'Look West for Savoir-Vivre,' Says Everyone from the East
Traveling East to West over a changing continent, our correspondent looks at what 'European' means. Sixth of seven parts.
PARIS — All the way from Moscow to Paris - in the cities and villages, among educated people and simpler folk - I heard the same refrain: Whatever lies to the west is better.
Among the cigarette-smuggling women at the Belarussian-Polish border, that feeling was evident. They sang praises of a German toothpaste named Evrodent (another sign of Europe's commercial cachet), of "orderly" and efficient German border guards, and of the "European standard" Warsaw zoo.
And one, Tanya, who was traveling from Belarus to Poland to buy secondhand clothes imported from Germany, recalled a trip east into Russia where she found "the streets were dirtier and the houses untidier" than in Belarus.
This sort of thinking - which is not without foundation - is hardly new.
Orthodox Russia's Christian heart, and its national pride, is still scarred by Moscow's subjugation centuries ago to the Mongol yoke.
The "barbarian" hordes came out of the East - their bodies so infested with lice they appeared black to a contemporary observer - and that image is now a permanent feature of the Russian world view.
The strong current of popular opinion that holds everything Western to be superior is only a little less ancient. It was Czar Peter the Great, ruling Russia at the beginning of the 18th century, who led his country on a wild modernizing charge, importing European architects, engineers, soldiers, and shipbuilders by the boatload, and ordering his nobles to shave their beards.
Sometimes the distinctions are too subtle for an outsider to spot. Slava Sinitsa, the taxi driver who took me to the site of Napoleon's battle at Berezina, was proud to be from western Belarus rather than from its eastern reaches, nearer Russia.
"People there are better educated, more cultured," he explained. "They have their heads turned more to the West."
In eastern Poland, Czeslaw Okolow, director of the Bialowieza national park, drew a similar picture.
"There is less business activity, lower educational levels, more old people in eastern Poland," Dr. Okolow told me. "The [western] parts of Poland that were under Austrian and Prussian rule were much better developed than the part under Russian control."
Poles in general cannot wait to be admitted to the European Union and to share the prosperity they associate with the EU. Meanwhile, the more adventurous among them are taking to Western ways already as the titles in a foreign bookstore window in Warsaw suggested:
"Mastering Enterprise: Your Single Source Guide to Becoming an Entrepreneur."
"Guerrilla Marketing for the Home Based Business."
"Global Guide to Investing."
Plus an assortment of Dilbert books.
In eastern Germany, envy of the more prosperous western regions runs deep and bitter - and is feeding the electoral prospects of the post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism.
Salaries, pensions, and other government benefits run at only about 80 percent of western German averages, nine years after the country was reunited.
Moreover, mixed with their envy and an acknowledgment that West Germany did better in the half century that followed World War II, eastern Germans feel a deep resentment of western attitudes. Too often, they feel, western Germans simply dismiss everything eastern Germans did, made, and thought as worthless scrap.
It would perhaps not be accurate to say that Germans, particularly those from the west, feel that life in France is better. But they would certainly grant the French a certain savoir-vivre.
And then, when you get to Paris, the thread runs out. Because the French envy no one.
* Previous articles ran July 28, 30, 31, and Aug. 3 and 4. They can be found at the Monitor's Web site (www.csmonitor.com). The final article, which runs Friday, looks at the cultural and economic differences between East and West on the road from Poznan, Poland, to Paris.