In Poland and Hungary this has been a fantastic spring. As I travel through those countries, attending an opposition fete in Budapest, a triumphal mass in Gdansk, a Solidarity election meeting in a Silesian coal mine, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. Walking around Budapest’s equivalent of Oxford Circus I pass a stall openly selling samizdat publications. Casting an eye over the titles I suddenly notice my own name, on what turns out to be a slim volume of essays hastily translated from The New York Review. Next day I am signing copies for people attending the opposition fete. “Incredible” and “surreal” are the words that punctuate every conversation about politics, though not about economics, for which the leitmotifs are, rather, “disastrous” and “hopeless.”
Last year, I posed the question of political change in these two countries as one of the historic choice “reform or revolution?”1 But what is happening just now is a singular mixture of both reform and revolution: a “revorm,” if you will, or perhaps a “refolution.” There is, in both places, a strong and essential element of voluntary, deliberate reform led by an enlightened minority (but only a minority) in the still ruling Communist parties, and, in the Polish case, at the top of the military and the police. Their advance consists of an unprecedented retreat: undertaking to share power, and even—mirabile dictu—talk of giving it up altogether if they lose an election.2
Yet one is bound to ask how far the retreat is voluntary, how far involuntary, and whether it might not become a rout. For if one talks to the intelligentsia in both countries, then the comparison that comes to mind is less with 1968 than with 1848, less with the Prague Spring than with the Springtime of Nations. The greatest opposition demonstrations in Budapest have been held on the 1848 anniversary: March 15. Among other rites, symbolic tribute is traditionally paid before the statue of Józef Bem, who commanded the Hungarian insurrectionary army in 1848. Józef Bem was a Pole.
Polish-Hungarian cooperation has not got quite that far again, although a Polish opposition leader may be invited to speak at the reburial of Imre Nagy, leader of the 1956 revolution, on June 16: the next great symbolic event in Budapest, and one that the authorities fear will be highly charged. But certainly the Poles and the Hungarians, governments as well as oppositions, are now looking to each other for examples, precedents, and even direct support. For they are still alone in Eastern Europe. So far, this is the springtime of just two nations. What they are doing would be quite impossible without Gorbachev’s tolerance, his example, and the processes he has, wittingly or unwittingly, set in motion. Unlike in 1848, they can also count on benign (if ineffectual) support rather than resistance from the major powers to their west. But around them are still the frightened, hidebound, or openly repressive regimes of East Germany, Czechoslovakia,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.