Book Review: Leon Marc's What’s So Eastern About Eastern Europe? and Padraic Kenney's A Carnival of Revolution

A critical reading of European history and an eye-witness report of pre-1989 citizen protests in the Eastern bloc highlight overlooked narratives and the undervalued potential of the region

TVR Books | Guy Kiddey | December 2011 / January 2012

Can Eastern Europe’s Greatness Return?

The 20th century wasn’t kind to Eastern Europe. The region suffered repeatedly from attempts to reduce centuries of history to a scheme of East and West.

Initially, the source of this was political. After rash demarcations at the end of the First World War, and even more frivolous state-shuffling at Yalta in 1945, the West insisted that communism was a deleterious and homogenising force.

Since 1989, the cause has been social. Immigrant workers and refugees from the Bosnian war seem to have entrenched the prejudice founded in Cold War statesmanship and an impressionable media: that the former Eastern Bloc is a continuing "failure".

But two authors argue that the pre-communist diversity and greatness of the Eastern European nations was never really lost. Now, more than ever, is the time to remember this. It is time to see the "New Europe" with unmasked eyes.

In What’s So Eastern About Eastern Europe?  Leon Marc examines what he thinks is a misconceived Europe. A former Slovenian diplomat, Marc was inspired to write by the death of a close friend, Karl Lavrencic, who for years worked as a correspondent on Slovenian affairs for the BBC.  The friend was one of many who fled after the installation of communism. He embodied the best of the Eastern European cultures, which were lost to a simple narrative of East and West.

Marc’s account is an attempt to redress this loss by invoking the understated richness and diversity of particular central European countries: the Slavic lands left between the Orthodox Christian East – what he calls the "real" Eastern Europe – and the Prussian and Habsburg Empires to the West. These countries, though not nation states until the early 20th century, were still highly individual, both socially and culturally.

For instance, the Kingdom of Poland acted as a strong buffer against the persistent threat of Ottoman incursions, and elements of its independent polity remained even after its inclusion in the Eastern Bloc.

It is here that Padraic Kenney’s A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 picks up the baton, continuing Marc’s observations on the many faces of communism peeking out  from behind the Iron Curtain.

Padraic Kenney was a student in Wrocław in the 1980s. He chose the city for its "Polishness". Warsaw, even then, was too international, and he wanted to learn the language and experience Polish communism in its most real guise, without any capital-city pageantry.

With notebook in hand – he wrote dispatches for The Boston Globe – he reported on what he calls the "carnival of revolution" in the Eastern Bloc in the years leading to the meltdown of communism.

In his preface, he recognises that the economic shortcomings of communism were the single biggest factor leading to its collapse in Europe.

But he is focussing on a different story – of the wild and often remarkable festival of subversion that quickened pace until the Mauerfall-day.

His sources are anecdotes and newspaper cuttings documenting a predominantly Polish perspective, but he makes useful and regular reference to contrasting attitudes elsewhere in the region. Counter-culture music and environmental campaigning were two of the most successful lynchpins of this protest parade.

They were the common currency of subversion, particularly after the death of John Lennon in 1980 and the explosion of Chernobyl in 1986.  And significantly, they were also well-trodden inroads for Western anti-communist sympathisers.

Poland was also where Marxist communism permitted a largely uncensored Catholic church, with effective leaders like Father Ludwik Wisniewski.

"He was what sociologists call a movement entrepreneur – a kind of venture capitalist, willing to invest in anyone whose activism might bring social profit", Kenney writes.

The pursuit of self-rule, says Kenney, also found great expression and wonderful humour in the Solidarity workers’ union.  He recounts one memorable occasion at the Repair Shipyard in Gdansk:

"Strikers built themselves an artillery canon from Styrofoam and old pipe, painted in camouflage green and brown.  They rolled it out on a lazy Sunday afternoon and aimed it at the riot police…"

The Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Slovenes were always far more enterprising and dynamic than their Byzantine and Ottoman neighbours, who had rejected the Enlightenment. Marc identifies the 18th century as when writers and philosophers in Europe’s existing nation states started thinking in terms of "us and them".

It was Rousseau, Voltaire and their fellow writers who first developed the concept of Eastern Europe as a bridge between the secular west and the theocratic backwardness of the "Orient".

This view has persisted into the present, Marc says, partly because of the obsessive political correctness of eurocrats. The European Constitution of 2004 – which was ratified by 18 of 25 EU member states before being struck down by Dutch and French referenda – fails to mention the cultural force that has unified the continent like no other: Christianity.

In political and social attempts to fulfil the basic human need to categorise and label, both Marc and Kenney lament the ignoring of certain critical historical events that are left out of common discourses on modern Europe.

The writing of history is deficient if it doesn’t consider the implications of the story it tells.

Unfortunately, Kenney’s account stops at the fall of the Wall. Having primed his readers with such beautifully observed material, a gaping hole remains, namely, an analysis of the implications of those carnival years, and the blueprint they may have set up for an Eastern European renaissance.

Marc offers some explanations for contemporary cultural oddities afflicting Eastern European nations. Introversion and lack of common courtesies are relics of more untrustworthy times, and, echoing Kenney, he sees the possibility that some post-communist "Easteners" are still wondering where their lives went.

But Marc has no ideas for the future. Western Europe’s estimation of the capacities and worthiness of its neighbours remains low. Anything made in Eastern Europe is looked upon with a disdain similar to that of a BMW engineer peering under the bonnet of a Trabi.

Despite the cultural, social, and economic successes of these countries in pre-war times, Marc finds no suggestions for how the sadly downtrodden Eastern European economies and disillusioned peoples of today can regain their lost momentum.

For a diplomat writing in 2009, this is surprising.  Instead, he exhibits an air of resentment at the economic successes of Germany and the "tidy" Nordic countries, and an implicit disdain for their financial clout. This attitude certainly doesn’t help, as Germany tires ever more of its obligation to hand out "benefits" to a wider Europe.

But most importantly, Marc does not consider the fundamental economic difficulty of our age: The need for new sources of growth in a post-industrial age. It is a topic that has particular bearing on emergent economies.

Eastern European broadband networks and digital media businesses appear to be some of the most impressive in the world, and financial services in the region are globally competitive.

But notoriety comes in distinction, and any book chronicling the rise of a new Europe must name those niches that set it apart.


What’s So Eastern About Eastern Europe?

Twenty Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall

by Leon Marc, Oldcastle Books (2009)

pp. 170

Order "What’s So Eastern About Eastern Europe?" online

A Carnival of Revolution:

Central Europe 1989

by Padraic Kenney, Princeton UP (2002)

pp. 352

Order "A Carnival of Revolution" online

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