Monday, November 14, 2005


The Communist tool-box still comes in handy

Some of the tools are rusty; others are just plain useless. The skills
I struggled to acquire in communist-era Eastern Europe now seem as
quaint as the ability to hunt a woolly mammoth or sharpen a flint axe.

Or do they? My biggest stumbling blocks: visas, communications and
staying fed, have all but vanished. Bluffing and subterfuge were
essential to get inside places like Ceausescu's Romania, Communist
Czechoslovakia, or the Soviet Union, and to work once there. Not any
more. I no longer envy colleagues for being dab hands at the telex
(remember that?), or for their wiles in getting planned-economy
restaurants to provide food.
Thankfully, it is no longer necessary to know the ins and outs of
Marxist theory, The ability to swap Lenin quotes with Communist
apparatchiks counts for nothing. Languages matter less too: in
pre-revolutionary Eastern Europe, you simply had to stumble through
your irregular verbs, suffixes and declensions. The alternative was to
talk only to a tiny bunch of polyglots; or else rely on a small pool
of imperfect interpreters who were easy targets for secret police
Most importantly, there's no risk to life and liberty. Nobody beats
you up. I no longer feel overwhelmed by the moral courage of my
interviewees. Even the most unpleasant post-Communist politician is
unlikely to be as revolting a liar and bully as, say, a Soviet-era
secret policeman.
But some things have stayed the same. Despite a decade in the
limelight, plus EU and NATO membership for the lucky ones, much of the
region is once again below the Western editorial horizon. I remember
beseeching my bosses (I wasn't at The Economist then, I should add) in
the late 1980s to take Yugoslavia seriously.
Now the frozen conflicts of the Caucasus and Western Balkans are again
too complicated and faraway for Western public attention to focus on.
And ignorance is still amazing. Last week BBC World reported,
straight-faced: "Poland is struggling to catch up its richer
neighbours, Germany and [sic] Russia."
More importantly, history is still the key. Understanding Polish
politics is impossible without knowing the difference between the
London and Lublin governments, or the difference between Pilsudski's
and Dmowski's concept of nationhood. Russia is stuck in the cloven
pine of its history. In every country in the region, the simplest but
most revealing question is still: "What were you doing before 1989?
And what did your parents do?".
That touches the biggest similarity: Communism may be dead as an
ideology, but its psychological legacy lives on. Below a thin layer of
post-Communist polish, anyone with a background in the old regime is
likely to have a different emotional, social and moral wavelength:
more hierarchical, more suspicious, more verbose, more rigid (and
perhaps less principled) than the naive outsider might expect.
Cutting through that still requires sharp thinking. As Raymond Smith
explains in his classic work on the communist mindset, Negotiating
with the Soviets, the trick is to decide quickly whether to befriend,
bully or beg. A haughty approach (done with conviction) gets you
almost everywhere: kow-towing to higher authority is deeply ingrained.
If you can stomach it, getting friendly may work too - though you may
have to do a favour in return: personal connections were, after all,
the fuel that kept planned economies functioning. If all else fails,
grovel: humiliation is cheap if it gets you what you want.
It varies, of course. Belarus, Transdniestr and the like are the
worst. They just happen to be where I find my flint axe quite useful too.

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