When the Cheering Stopped

It's becoming clearer than ever that the failure of orthodox, Soviet-style communism in Eastern Europe has been broader and more catastrophic than all but a handful in the West imagined.

It has been obvious for some time, of course, that the regimes imposed on the peoples of the East by Josef Stalin some 40 years ago have failed utterly both as engines of economic production and as systems of equitable distribution. Indeed, the only things they seem to have distributed with an open hand are repression, stagnation and want. What is perhaps even more surprising is their total failure as vehicles of social transformation, as parents to that "new, internationalist man" promised in revolutionary communism's heady youth.

The clearest proof of this is the fact that in the immediate aftermath of communism's collapse, the popular impulses that have come most quickly to the front are the old forces of nationalism and religious sectarianism, with all their irredentist passions and communal antagonisms. Today's renewed Azeri self-assertion, animosity between Bulgars and Turks, quarrels between Hungarians and Romanians, active Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Georgian and Armenian nationalisms are all political furnaces in which the abilities of Muscovite czars and Austro-Hungarian emperors were tried and found wanting. Now, as Soviet power recedes to its natural limits, these smoldering old fires flare anew.

Of all the communist world's failures, in other words, perhaps the most abject is the failure of the Soviet Union as an imperial power. As Times columnist William Pfaff presciently pointed out in "Barbarian Sentiments," his recently published book, "It was otherwise in successful empires. Those conquered by Rome wanted to be Roman citizens. Elites in colonial India and Africa in the 19th and early 20th centuries wanted to study at Oxford or in Paris. The notion that a young Pole or Hungarian of the last 40 years would have longed to go to Moscow to study and make a career, to find a place among its painters and poets, to bring its civilization back to his own country, is ludicrous. His grandfather or father had wanted to go to Vienna, Berlin, Paris, New York--and so has he. Nothing in the last half century has produced conversion to the values or ideas of the Soviet Union. The opposite has been true.

All this stands in marked contrast to the youthful vitality and optimism of the Old World's Western half. There, 40 years of social democracy and mixed economies have produced open societies moving peacefully toward 1992's unprecedented continental integration. Some violent nationalist claims persist, of course. But, to take two examples, the Spanish Basques and Ulster nationalists, such movements are very much on the fringe--intractable problems whose significance more closely approximates that of the U.S. underclass than the Soviets' crisis in Azerbaijan. They are not central to the logic of Western European development in the same way that the unresolved nationalisms of the East Bloc seem to be for the course of that region's foreseeable history.

In Europe, the 20th Century is ending, at least in part, as it began: with a disintegrating Russian empire, resurgent Central European, Balkan and Baltic nationalisms and an unresolved German question.

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