Friday, April 24, 2009

WSJ: Across Eastern Europe, Remembering the Curtain's Fall


In 1989, Romania's Communist Party leader Nicolae Ceausescu was in his 24th year of power. In spite of increasingly dire economic conditions, he seemed invincible. Romania's state-controlled media did little but celebrate the achievements of the Ceausescu regime, and the Securitate, the country's elite secret police force, used its broad network of informers to keep any opposition from forming. Gradually, however, Romanians began to learn what was happening just beyond their borders thanks to Radio Free Europe.

"People were skeptical" that summer and fall, says Bucharest filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, whose 2007 film, "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," set in the final dark years of the Ceausescu regime, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. "Although we were watching the regimes in Eastern Europe collapsing one after the other," he recalls, "we feared this couldn't happen in Romania. The system seemed so well organized that we couldn't imagine how [the revolution] would start -- we were convinced that any attempt at rebellion would be covered in blood."

And so it was. Starting on Dec. 17, 1989, when armored units were called in to quell growing unrest in the far-western city of Timisoara, and ending on Christmas Day, when Ceausescu and his wife were executed by paratroopers, Romania's path to freedom was marked by violence.

Mr. Mungiu remembers the elation he felt when he heard the news on Dec. 22 that Ceausescu had fled. "I still remember that as the happiest moment of my life," he says. "The relief was indescribable -- we felt that a huge burden was taken off our shoulders."

Horia-Roman Patapievici, the Bucharest physicist who heads the Romanian Cultural Institute, says Dec. 22 is for Romanians what Nov. 9 is for Germans. He expects a number of concerts and other public events in Bucharest to mark the 20th anniversary. In addition to a public discussion this October in Bucharest, which will address the significance of 1989, the Romanian Cultural Institute will also sponsor related events at several of its branches around the world.


When Karolina Labowicz-Dymanus was born in Warsaw in 1982, Poland was under martial law, instituted by the country's Communist regime as a way to crack down on the growing influence of Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement. Thousands were imprisoned and tens of thousands later went into exile. Ms. Labowicz-Dymanus grew up in a country marked by moral and material devastation.

"I don't remember chocolate from my childhood," says Ms. Labowicz-Dymanus, now a curator at Galerie Foksal, part of Warsaw's booming art scene. "In the late '80s, you couldn't find anything in the shops, even common things like shoes." Then, she explains, "after 1989 everything came here. For a child, it was easy to notice -- suddenly everything was much more colorful."

All this year, Warsaw will celebrate its remarkable transformation since 1989 with events ranging from exhibitions to concerts and public discussions. The high point will come on June 4, when, 20 years ago, following the legalization of Solidarity in April 1989, the country held its first free election in a half-century.

On that day at Theater Square, an open-air rock concert will feature popular Polish bands from the 1980s, including Lady Pank and Turbo.

On June 6, the newly founded Polish History Museum and the Polish Senate will sponsor a day-long picnic, called "20 Years of Free Poland 1989-2009" at Rydz-Smigly Park. (in Polish only)


"Czechs are very cautious," says the Prague novelist Ivan Klima, looking back on his country's sudden transition from Communism in the fall of 1989. "The whole society was expecting change" that whole year, he recalls. "But they were waiting, waiting, waiting. And then it happened overnight."

Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" is remembered as peaceful, but it started violently on Nov. 17, when 15,000 students demonstrating in Prague were attacked by police. Within a few days, half a million demonstrators were on the streets, and by the end of the month, the Communist Party announced that it would surrender its monopoly on power. Within a few years, the Czechoslovak state had split in two, and the Czech Republic had for its president the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, who had just gotten out of jail a few years before.

Opona, a Prague-based NGO sponsoring several events this year marking the Velvet Revolution's 20th anniversary, plans to take its signature event on the road. "The Totalitarian Circus," a conceptual exhibition running in Prague now through May 3, uses theatrical performances and audience participation to simulate the experience of living under the Communist regime. After traveling to other Czech cities and towns, the exhibition plans to continue its tour throughout Europe later this year. On Nov. 17, Opona will also sponsor concerts called "20 Years Without the Curtain," in which stages will be set up along the path taken by students in 1989.


Terminology is important to Péter Nádas, the Hungarian novelist. "There was no Communist regime," he says, speaking about the political makeup of Hungary in the wake of its 1956 revolt against Soviet domination. Instead, he prefers to call the men who reinstated Communist rule after Soviet troops crushed the rebellion "careerists," in the service of what he calls "a Russian empire."

And he has found just the right phrase to sum up Hungary's transition to democracy, which started as early as 1988. "It was a long process," says Mr. Nádas, 66 years old, referring to a series of events spanning 18 months that changed Hungary from a dictatorship into an open society.

That process began in May 1988, with the resignation of János Kádár, Hungary's Communist leader after the 1956 revolt, and climaxed on Oct. 23, 1989, on the anniversary of that revolt, when Hungary was officially declared a republic. For Mr. Nadas, the most symbolic day in that process was June 16, 1989, when the heroes of the 1956 rebellion were reburied with great fanfare in a Budapest cemetery.

On June 27, 1989, a symbolic event of a different kind took place. The Hungarian and Austrian foreign ministers shook hands at their border, which the Hungarians had opened up to East Germans trying to flee to the west. This year, Hungary has chosen that date for the national observance of the events of 1989. In Budapest, a commemoration ceremony will be held on Kossuth Square. In addition to photo-ops for visiting dignitaries, there will be a two-day street party with rock concerts on Andrássy Avenue, the city's most famous boulevard.

For Mr. Nádas, a Budapest native who now lives in a remote village near the Austrian border, the decades since 1989 have restored a "liveliness" to Budapest that Communism had managed to erase. "Budapest isn't as well groomed as it was before," he says approvingly. "It's become chaotic, dirty, rundown -- a wild, interesting town."


"The late '80s were like a sunny day," says Russian writer Victor Erofeyev. Speaking by telephone from his home in Moscow, Mr. Erofeyev recalls "the paradoxical moment" at the beginning of 1989 when the Soviet Union, in the full throes of perestroika and glasnost, was the great liberalizing force in the Communist Bloc. "Our press was more free than in Hungary, or East Germany or especially Czechoslovakia." He describes the period as "a real Russian spring," when "people were full of hope."

"We all wanted these countries to be free from the Soviet Union," he recalls, describing the reaction to the collapse of Communist regimes as 1989 progressed. "We were absolutely happy that they were having their own revolutions. And [those countries] were all grateful to Gorbachev." However, he notes, "there is a big difference between the end of the '80s and the '90s. We had a terrible financial crisis, and the reformers couldn't explain what they were doing. And then we come to the Putin regime."

Mr. Erofeyev does not expect to see any positive coverage of the former Soviet Bloc's year-long party. In spite of the genuine emotions many Russians felt at the time, he says, "There will be no memory" of 1989. "It only shows how the whole situation has changed."

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