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The East's New Malady

Romania, like many other parts of Eastern Europe, is now a land of empty pedestals, waiting for something to fill them

IN the past two years, I have discussed the tumultuous events and liberation of Eastern Europe with many Westerners. What those in the West seem not to understand is that the famous post-totalitarian convalescence in the East right now is becoming a new kind of malady. What is so disconcerting about this malady is that few Easterners imagined that the condition of freedom could be in some ways traumatizing.

After the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Romanians were crazed with happiness. People who never met each other before hugged each other in the streets - convinced that tomorrow things would look different. Then came the many disappointments.

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Westerners find it hard to comprehend why we hype our misery - rather than calmly go about finding a remedy, an exit from the crisis. This is how Westerners think. They do not see how large the gap is between the Eastern and Western mind. They want to judge our condition with normal Western logic.

Yet the long abnormal conditions in which the East has been forced to live has conditioned it not to behave normally. Today we may seem loud and noisy. That is because yesterday many were afraid to speak their thoughts, even in conversation. The police had ears everywhere. Today we yell our thoughts out loud - but are disappointed when we see Westerners have other things to pay attention to.

The post-totalitarian malady has taken its most acute form in Romania. And it has taken place for very specific reasons. The repression here has been more cruel, more brutal, than in other states caught in the inferno of a "socialist paradise." Romania was the only Eastern European country where the break from the old regime was paid for in blood. It was the only country where the Communist Party disappeared magically, like a river in the desert. It was the only country where officials of the old regime could later claim to represent democracy; where teachers of Marxism came back as leaders of the transition to a market economy.

Romania is different from other East European countries, but it shares with them common symptoms of the post-totalitarian malady. Take moral fatigue, for example. Or disgust and despair - followed by a deceitful calm and attacks of trust.

Why is this? Consider the following: As a boy, I saw Bucharest full of German uniforms. Later, I saw it full of Russian uniforms. Like so many East Europeans, I felt caught between the two ideological millstones - fascism and communism - that characterized this century. I and others came to recognize the kind of psychological disasters and cruel dehumanization that took place in order to complete the project of creating a "new man."

At the same time, it was surprising to find in my country such an atmosphere of inflammation, of unhealed wounds, of phantoms and delusions keeping the traumatized East from being realistic, lucid, and practical. The East now knows what it does not want, but does not know where it should go. It wants to escape misery, but it does not know how. Many don't have patience to wait for the "healing" to occur.

The following metaphor illustrates: The statues imposed on the East through terror were destroyed quickly and with much passion. The statue of Lenin was taken down just after the statue of Stalin was tossed in the garbage. Today, the East is filled with empty pedestals. Near my house in Bucharest stands an empty red marble pedestal. The statue on it (the prime minister of Romania imposed by the Russians after World War II) was pulled down by a tractor.

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A long time will pass before a new one will replace it. We are living in a time of furious negations, in which no one has patience. For now, the red marble serves as a pedestal for the crows in the neighborhood that get together every day for their siesta.

It would be amusing to know if these crows, watching atop the pedestals, feel themselves a metaphor for human vanity. They look out on a nation struggling, as in a swamp, to get out of totalitarianism. These empty pedestals represent the unfinished Eastern European drama. For us, history is no longer "la terra ferma," as the Venetian Italians say. It seems we don't feel secure until we cry doubt about everything - having for half a century only false certainties, and statues we silently detested.

After such a tragic and anxious experience, the empty pedestals in the East represent mainly what Romanians don't want. Any certainties cause caution because for so long our people have been deceived and lied to. It is hard to find peace of mind, peace of mind that is not just the cemetery-like peace from before. The statues of Lenin and Stalin are down but the fight against their ghosts seems harder.

The grave disappointments and the resentments produced by misery, confusion, and uncertainty may complicate things. Communist residues may join with a strong nationalism - pushing the East toward a new isolation from Western values. Such an outcome would be worse than before, because it would not have been imposed by terror but partially taken by self-will.

The East is at a crossroads, with its empty pedestals. What values will be placed upon them in the coming decade?

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