The New Freedom: Living with Hope, Skepticism and Irony
Setting a Context
We must keep several points in mind when considering the hopes and skepticism of the Estonian and Hungarian people. First, any discussion of the experiences of freedom in Eastern Europe must begin with the acknowledgment that the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union was not predicted either inside or outside the Soviet Union by other than a few who seemed to be speaking more from their dreams than from any firm grasp of reality (Skirbekk, 1992, p. 121). (This might give us pause to weigh the significance of dreams.)
Why did the collapse occur so rapidly and so broadly? Morin (1992, pp. 90-91) suggested that the old Soviet system was strong for many decades precisely because of its weaknesses. Centralized planning throughout the region, which covers part of two continents, more than a dozen nations, and double that many languages, for instance, was disastrous because of inadequate communication, expensive and inefficient transportation systems, the apparently random decisions determining production—and the enormous diversity of culture and resources.
Yet the communication and transportation problems led to strong interrepublic dependencies, as each republic began to specialize in the production of certain goods or services; for example, during the Soviet era, the citizens of Hungary produced buses but had no automobile industry. Often goods and services were generated to serve the primary purpose of keeping everyone employed. It was precisely because the Soviet distribution service never really worked that people throughout all of the republics became absolutely dependent on the few goods and services that did make it to their markets.
Similarly, the inability of the Soviet regime to homogenize (and Russify) the diverse populations led to greater dependency on the central government because this was the only source of union among the republics—a union imposed by force and maintained by the continued threat of force. Russian became the universal second language because citizens in each republic were required to study it in school from the earliest grades and rarely learned the languages of their neighboring republics. Ironically, one of the few places where men and women from different cultures came to share and mutually celebrate their similar and differing values was in the work camps and gulags of Russia.
The Soviet Union unraveled rapidly because the weaknesses were suddenly turned against the regime rather than supporting it (Morin, 1992, pp. 91 ff; Feher,1992, pp. 108-109). Communication and transportation became so dysfunctional that many citizens received no goods or services from the state. They either lived on very little or began to produce and provide their own local goods and services. The efforts at centralized planning became so convoluted and inefficient that the Soviet Union came to a standstill and simply was too big and too bloated to make any effective transformation (despite the inspiring leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev).