The New Freedom: Living with Hope, Skepticism and Irony
The Hope of Freedom
In both Hungary and Estonia, optimism during the early 1990s was liberated for the first time in many years. Berne Weiss and I witnessed or were told about the great celebration and euphoria that have accompanied the many tangible steps that have been taken in each country toward a new freedom. The experiences of freedom have assumed many different forms. During the cold war, the ideology of the West emphasized individual freedom as the basic defining difference between East and West. Now the physical wall was torn down, and the Soviet troops returned to their homelands, which pre date their Soviet conscription. In the context of the political standoff, freedom was a code word. For many in both East and West freedom had much to do with one’s ability to travel, to speak the truth as one saw it, and to have access to an expanded range of information and personal choices. In many instances, freedom was experienced in a very personal way. In other instances, freedom was viewed more broadly, in terms of national liberation.
Freedom of Speech
The people we interviewed spoke about newly found freedom of speech. In the past, most Hungarians and Estonians felt comfortable talking freely at home and with trusted friends about the affairs of their own and other governments and could in some instances offer criticisms in public in various veiled ways (humor, satire, metaphor, and so forth). They now could talk freely in public about their discontents and openly expressed their opinions without fear of reprisals.
Most Americans probably cannot fully appreciate the profound feelings that this newly acquired freedom can evoke in people who have long remained silent (Belenky and others, 1986). The profundity became apparent when Berne Weiss and I listened to story after story about the need to remain silent on important issues and the pervasive uncertainty about what one can and cannot discuss with other people. We listened to old men and women tell their stories of repression and discrimination – about confinement in concentration camps. Their children and grandchildren sat in amazement and deep respect as their elders spoke of early life experiences for the first time. These older men and women –-as witnesses and victims of the Holocaust and the Stalin era –grew up in silence; and now for the first time in their adult lives, they are able to speak up and recount stories from their youth that they had not even been able to tell their own family members earlier. One of the young Estonians we interviewed, for instance, recalled how she had found out only two months earlier that her grandfather had been sent to Siberia in 1942. She can now more fully appreciate the courage of this man and can personalize the repression and cruelty of the Soviet society into which she was born.
In many cases, the older men and women in both Estonia and Hungary had remained mute about these experiences in order not to implicate their children and grandchildren in their youthful protests or arbitrary confinements. One of the women we interviewed, who was a mental health worker, suggested that the freedom to tell the stories of past times ultimately liberates people to mourn: “Ten years ago we could never talk about the Holocaust experience. I must find the real root of their problems . . . . Now my new patients can speak directly about their experience.” In healing the individual psyche, what follows mourning is forgiveness and love. Healing the collective psyche requires people to mourn their history to find the forgiveness and love that follow.