Blog: Return to Adversity

Posted September 20, 2012

Categories: Articles, Blog, Eastern Europe, Europe, Featured

In the 1970s and 1980s, the nascent civil society movements in East-Central Europe leveraged their marginal position in society into a form of social power. Because they were largely disconnected from an unjust power structure – and suffered considerably from the repression of that power structure – they commanded what Vaclav Havel famously called “the power of the powerless.” The eventually successful campaigns of Poland’s Solidarity, Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, and East Germany’s New Forum proved the “uses of adversity,” in the phrase that Timothy Garton Ash borrowed from Shakespeare to title his 1989 collection of essays. Repression produced rebirth.

The collapse, when it came, was rapid, spectacular, and relatively bloodless. The Warsaw Pact monolith, which was never quite as monolithic as Moscow would have preferred, fell apart in 1989, and the region experienced what Joseph Rothschild described as a “return to diversity.”

As I prepare to retrace my 1990 journey through East-Central Europe, as I attempt in other words to step into the same region twice, I suspect that time and hardship have fused the phrases of Rothschild and Ash. The region is now experiencing a return to adversity.

Governments in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and elsewhere are showing signs of greater authoritarianism. Right-wing populists populate the parliaments, and their brothers-in-arms patrol the streets. Has liberalism reached its high-water mark in East-Central Europe? Or, to use a different metaphor, is this return to adversity a short detour or a more involved journey to an unknown location?

On March 17, 1990, I set off from Brussels for East Berlin to begin what would be seven months of wandering around the region. It was wandering with a purpose – to help the Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee, to establish an office in this newly tumultuous part of the world. Now, thanks to the Open Society Foundations, I am returning to track down the people I interviewed back then to see how their lives, their families, and their countries have changed.

Of course, I too have changed. I’m no longer a footloose 26-year-old looking for a life-changing experience of my own. Back then, I carried a week’s change of clothes in my college backpack, along with an early version of a laptop, one of the first portable printers, a shortwave radio, a tape recorder, and a copy of Terra Nostra by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes (the nearly 800-page paperback accompanied me all the way through Slovakia where I finally finished it).

Back in 1990, I had a handful of names and contact numbers, but not many. As soon as I hit the ground in a new country, I quickly scrambled to locate interesting people to interview. There was no Internet, no Facebook, no cell phones. The first thing I did in a new place was to determine what coins the public telephone took. I came to dread these cold calls. I had no idea whether the person on the other end spoke English (or Russian or Polish, the other two languages I could use). They didn’t know who I was, and I had to very quickly describe my project. Most people were sufficiently intrigued not to hang up. In some cases, just being an American was enough to open doors, for this was before the rush of American backpackers to Prague and Budapest. Where I lacked contacts, I would visit the places that housed the new civil society organizations – Haus fur Demokratie in East Berlin, for instance – and marvel at how quickly the new world was taking shape.

Every week, I wrote up a report of my conversations, including many transcribed interviews. I printed them out on the portable printer. And I sent the hard copies back to the AFSC office. It’s difficult to remember a time when news was not instantaneous.

Today, I travel very differently. I have my Mac Air, and WiFi will never be very far away. I’m taking a video camera this time to record my interviews. And I’ll be writing periodic blog posts (available at I can now carry a library in my pocket. My smart phone carries several audio books, the film The Hurt Locker, and a number of books on Kindle, including a novel by Dubravka Ugresic, several early memoirs of travel in Serbia, Chuck Sudetic’s book on Carla Del Ponte, and Tony Judt’s massive history of postwar Europe. After 15 years of studying East Asian affairs, I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

I’m no longer footloose. My wife remains at home, where we have lived now for a decade. I’m no longer looking to transform my life. I can concentrate instead on how historic events have transformed the lives of others.

I will begin my travels this time in Belgrade. I’ll continue to Bulgaria, where I expect to visit Varna and Plovdiv as well as Sofia. I’ll return to Serbia and then on to Croatia and Slovenia. In 1990, I concentrated on the issue of ethnic minorities in Bulgaria and the disintegration of the central state in Yugoslavia, and these were the topics of the chapters on these countries in my 1992 book, Shock Waves: Eastern Europe after the Revolutions. I’ll revisit these issues in 2012.

Almost everyone that I interviewed in 1990 has responded to my emails. They generally don’t remember me – and why should they? – but they are willing to sit down and talk just as they did 22 years ago. Some people have died; some have moved to distant countries. To augment my original list and avoid the trap of talking only to a narrow demographic slice of society, I’ll be reaching out to a lot of people for the first time: young people, artists, representatives of new social organizations.

I’m not exactly sure what will come of all this. But then, I had no idea in 1990 either. I am open to possibilities, just as the region was in 1990. But, as I did 22 years ago, I feel a certain urgency. In 1990, East-Central Europe was on the verge of economic austerity, resurgent nationalism, and, in the case of Yugoslavia, outright war. Today, the region has largely survived these traumas, but they have left their mark. And although much of the region has joined the European Union, or is currently negotiating accession, a return to adversity threatens. What worked in East-Central Europe and what did not work: I am eager to hear what the people of the region have to say.


    1. Khazaria isn’t on the official itinerary. But I often get on busses without knowing exactly where they’ll drop me off…

      1. You should visit Khazaria. Then you would know the sounds of Khazaria: the calls to prayer and the air raid sirens. And you would know the smells: the peppers cooking and the not so nice smells. You might even find out what happened to Joey!

  1. John,
    Enjoyed your intro. I can only imagine the excitement you must be having connecting with people from 22 years ago and all the new folks. have a fabulous time there.

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