Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Lives of Others

On my flight to Europe this last trip, I tried to watch "The Lives of Others", but fell asleep on the flight (such flights run overnight). Flying back, I tried again - Air Canada insisted on re-booting the entertainment system on the flight (who would have thought this could take a half-hour?) but I still managed to stay gripped by it. I am not sure it is as great as some of the reviews I have seen suggest (it is quite a soap opera, though that is not a serious criticism), but it is chilling to see how ruthlessly it portrays the monstrosities of Communist states, monstrosities that once in my life I was prepared to belittle, so as to maintain a fashionable anti-establishment posture here in the West.
But a short time behind the old Iron Curtain was enough to make my embarrassment at those days complete.
One anecdote: a Czech tour guide told me how her father escaped after the Russian invasion in the Prague Spring - to Cuba (as she joked, "He was enough of a Communist to get received there"), then Halifax, Canada, then Toronto, then Venezuela. She, his teenaged daughter, never saw him again. As for her, as his daughter, it was guaranteed that she could never go to a good school (a similar threat is uttered in "The Lives of Others"). As for a career, she ended up as a translator, forbidden to work as an interpreter because that would involve meeting foreigners - she laughed a little ruefully when I suggested that this might have an impact on the quality of the translations. But she was amazing - she was managing simultaneously tour groups in Spanish, Italian, French, and English. She recalls 1989 as utterly exhilarating (and that year is far from nobody's mind in the Czech Republic who is older than, say, 35 - the young 'uns there seem just like ours in their lack of concern for these issues, a lack I am delighted they can indulge!). And this despite some embarrassment at not having participated in the protests in Wenceslas Square after the beating of the students (concerned, very sensibly, about her own children). Naturally there is this other sense, a disappointment that this great change from 1989 seems to have led to a government riding a dead horse (see this post) but the hatred of the Communist past is palpable, and entirely understandable.
It struck me only today that this was my first trip behind the old Iron Curtain; an education it surely was, in the intensity of how wrong I could be about the costs to human lives of the Communism of the preceding 50 years.
In Prague there is a very nice memorial I stumbled on accidentally, a sculpture with this dedication:

The sculpture that accompanies it, not given justice by my photo (had the wrong lens on the camera for that walk, and did not want to disrupt the skateboarders who were using the area for practice), is a staircase with people, the one in front somewhat whole, and the ones behind progressively missing parts of their bodies, precisely as the Communist states stole away such large parts of potential lives of its victims. Very moving and utterly to the point.

It was a privilege to be able to be among those who paid for so long for the flippant and casual support of monsters that so many of us in the West so casually offered. I actually regarded Reagan as totally over the top when he said, "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall". It is painful to recognize in hindsight who had the moral clarity and the right values on that day. And, sadly, it is not as if we are not continuing to support monsters elsewhere now.


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