The post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe are generally viewed in the West from an elite and top-down, rather than the popular and bottom-up, level. Prof. Marek Chodakiewicz’s lecture on 4 April, 2012, constituting the fourteenth in a series devoted to the Intermarium (the lands between the Black and Baltic Seas), corrects this quite limited perspective, providing a greater voice to the ordinary denizens of the region and, by extension, allowing us better to understand a large and strategic part of Europe.
A visitor to the Intermarium from the United States or Western Europe would notice some features familiar and pleasing to him, quite a few unfamiliar and strange ones, and some even repulsive. Standards of hygiene have certainly improved from the days of ubiquitous Soviet-era filth, mostly as a result of Western influence and the introduction of free-market mechanisms. Manners have been improving with great difficulty, but they shouldn’t be expected to return ex nihilo. People are undoubtedly wearing nicer clothes than shabby Soviet garb, which is true even in the poorest of Intermarium states, Moldova and Belarus, and even in the underdeveloped countryside. Cell phones – one of the symbols of globalization – are also an omnipresent phenomenon throughout the region between the two seas. Meanwhile, the infrastructure has also improved dramatically. Even so, many ordinary Balts, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans remain discontented, particularly as a result of economic and political uncertainty.
In spite of the instability, or perhaps because of it, most of the Intermarium’s denizens focus primarily on the home. Consumption and luxury come first. This trend – undoubtedly a reversal of priorities – is fueled by the kleptocratic post-communist elite’s brazen displays of wealth. In addition, access to visual images – both in TV and online – has generated great expectations which, having gone mostly unfulfilled, have also bred enormous envy and resentment. At all events, ordinary people have come to take great pride in home ownership since the Soviet implosion. Yet, serious problems remain. As in post-Soviet Russia, in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, one owns only the house, but not the land underneath it. Hence, homeowners must acquire leases, which can be (and sometimes are) rescinded upon the whim of a bureaucrat or a post-communist mafioso. This suffocating straightjacket placed upon property rights prevents a non-pathological class of owners from reclaiming and maintaining properties.
To comprehend the Intermarium, Dr. Chodakiewicz argues, it is most useful to view its inhabitants as Soviets, or perhaps post-Soviets. The main features of the Homo Sovieticus are: distrust, coupled with occasional kindness to strangers (particularly foreigners), and a wolfish attitude towards one’s neighbors; suspicion; a lack of initiative and a refusal to assume responsibility for anything; following the path of least resistance in executing anything; a mentality of “no good deed goes unpunished;” a hatred and simultaneous slavishness towards bureaucrats and power (vlast’); an utter conviction that the individual cannot achieve or change anything; a cynical disregard of anyone attempting to reform the status quo (“everyone in power is a crook jostling for position at the trough”); an ingrained fear of the return of the terror; apprehension about provocation and secret police activities; and a general resignation. Into this situation intervene liberal impulses promoted by the media, or stronger national identities, especially in the Baltic states and western Ukraine. In general, however, the peoples of the Intermarium – from Tallin all the way to Odessa – are demobilized and passive. As many see it, revolutions and changes have promised much and delivered little, sometimes turning the situation from bad to worse. Even so, it would be a mistake to treat the future of the region as predetermined. As Prof. Chodakiewicz pointed out, the Intermarium remains a “boiling cauldron that shapes mentalities and attitudes in many ways.” It is still a region at the crossroads. Whether it takes a salubrious path depends largely on its ability to overcome pathological and poisonous attitudes and institutions inherited from the Soviet era. And all should improve if there is no war or revolution.