in the world, most of the Russians I talk to find it difficult to accept the idea that Ukraine can really be an independent state.

One evening we are treated by Mayor Sobchak to a splendid reception in the extraordinary Yusupov Palace, with its rooms of onyx, marble, and tooled leather, its white and gold ballroom and its own small theater complete with plush stalls, circle, and the family box. After the usual banquet of zakuski, vodka, and speeches, we are shown down to the room in which Prince Feliks Yusupov and his fellow-conspirators attempted to poison Rasputin. A wax model of the lubricious monk sits at a table laid with his favorite sweet wine and candy cakes, while the clean-shaven young prince looks on. A smartly dressed lady guide, exuding perfume and national pride, tells us every last detail of that gruesome night: how the poison was not sufficient to fell the immensely strong Rasputin, how he staggered out into the courtyard, how the conspirators finished him off, how they disposed (or failed to dispose) of the body. His ghost, you feel, has still not quite been laid to rest.

Oxford, March 28—I return with no great synthetic insights, no confident generalizations—let alone any predictions. For those, I shall turn to the volumes of Transitology now piling up on my desk, and which I hope to discuss in another article. But I turn to them with a number of reality tests in mind. Does the analysis of post-communism tally with and illuminate what I have seen? Does it, for example, show the unique importance of television and radio? Does it pay adequate attention to the controversial part played by the West in general, and Western consultants (including some Transitologists) in particular? Does it illuminate that peculiar post-Communist mixture of enterprise, organized crime, ex-nomenklatura, corruption, and politics?

Postscript, May 23—Three developments to report. In mid-April, the seven Central European presidents met in Litomyšl. They then had a televised debate, enlivened by Lech Walesa’s spirited warning against the revival of Russian imperialism. Richard von Weizsäcker was the model of tact, and much good will was expressed by all. They agreed to repeat the summit next year. The “L7” may not yet have established itself as a serious rival to the G7, but this was, as one German journalist commented, a great event in the history of Litomyšl.

The interim outcome of the first round of the Hungarian elections, in early May, suggests a great victory for the ex-Communist Socialists, who appear to have won a good third of the vote, with the Free Democrats in second place, the Young Democrats doing much more poorly than they had hoped, and the Democratic Forum soundly trounced. Only after the second round of voting, at the end of May, will we see the exact composition of the government. Will the Free Democrats go in with the ex-Communists? If so, will that sharpen or lessen the danger of a Kulturkampf?

Meanwhile, Edward Lucas writes from Vilnius:

The center of Europe has been VANDALIZED—it looks as though someone tried to steal it, but found the stone too heavy to carry off. It now lies upside down, about a meter away from the plinth.

Things fall apart, the center cannot hold—but back here I keep finding new centers of Europe. Besides a whole country, some of whose intellectuals now consider it to be again the center of Europe (Germany), I have, with only the most casual inquiries, already collected four further claimants: one in the Bohemian woods, one in the Csepel district of Budapest, one—somewhat loosely documented—in the Western Ukraine, and the Eurocity of Strasbourg. They should surely get together in an association, perhaps even a Center for Centers of Europe. Just the kind of project to win generous funding from the EU. But where would it be based?

  1. 1

    See my article, “The Revolution of the Magic Lantern,” The New York Review, January 19, 1990.

  2. 2

    See Czeslaw Milosz’s article about Lithuania, “Swing Shift in the Balkans,” The New York Review, November 4, 1993.

  • Email
  • Print