Evolution of Revolution

A journalist examines the heart of Eastern Europe's upheaval

JOURNALISM, some say, is the first draft of history. As we try to understand the revolution that has turned Central and Eastern Europe upside down, we have substantial books on Poland - which triggered it all - by Michael Kaufman and Lawrence Weschler, as well as the remarkable region-wide accounts by Timothy Garton Ash, who brings to journalism the insights of history, and to history the freshness of journalism. This company now includes William Echikson, whose lively assessment of events along the Elbe, Vistula, and Danube draws on five years of experience there, primarily as a correspondent for this newspaper, and on a humane, personal sensibility that brings color and warmth to his portraits of people and events.

Echikson observed, asked questions, listened - and kept very full notebooks. Though weak at historical background - there are numerous factual errors - and at political generalization, he is strong in portraying the players. Be they Czech, Pole, or anyone else, intellectual dissident or embittered factory worker, a disgusted housewife lining up for produce or a reforming economist trying to increase production: Echikson seems at home with them all.

So his format follows, not the predictable country-by-country recital of events, but a cluster of topics, first by social groups and classes, and then by institutions and political forces. There is some overlap and duplication, but also much freshness and empathy. Vaclav Havel says: ``Echikson was one of the first Western journalists in Czechoslovakia of the hard years who cared and understood.''

What does he tell us? That communism had rotted from within, having betrayed its promise to raise the Eastern Europe of 1945 from its third-world poverty to a rough equality with the Western industrial powers; hope, justice, and truth all had disappeared. (And Echikson offers some appalling stories regarding the effects of housing shortages, for example, on young people who simply want to marry, build families, and live normal lives.)

There is more: that the ``nomenklatura,'' the communist elite, had skimmed the cream off hand-to-mouth economies, enraging all those left only with skim milk; that the intellectuals, traditionally the proponents of national consciousness and higher ideals, had long since turned against communism, offering society democratic and even religious alternatives instead; and that Gorbachev had pulled the plug on this corrupt system by refusing to defend it with Soviet troops.

Gorbachev's decision proved decisive. Echikson essentially ignores it, however, in his narrow emphasis on events in Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, and so on. Political revolution has been common enough in Central and Eastern Europe for the past 200 years, with three big waves in this century alone: 1918-19, 1938-41, and 1944-48. The armies of the great powers have, inevitably, played a dominant role - until now, when Gorbachev held his hand, allowing local events to play out without interference.

His model clearly was that of Britain in India during 1947, not that of the Soviets in Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Echikson, operating within the narrow framework of what he can see in the streets and hear in interviews, largely overlooks the Soviet side of the equation.

What lies ahead? When communism took power after 1944, it offered East Europeans - and especially the intelligentsia - a kind of contract: the loss of political freedom (which only Czechoslovakia had ever truly experienced), in return for state-sponsored economic growth, power, prosperity. This was the tacit rationale for communist rule: Give up an abstraction you never really had; get what you really need. And some day, after the steel mills have been built and the peasants made literate, you'll get democracy as well.

As Echikson demonstrates, this make-them-an-offer-they-can't refuse approach has failed abysmally under communism. From about 1970 onward, there have instead been state-sponsored poverty, alcoholism, shoddy goods, and destruction of the environment. And a horrendous corollary: corruption and outright theft, the decline of civic morality, and an everyone-for-himself syndrome, as the nomenklatura took the luxuries it wanted, while the hoi polloi grabbed for the necessities it needed. Hence the wisecrack: ``What is capitalism? The exploitation of man by man. And what is socialism? Vice versa!''

Echikson is hopeful about the future - and rightly so. The model he offers for emulation is Finland: small, stable, prosperous, prudent in its relations with the Bear, yet entirely democratic. About Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary - the Central European states - he is optimistic. About Romania and Bulgaria, rather less: These Balkan states he fears may sink into quasi-authoritarian, perhaps military regimes. Yugoslavia remains the unknown, still working out its multi-ethnic future. One factor brings hope to the entire region: The era of world wars and great power interference is over.

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