By Leonidas Donskis
Interestingly enough, the “faster than history” idiom acquires a special meaning when dealing with social change in Central and Eastern Europe. The speed of time in what Czeslaw Milosz and Milan Kundera, each in his own way, described as “yet another Europe,” is beyond the historical, cultural, and political imaginations of Western Europeans and North Americans.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, post-Soviet and post-Communist countries underwent considerable social and cultural change. To paraphrase the title of Kundera’s novel that became one more admirable idiom to express the East-Central European sense of history and grasp of life, all this leads to the experience of the unbearable lightness of change.
What happened in Western Europe as the greatest events and civilization-shaping movements of centuries acquired a form – in Central and Eastern Europe – of mandatory and rapid economic and political programs that had to be implemented by successor states of the Soviet Union. This is to say that the new democracies had to catch up with Western European history to qualify for the exclusive and honorary club of Europe. Moreover, “yet another Europe” had to become even faster than history, transforming itself into a more or less recognizable collective actor of the global economy and politics.
Capitalism, which had long been presented in Soviet high school textbooks as the major menace to humankind, now seems more aggressive and dynamic in post-Soviet societies than in far more moderate, timid, egalitarian, social-democratic, welfare-state-orientated, and post-capitalist Western European countries.
Sweden, Finland, and the rest of the Nordic countries, for instance, can only marvel at what they perceive as a sort of old-fashioned, historically recycled, and ruthless capitalism of the Baltics, or, to put in more conventional terms, the libertarian economy of Estonia and the other Baltic countries. The countries that used to symbolize to Soviet citizens the embodiment of “wild capitalism,” with its overt glorification of the winners and contempt for the losers, now appear to them as astonishingly communitarian, warm and humane.
Indeed, they are pure and innocent to compare to the “first come first served” or “grab the stolen” or “catch it all” type of mentality that, paradoxically, albeit logically, blends with a sort of Marxism turned upside down – this extremely vulgar variety of economic determinism and materialism in Lithuania and other East-Central European countries barely surprises those who know quite well that the last thing one could expect to be named among priorities there is culture and education.
Although quite a few pay lip service to it without giving much consideration as to how to foster intellectual dialogue among countries, somehow almost everybody agrees there that the West has to pay for “the culture, uniqueness and spirituality” of post-totalitarian countries – generous grants in exchange for suffering and unique experience.
Lithuania seems locked mentally somewhere between the discovery of the intrinsic logic of capitalism characteristic of the nineteenth century and the post-Weimar Republic period – an incredibly fast economic growth, then a slowdown, and a passionate advocacy of the values of free enterprise and capitalism, accompanied by a good deal of anomie, fission of the body social, stark social contrasts, a shocking degree of corruption, and the culture of poverty with all its indications – low trust, self-victimization, disbelief in social ties and networks, contempt for institutions, cynicism, and the like.
If we want to imagine a blend of nineteenth- and twentieth-century phenomena of consciousness, politics and culture, then we can safely assume that our post-modern and post-totalitarian era proved capable of squeezing two centuries of uninterrupted European history into one decade of the “transition” of Lithuania from the planned economy of Communism to a free-market economy and global capitalism.
In a way, Lithuania appears to have become a kind of laboratory where the speed of social change and cultural transformation could be measured and tested. Indeed, Lithuania is far ahead of what we know as the grand historical narrative, or, plainly, predictable and moralizing history; nay, these societies are faster than history.
They are faster than history, yet slower than a lifetime. People often complain here that their lives and careers have been ruined by this rapid social change and grand transformation. They take it as a tragedy arguing (and not without reason) that their lives, energies and works have been wasted, if not completely spoiled. The lifetime of a human being proves insufficient to witness a thrilling and sweeping transformation of society.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament
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