As we prepare to depart the Czech Republic, second of four countries on our central European itinerary, our students are making mid-course corrections in their research projects. That's as it should be. We asked each to assess some aspect of the cold war, the collapse of communism and the role of the media.
What the students are discerning is that the textbooks, historical treatises and classroom lectures can only take them so far. While those are far from black and white presentations, the shades of gray are even more nuanced when you start to see them first hand. Yes, the cold war tensions between the Soviet and western blocs is often laid out in good guy/bad guy contrasts.
What the students report they are encountering is that people who lived behind the so-called Iron Curtain for the most part made their adjustments and figured out survival techniques. While they have acquired post-communist freedoms, they have also had to figure out survival techniques in free market economies that no longer guarantee them a job and a pension, regardless of how modest. In good times, market economies will exceed those minimums. In hard economic times, such as we are now experiencing, the guarantees are often not there.
You rarely saw homeless on the streets of communist capitals. Occasional beggars were swept away by police. You encounter both now. The view is not sanitized. The problem is not solved.
Is it possible the bad old days could be the good old days? That's where our western lens colors the notion that anyone might want to go back to communism. At least, not the oppressive version we've seen remembered in Budapest's "Terror House" or the memorial to victims of communism down the street from our hotel in Prague.
Since European communism collapsed in 1989--it still exists in Chinese, Vietnamese or Cuban forms--a whole generation of Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and more have grown up never having lived in a communist country. They are about the same age as our University of South Carolina students. That generation--European and American--will have to make its own assessment of the post-cold war world.