|The Evil Empire|
Issue #39 (November 1984)
"Buckley Fish" is not my real name. The reason for the pseudonym is that I recently drove through Eastern Europe--East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary--and have some harsh opinions about the Russian hegemony there. I might like to go back some day and don't want to be denied entry--or, worse yet, be denied exit. So let them scan passports for the name of Buckley Fish; he's still out here, swimming in free water.
My friends and acquaintances know that in June of this year I rendezvoused with a Mensa friend and her mother in Paris. After a few days of eating and sightseeing we drove in my car to Berlin, Warsaw, Czestochowa, Krakow, Zakopane, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, and finally Vienna. The mother, Ann, had been raised in Chicago by Slavic parents; she spoke flawless Bohemian and could communicate in Polish and several Czech languages. This opened up insights we could never have gained from bus tours or the parrot-like commentaries of government guides. Although we only scratched the surface of Eastern Europe, we got a good idea of what was going on underneath.
The first thing everyone said to Ann was how much they hated the Russians. This provided a bizarre counterpoint to the ubiquitous public monuments to "Russian-Czech Friendship" (or Russian-Polish, or Russian-Hungarian). People walked stolidly past these soulless stone piles (which were typically topped by a cast-iron Russian soldier supposed to be "liberating" them) but their thoughts were hardly friendly.
I got a taste of the status of Russians in Eastern Europe one day in Czestochowa, Poland. We were staying near the famous monastery of Jasna Gore, which houses the "Black Madonna" icon traditionally said to have been painted by Saint Luke It is a focus of pilgrimage for thousands of Poles every day, and one of the few places where they feel free to say what they think. Thus when I was standing out front, framing the building with my camera, a woman walked up and started racking me up and down in Polish.
Ann was not there to translate, so after a minute of verbal abuse I replied, politely, "I'm sorry, but I have no idea what you're saying." Pause. Consternation. "Russki?" she asked.
"Nie Russki," I cried, uncorking my Instant Slavic and pointing at myself, "Amerikanski!"
She fell all over herself with remorse. Suddenly nothing was too good for me. Perhaps I would prefer to take a picture from a better vantage point. Was there any way she could help me enjoy my visit in Poland? All this by tone and gesture, but the import was clear. Down with Russians, up with Americans.
Earlier this year, Reagan drew a lot of criticism by referring to the Russian role in Eastern Europe as an "evil empire." What a nasty thing to say, when we are trying so hard to get along with the Kremlin! But I now believe it is as descriptive a phrase as one can devise. The Russians are promoting their interests in their neighboring countries far more ruthlessly and insensitively than the nineteenth-century colonial powers ever did in Asia and Africa. They are patently exploiting the Slavs--confining them to menial work, stealing the fruits of their labor, controlling their means of expression, and crushing them with tanks when they complain. And they are getting away with it.
It has been said that Russia is simply recapitulating European history a hundred years late. Thus they dropped the Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe about a hundred years after Queen Victoria proclaimed the British Empire. Their mastery of ICBM warfare is cognate to Britannia's ruling the waves, and offers similar support to their colonial policy. It is ironic that a single upheaval, World War II, finished off the last British colonies at the same time that it engendered the new Russian ones.
Practically everyone Ann talked to said they would like to leave or make it possible for their children to leave. This universal desire to "vote with one's feet" is the ultimate rock on which the Soviets' claims of democracy and freedom break up. We heard a joke about the Russian Ivan, who goes traveling in Eastern Europe and sends back postcards regularly to his friends in Moscow. For a while their messages are all the same: "Greetings from free Poland"; "Greetings from free Czechoslovakia"; "Greetings from free Hungary." Then there is a hiatus. After a few weeks comes the last postcard, this time from Vienna: "Greetings from free Ivan!"
Certainly passing out through the Iron Curtain is an unnerving experience, and a vicious insult to people who produced the likes of Chopin and Curie. As you stand in a forest of concrete and barbed wire, the ploughed no-man's land stretching away on both sides to the horizon, guards with machine guns examine your papers minutely and probe your car for hidden bodies. This is the way out of paradise?
A grotesque sidelight on classical Marxist-Leninist theory is the way it is used to support the Russian Empire today. Because the State makes such an investment in raising the individual to be a productive worker, runs the argument, it has the right to hang onto him until he pays it back. The government becomes a vast Company Store to which every Czech, Pole, and Hungarian owes his soul. Thus these people's homelands are fenced off physically and dotted with satanic mills in which they pay their dues. One is reminded of the debt-ridden Irish and the poverty-locked Indians about which Marx wrote so vehemently. What might he say if he toured Eastern Europe today?
The British Empire claimed a certain measure of civilizing strength. Look, they said, at railroads where there were only footpaths, hospitals in the bush, modern science replacing dark superstition. The Russian Empire also makes such claims, but nobody outside the propaganda mills believes them. Instead, the fundamental Russian strength stems from the way they make it much more comfortable to go along than to raise trouble (as Reagan did). You can see this graphically by comparing living conditions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Where a popular revolt has been more recent, conditions are more harsh. Thus the Hungarians, who have been "going along" since 1956, are the most fortunate--they have plenty of good food, music in the cafes, and a certain amount of freedom of speech. The Czechs, who unloaded in 1968, are next. The least fortunate are the Poles, who are still restive after the recent Solidarity dustup. Although their fields are full of crops and animals, everything gets loaded into Russian trucks, which clog the roads going eastward. Polish restaurants wind up with one dish on the menu, usually potato stew. When vegetables arrive at a street market, people drop whatever they're doing and queue up. The message is this: make trouble and you get trouble. So those who are nostalgic for the days of the Raj--and they still exist, in India and Africa--can take some comfort, I suppose. They need only look in the right place. The fact is that colonialism is alive and well, and living in Eastern Europe.