The past year’s headlines from Eastern Europe bleed together like a Virginia Woolf novel whose characters hang on in quiet desperation:
Bulgarians are Europe’s most dissatisfied – survey
Poll finds Hungarians increasingly glum
Romania’s anti-corruption efforts slow down — or go backwards
Sad and depressed generation is being created [in Croatia]
Even suicide is stagnating [in Hungary]
Germans miss the ‘good old days’ of the GDR
It’s been 20 years since the Iron Curtain opened. Back in ’89, the promise of capitalism and liberal democracy was supposed to lead the famously gloomy region into a new era of hope and optimism. But, as the newspapers say, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Lech Walesa — the man who gave us Solidarity and a “national treasure,” according to the current President of Poland — is so fed up, he is now threatening to emigrate and renounce his Nobel Prize. Last month, Mikhail Gorbachev compared Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to the worst Communists he helped depose. The entirety of Moldova looks like a giant fuck-you to ’89, with a shiny new Communist (and likely illegitimate) government beating the hell out of dissenters at this very moment.
In a movie I saw recently, Transsiberian, the earnest American (Woody Harrelson) says to a cynical Russian cop (Ben Kingsley), “Don’t tell me you miss the Soviet Union—the U.S.S.R. was a dark evil empire.”
Kingsley replies, “Maybe so, but then we were people living in the darkness, now we are a people dying in the light. Which is better?”
The exchange captures how so much of Eastern Europe is currently caught in a weird gray zone between the darkness of the past and the inability to move forward and let a little light shine in. The Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, about a disillusioned Bolshevik during the time of the Moscow show trials, is one of the most poignant illustrations of what happens to an individual and a society when you turn off the lights — specifically, the unique way in which Communism used darkness to make individuals feel invisible both to themselves and to each other. Darkness is secrecy and isolation and misinformation. You can’t see in the dark. You are forced to rely upon those you may not trust. But perhaps the most devastating thing about the dark is how it keeps you mired in the past. When you can’t see in front of you, you start to look backward. If you’re in the dark long enough, you start to wonder if there can ever be a future, start to forget what the future ever meant to you at all. So you just “chew the cud of old adventures,” as Koestler’s protagonist Rubashov puts it, a self-destructive process in which your glories and failures are equally exaggerated.
It is impossible to overestimate how thoroughly a culture of institutionalized secrecy and suspicion fragments a person’s confidence in their government, in their friends, and in their own self. It smothers civil society, makes people more worried about what they do in public, wonder who’s looking over their shoulder. A Darwinian logic creeps in. People start to believe that they can only get by if they play the angles, dodge the rules, twist the truth. Twenty years later, though the public sphere is undeniably freer in Eastern Europe, there’s still the unshakeable sense that democracy is mostly a trick. It’s in the faces of young men in Hungary, waving the extremist Árpád flag. In the anti-Semitic, conspiracy-laden rants of Poland’s Radio Maryja. In the unapologetic violence at gay pride rallies in Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia…
Twenty years ago, the streets of Poland swelled with the promise of Solidarity. In October 1989, 120,000 people marched against the government in Leipzig. In November, almost half a million Czechs were propelled through the streets by the inspiration of Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright turned politician. After the Soviet satellite governments had cloaked their half of Europe in invisibility for decades, televisions around the world were flooded with the faces Eastern Europeans, hidden no more. The cats were out of the bag. And it wasn’t just the West seeing them; it was everyone seeing each other — Poles seeing Czechs, Austrians seeing Hungarians, West Germans seeing East Germans. The lid had blown off the box; the walls came down, as did the towering monuments to secrecy that seemed to block out the sun.
The destruction of the Berlin Wall is now the iconic image of ’89, but the Wall was already beginning to crumble earlier in the year. One of the less celebrated events was a picnic held on August 19 at the border between democratic Austria and Hungary. The event was concocted by an alliance of young opposition organizations — the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz), and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), to name a few. The idea at first was simple: They would picnic at the border in a peaceful, public demonstration against the Iron Curtain, which in Hungary was a pathetic barbed wire fence rigged up with high voltage. There would be Austrians on one side and Hungarians on the other. And despite the fact that these Hungarian youth groups hardly knew any Austrians, the idea started to grow. They decided that the border should be temporarily opened for a few hours on the pretense that it would make the picnic more accessible to Austrians. And amazingly, they convinced both the Austrian and Hungarian governments to allow it. Their next move was to inform visiting East Germans that for a short period on this day, the border would be open. On August 19, among the thousands of people who showed up for this picnic — including international press, government dignitaries, and curious participants — were around 700 East Germans who bum-rushed the border, weeping and elbowing their way into Austria and into freedom. The day set the stage for further incursions through the Wall, with East Germans continuing to use Hungary as a gateway to Europe’s other side for months to come.
The Pan-European Picnic has largely been forgotten. But even for those who remember, it’s hard to believe it actually happened. Pictures of the day are a stunning amalgam of tears, goulash, laughter, and diplomacy: guards smiling gently at passports, dignitaries snipping off souvenir pieces of the border fence, rows and rows of Trabants and Wartburgs (crummy little East German “people’s cars”) left abandoned in the fields of Sopronpuszta. But in retrospect, most miraculous is how it all happened in the daylight, right there where everyone could see it. There were no underground tunnels, no secret passageways. The only violence was essentially an accident brought on by the fading light. When a thunderstorm covered the picnic in darkness, bringing it to an end, Kurt Werner Shultz from Weimar made a late attempt to cross into Austria and ended up being shot dead not far from his wife and 6-year-old child by a spooked border guard who later regretted it. Kurt Werner Shultz was the only person harmed that day. The lights went out and quickly the old fear crept back onto the scene.
Perhaps it was always a mistake to think that the shroud of Communism was going to be replaced by the glorious “light” of Western democracy and capitalism. It’s not that Eastern Europeans are naïve (if anything, they are too savvy). It’s just that many people wanted to believe — deserved to believe — that their troubles were finally over. But light doesn’t end your troubles. It can, however, allow you to see them more clearly and create the space to talk about them more openly. In a funny way, light allows you to really get a good look at how ugly you are. That’s why the ethos of the Pan-European Picnic is better than any specific ideology. It doesn’t present a ready-made solution, but it does give you a chance to lay your potato salad out on the blanket.
“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world,” Vaclav Havel once said. “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” It might be tempting to dismiss the present melancholy as good-ol’ Eastern European pessimism. Yet to say Eastern Europeans aren’t capable of hope and optimism is to call the events of ’89 a lie. Maybe it was fleeting. Hope is always fleeting, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Importantly, hope isn’t merely the dazzle of the revolutionary moment, as Havel implies, the grandiosity of idealism and dissent. As the great Polish intellectual Adam Michnik told The New York Times on the 10th anniversary of Communism’s fall, “My obsession has been that we should have a revolution…that [is] for something, not against something…A revolution for a constitution, not a paradise. An anti-utopian revolution. Because utopias lead to the guillotine and the gulag.”
Walking around the quiet streets of Budapest at night you might think the city is devoid of life. But behind the neo-classical caryatids and bullet-pocked buildings, Hungarians have taken over vacant lots and empty rooftops, turning them into buzzing nightclubs and bars where locals dance and drink. The mini-Picnics are still happening, seven days a week, just in secret, in hiding. Everyone seems to have forgotten that you can’t have a picnic without people coming out into the sunshine. The reason why no one remembers the Pan-European Picnic anymore is because it tells an ambiguous story. It doesn’t point the way forward, but simply opens up a nice bright space where everybody can take an honest look around. The problems of Eastern Europe run deep and will likely only get worse under the global economic recession. Maybe Eastern Europeans will simply never have it easy. Maybe they will always struggle with the darkness. But even as a dying of the light comes with every rotation of the sun, it still must be raged against. In the face of all the disappointed hopes of the last two decades, I’d say it is time to have more picnics. • 29 April 2009
Note: Sunday, May 3, the Extremely Hungary Festival and PEN World Voices 2009 host PanEuropean Picnic Redux in New York City. Click here for more information.