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17 March 2017

How and (Why) to Keep a Dissident Spirit in Spite of “Transition”?



Let me start by saying that dissidents were one of the best products of Communism. Probably the best. At one point, Václav Havel said: A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe: a spectre of what in the West is called dissent’.”

The living conditions of this spectre were tough. It was not easy to be Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov, or Mrožek, or Czesław Miłosz. It took an enormous amount of courage to advocate the dissident ideas that led to the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. The title of the famous poem of Gyula Illyés marking the 1956 Revolution is “One Sentence About Tyranny”. (The poem was written in 1950, yet it only got published during the first days of the Revolution.) This one sentence is a poem of 50 strophes, revealing and emphasising that if we have tyranny, we have tyranny everywhere and in everything. Except, of course, in the minds of those who have lucidity and courage to see this.

Today, we more or less know what happened to dissidents under Communism. We know how they were oppressed, we know how they became famous. Of course, our information is more or less restricted to those dissidents who became prominent. But there were quite a few dissidents among us during the Communist times, who had stamina, but did not have the intellectual brilliance and/or luck needed to become famous. Their destinies also deserve attention though. The topic of this essay is, however, not the destiny of famous or less famous dissidents, but rather what has happened to the dissident spirit in post-dissident times.

Before addressing this question I shall first try to take a closer look at the environment in which dissident spirit was shaped.




Approaching the question of how (and why) should a dissident mindset be kept, I would first like to say something about the possible ways in which dissident mindsets have been shaped.

Dissident mindset is a reaction to an oppressive environment. Oppression has many forms. The most obvious ones arise in environments that one could call “exalted societies”. Such societies are marked by a persistent endeavour to overshadow life by a dominant agenda. This agenda is communicated with exaltation, but at the same time, true intentions are veiled underneath that same exaltation. The agenda is not accepted by everyone within the society, but leaves a trace on the fate of everyone. I have recollections of two exalted societies that I saw from close- up during my life. The first one was Communism. The second was a society driven towards war, guided by ethnic fury.

Options before intellectuals in Communist societies my experience in the former Yugoslavia

Since I would like to piece together what I saw personally, I shall devote particular attention to the former Yugoslavia. During Communist times, some patterns of behaviour, or variants of maintaining or abandoning intellectual integrity, were essentially the same in all Communist countries. But there were some differences and nuances as well, particularly with regard to Yugoslavia.

Like most people in my generation who lived in Eastern Europe, I had personal experience of several types of agitated societies. I was only five years old by the end of the Nazi occupation of the region of Banat that includes my home town, hence my first real experience came later. It came with Communism. In Yugoslavia, Communism was followed by anxiety and zeal crafted by the Milošević years. Certain patterns of revolt, just as patterns of accommodation, continued. As a matter of fact, some of these patterns of conduct continued in the years of “transition” as well – and not only in former Communist countries – but in a milder and less perceptible form.

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