WARSAW — There will be no rending of the garments, no tears shed in Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union officially passes out of existence.
In Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and what used to be East Germany, the satellite nations once lumped together as the Warsaw Pact--an alliance itself now on history's trash heap--a population of 115 million will say goodby without an ounce of regret.
In this region, the power of the Soviet Union, wielded remorselessly after World War II, leaves behind it a collective memory of 45 miserable years--years of pain for a population whose living standards fell far behind those nations on the other side of the Iron Curtain and whose struggle to catch up will take the work of another generation.
It leaves behind political systems and parties wrestling with a dozen strains of nationalism and schemes for revenge, rapacious new capitalists snarling at social-welfare liberals and former Communist Party hacks growing prosperous on their old connections.
It leaves behind the physical stamp of the Soviet style--the dreadful "architecture" of postwar Stalinism--from such hideous extravaganzas as the Palace of Culture, towering into the murk above Warsaw, to the prefabricated gray high-rise worker hives that encircle any factory anywhere in the region, the begrimed slabs that house 60% of the population.
Whatever the later claims of "fraternal" relations, the legacy of Josef Stalin's original intent for Eastern Europe remains evident. These countries, in his view, were to be industrial colonies--producing steel, coal, armaments, ships, glass, you name it, for Moscow. And all this is also left behind.
Drive through Silesia in Poland, northern Bohemia in Czechoslovakia, southeastern Germany, and the grand design of Soviet planners seems as permanent as the Tatra Mountains on the Czech-Polish border, where trees are dying in the sulfur. It is a wasteland. The river water here, on especially bad days, runs rich with carcinogenic chemicals. A square yard of Silesian soil contains, in some samples, enough lead to make a toy soldier. Levels of birth defects, mental retardation and lung disease are the highest in Europe, and life expectancy the lowest.
No one here questions why these depressing facts exist.
Grief for the demise of the Soviet Union?
Should anyone have forgotten it, perhaps in a mist of gratitude and sympathy for the now-superfluous Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet system imposed on this part of Europe was born in violence, deceit and tyranny. A decade ago, when Solidarity burst on the scene in Poland and loosened the system for a few months before the imposition of martial law, Teresa Toranska, a Polish journalist, conducted a remarkable series of interviews with the aging figures of the first Communist regimes in Poland, publishing the conversations in a book called "Them."
One of "them" was Jakob Berman--for years after the war one of the most important figures in Poland and described by Toranska as the "brains" behind Poland's Communist Party. Toranska asked him about the rigged postwar elections that brought the Communists to power.
Berman said the party's actions were compelled by the situation. "In an election, we can't go by the criterion of a majority, because then there isn't anyone we can hand over power to," he said flatly. "There wasn't then and there isn't now."
By the same reasoning, evidently, Polish secret police in those early postwar years were executing 50 to 100 people a month. Up to 150,000 were held in security prisons and dungeons. This was the advent of communism in Eastern Europe, carried out with minor variations throughout the Soviet Bloc. Sham elections, always backed by force. It was never quite enough, of course, to tame the opposition. There were worker uprisings in Poland in 1956. Also in 1956, Hungary exploded with the first all-out armed insurrection against the Communists. It was put down mightily by the Soviet army, and the resulting round of purges, show trials, imprisonments and executions left Hungary stunned for a generation.
There was more Polish unrest in 1968, more shuffled governments, an anti-Semitic campaign launched by the party that would drive out most of the few thousand Jews still left in this charnel house of the Holocaust. And then, also in 1968, there was Czechoslovakia's attempt to invent a "socialism with a human face," a peaceful approach at reforming the Communist Party from within. And more Soviet tanks, more purges, more prison sentences.