THE difference is truly remarkable. Three decades ago this month, Eastern Europe seemed lost in the shadows of political and economic darkness. In Hungary, Soviet forces were brutally quelling a popular revolt. Poland had put down disturbances earlier that year. In East Germany, a communist regime ruled with an iron grip after Soviet troops had subdued an uprising there in 1953. Throughout the East bloc, Soviet dominance seemed unyielding and life looked grim indeed. Today, Eastern Europe is enjoying what would have to be considered a renaissance. That is not to say that East-bloc nations are ``free'' in any Western sense, or that their peoples enjoy the same degree of prosperity to be found in the industrial West. Obviously, that is not the case. Soviet military dominance remains. Living standards, by and large, lag behind those of the West.
Yet, put in a long-term perspective, Eastern Europeans are now far better off than at any time since the end of World War II. Hungary's rejuvenated mixed economy has startled the region -- and even the West. East Germany is now an economic powerhouse -- and stepping more and more out into the world community, underscored by party leader Erich Honecker's visit to Peking this month. Poland, meanwhile, although its economy is in difficulty, has eased up controls somewhat on its dissidents.
For the United States and other Western nations, the opportunity is obvious. The West should make every possible effort to increase trade, cultural, and political ties with East-bloc nations. Hungary, as noted, has liberalized its economy. Poland, Bulgaria, and East Germany, in different ways, are modernizing their economies. East Germany maintains close trading links to West Germany. Only in Czechoslovakia and Romania can there still be found substantial opposition to economic reform.
Meantime, on another level, Eastern Europeans are undergoing an intensive spiritual renewal, seen in more-open church attendance, the growth of smaller, less-established churches, and the huge crowds that greeted American evangelist Billy Graham on his visits to Hungary and Romania late last year.
Obviously, closer links with Eastern Europe have advantages for the US. They add up to a challenge, if not irritant, for the Soviet Union -- in other words, ``Western fishing in Soviet waters.'' But great-power rivalry would be an unworthy motive for the West. The people of Eastern Europe have natural links to the West. Strengthened ties cannot help continuing to roll back -- far more effectively than Western tanks could ever have done -- the unfortunate shadows that still fall on Eastern Europe.