Post-Communist Traumas East and West

Recovering from Soviet Terror Is Not Easy

Tibor Machan, of the philosophy faculty at Auburn University, escaped at age 14 from Communist Hungary in 1953. His experiences and reflections appear in his book Liberty and Culture, Essays on the Idea of a Free Society (Prometheus, 1989).

[We] cannot say that democratic institutions reflect a moral reality and that tyrannical regimes do not reflect one, that tyrannies get something wrong that democratic societies get right.

—Professor Richard Rorty, The New Republic, July 1, 1991

During an international conference on political theory several of us were sitting in a restaurant in Tallinn, Estonia. Among us was a participant from Bucharest, Romania, a young woman, who listened as some from the West poked fun at the evident inefficiency of the Russians who still have a significant presence in the Baltic countries and who happened to be running this establishment. We noted the drabness of the decor, the ineptness of the help, the slowness of the service, and reminisced about the even worse olden days when the gray-looking Russians who dominated the Communist culture would run roughshod over everyone in sight.

Suddenly we saw our friend from Bucharest in tears. She was apologizing but unable to keep herself from sobbing. We were stunned—we didn’t know what we did to upset her. We all searched our minds for what we might have said but could not come up with a sensible answer. In a while she calmed down a bit and told us.

All of this amusing banter called to our friend’s mind not only what she had been living with for all of her life but what in her country is still largely the case, namely, the complete control of the Soviet-type bureaucracy over the society. She then went on to recount, in halting English and tearfully, how the daily lives of her family and friends had been utterly trapped in the abyss that so many in the West championed as the promising wave of the future. She gave example after example of how people suffered, from moment to moment how every ounce of some modicum of joy and pleasure, never mind genuine happiness, was rendered utterly impossible and inconceivable for them. She noted that people simply lost the will to live, that they could not even smile, not to mention laugh heartily, and how the most minute matters, such as the way in which parents played and talked with their children, suffered from this totalitarian impact.

It is often only when one finds oneself facing the facts directly, inescapably, that one can appreciate their meaning. This is especially true about facts that so many people would just as soon obscure with clever rationalizations.

In the West, especially in American newspapers, academic journals, and college classrooms, the collapse of the Soviet empire is now nearly forgotten. People everywhere are talking about why there isn’t some kind of major economic boom in response to this fall. A Business Week editorial remarked, “Communism has been vanquished in much of the globe, the victim of its own failure to deliver a decent living to its citizens under its rule. Yet capitalism in the industrialized nations is limping along.” It is as if “one, two, three,” and our world will simply put 40 to 70 years of bloody dictatorship and command economy out of mind and bounce back as if nothing had happened.

Assessing the Damage

The damage inflicted by the Communist reign is not nearly well enough understood. It is certainly no longer treated as a big deal. What has taken its place as a vital item of concern is just how bad conditions are in the wake of the efforts to live without Communism, without the mighty Soviet State imposing its warped vision of human life on all the colonies within its sphere of impact. The question that seems to titillate the interest of many people is why the recovery is so slow, if a recovery was needed in the first place. The question on the minds of many prominent journalists, for example, is: “What should be substituted for the admittedly harsh and clumsy form of socialism, in the wake of the evident unworkability of the freedoms that the people gained after the fall?”

Despite all the talk about free markets and free institutions in the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe, the intellectual consensus among political theorists and scientists seems to be that some kind of middle way is needed between socialism and capitalism. There is little encouragement toward a truly vibrant capitalist system either from our politicians and political theorists or the voices of moral leadership.

Just consider what the word on this is from the Vatican Secretary of State, Angelo Cardinal Sodano: “Capitalism is no less dangerous [than Communism] because of its basic materialism and the unbridled consumerism and selfishness it encourages” (La Stampa, December 28, 1992). Instead of the truly productive capitalist system, the preferred alternative seems to be social democracy, the welfare state or communitarianism, a hybrid of liberalism and socialism, with the emphasis not on the value of the freedom of the individual, including freedom to engage in free production and trade, but on the value of individuals’ responsibilities to the community, not unlike the creed preached by Marx and his followers. The new vision involves a system in which free trade is here and there “permitted,” but only under the watchful eyes of planners and regulators who know just when to limit people’s liberty good and hard.

The one system that gets the least play as a proper candidate to replace the tyranny just overthrown is free-market capitalism or, as the Europeans call it, classical liberalism. No, that would unleash all the beasts. Such freedom cannot work and must not be tried, lest anarchy and rapaciousness break out all over. Look what freedom’s promise has already unleashed on Bosnia- Herzegovina. Look how greed and profiteering have already spread all over the old Soviet sphere. So the proper answer is not to let it happen—some people must become the stern tamers of the rest, if only we could quickly decide who are so clever and dependable as to take the reins of power.

Not only, then, is there little left of true capitalism and free-market economies in the West but there is little chance of such a system taking over where the Communist dictators failed. In addition to this, few people in the West seem to fully appreciate just how horrible the Soviet experiment really was and how difficult it is to recover from it. There are no expressions of earnest mea culpa anywhere. Publications such as The Nation, The New Republic, The Progressive, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the hundreds of other more scholarly outlets or related media do not spend much time acknowledging that their different degrees of softness on Communism, the thesis of moral equivalency between capitalism and Communism, their subtle but evident apologies for the Lenins, Stalins, Brezhnevs, and others in the Soviet debacle may have had a bit to do with the horrors the people had been subjected to, as well as with their current difficulties in recovering from these horrors and starting a new life, and recapturing some measure of hopefulness and the will to live and flourish.

I was rereading Naming Names, the book about the black list period in America during the 1950s by Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation (which is still proudly championing socialism with some kind of human face for all countries). In it Navasky made clear that he thought that despite the brutality of Soviet Marxism there was something morally noble about the system because its intent was to help the poor and powerless. I also read some passages ridiculing the Russian-born American novelist Ayn Rand who once claimed that a movie that depicted Russians smiling was a travesty, a sly propaganda piece since no ordinary Russian could be presented in such a way without a gross distortion of the truth—it would be comparable to depicting Jews in concentration camps having a good time playing volleyball. Not that this may never have happened, but that highlighting such characters in a work of fiction amounts to a vile distortion. Navasky and his ilk, of course, scoffed at this and still do.

A Complex, Painful Ordeal

But that is just what our Romanian friend was telling us about the millions and millions of victims of the Soviet terror, one that only a lunatic could imagine to have been motivated from compassion and care. What is worse, today many of these same naive reporters of the meaning and impact of Soviet socialism still do not appreciate just how complex and painful an ordeal it is to attempt to recover from it all.

People are not simply changing from one game to another when they finally are able to leave the Soviet system behind. They are undergoing recovery from massive and prolonged injury to their whole beings. They and everyone they know and love had been beaten and derided and terrorized by thugs for decades on end. When finally they are left alone, they are expected to, as the song says, just pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and start all over again with cheer in their hearts.

We are seeing some extremely painful recovery as well as relapses in the lives of those who had been the victims of the Soviet experiment that so many of our comfortable intellectuals watched with vile neglect. We will see normal imperfect human beings undergo a slow convalescence or stand around hesitatingly coping with new problems and nearly forgotten ones as well.

For the many people who have given their support to socialism and Communism over the years—if only by not being brutally honest about them on such grounds as that, well, these systems were motivated by compassion for the poor and downtrodden, the failure to see all this is a blatant confession of hypocrisy. The victims of the Soviet vision of human life deserve compassion and caring and yet all they seem to be getting is the callous disregard for their plight and the quick judgment that they are, after all, unable to handle freedom, aren’t they? What the yearning for self-justification will not permit some people to do in the face of the gravest of human tragedies!