Eastern Europe: Ideology, Culture, and the Self

Article excerpt

BOHDAN KORDAN is Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Studies, St Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan. His most recent publication is Other Anxieties: Ukraine, Russia, and the West (Kashtan Press, 1994).

Without question, the 1989 revolution in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union are defining moments in world history, capping as they do the great struggle between the various competing ideologies of the twentieth-century: fascism, communism, liberalism. But for liberal ideologues, the result was more than just that. As proletarians from Riga to Sofia pulled down statues of Lenin and Marx, Western liberals were unqualifying in their verdict: liberalism had emerged triumphant, and the end of history, to borrow Fukuyama's words, was near.

NEARLY a decade has since passed, and there is much to doubt in the liberal prognosis for the future. The hopes and expectations that followed on the heels of the demise of the USSR have not been realized. The grinding poverty accompanying the painful economic transition, the flagrant disregard for the rule of law, the pathetic attempts at creating something akin to a recognizable democratic order, and the hideous face of political extremism that informs politics at every level all give reason for pause - if not about future prospects then at least with respect to the enormity of the task at hand. The problem has been that Western pundits were quick to dismiss the legacy of ideology, not understanding how deeply transformative the experience of the Soviet Union was for the peoples of the region. Moreover, they failed to appreciate the extent to which authoritarian culture had imprinted itself on the body politic and how completely the Soviet experience had separated Eastern Europe from its European traditions and European home. Just as it has been nearly impossible to emerge from under the weight of an over-administrated economy and a satiated partocracy, so too the legacy of the Soviet ideological past continues to be felt.

My works come to me. Each work grows slowly somewhere in my subconscious mind, but when the work reveals itself to me, it becomes like a persistent thought. When the thought of the work has arrived, I realize the work exactly. I give form to my thoughts; the realized work in turn responds to needs deep within me.

At times, in the city, things are turbulent, as if all of the destructive forces of nature - gales, waves and whirlpools - have been unleashed there. But at other times, Riga is quiet, filled with the perfume of lime blossoms or the fresh scent of thawing snow. These polarities are like metal encased in silk.

Zaiga Putrama

The past looms large because of the totalitarian nature of Soviet ideology. Stalinism was as complete as it was pervasive, and nowhere was this more acutely felt than in the realm of ideas and culture, where any vestiges or traces of Western bourgeois thought or traditions were excised root and branch. Those who resisted or appeared to resist during the uncompromising years of Stalin were charged with counter-revolutionary activities and "repressed," while under the more politically timid administration of Khrushchev, and later during the Brezhnev years, dissidents were labelled antisocial and committed to psychiatric hospitals for treatment. The effect, however, was the same: expunging from living memory any clear conception of bourgeois notions of culture and the denial of the creative role of the personality. In its place a grotesquely manufactured ideal of culture was substituted along with its new Prometheus, Soviet Man.

The ideology of Stalinism that dominated much of Eastern Europe was as unsophisticated as it was uncompromising. The formalized and mechanistic interpretations of Marx served up by party ideologues made Marxism banal and trite. Consequently, for those living the experience, the farcical nature of Soviet and Eastern European life could only be addressed by exposing its contradictory and absurdist character. …