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Here's hoping

Culture | Old Europe could learn a lot from the former Soviet satellites now joining the European Union

Issue: "Iraq: The image war," May 22, 2004

TEN COUNTRIES, MOST OF THEM FORMER satellites of the Soviet Union, joined the European Union: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus, and Malta.

Those former communist states are overjoyed to join Europe, hoping for protection from a Russia they still fear. To the chagrin of much of Old Europe, they are vigorously pro-American. Seven of them sent troops to Iraq.

I traveled to Estonia, back when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Concordia University Wisconsin, where I was on the faculty, had an exchange program with the Estonian Institute of Humanities, and I lectured there for several weeks on American literature. We stayed in people's homes, stood in bread lines with them, and heard their experiences of the horrors of communism. I returned a few years later, after they had won their freedom, as the Estonians struggled to build an economy and a government.

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The Baltic Republics have always been eastern outposts of Europe. German merchants made them trading outposts in the Middle Ages; their descendants kept them distinctly Western European. Lithuania is Roman Catholic, not Eastern Orthodox. Latvia was one of the first countries to embrace the Reformation, while Luther was still alive. Estonia, with its ethnic affinities to the Scandinavians, also embraced Lutheranism somewhat later.

The prosperous republics fared well until Hitler and Stalin made their nonaggression pact, which sparked World War II. Hitler said that Stalin could have the Baltic states, despite their German connections, if he could have half of Poland. The trade was made.

Russian troops and tanks poured over the border into Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and proceeded to stage their Marxist "revolution." In practice, this meant loading up landowners, shopkeepers, and homeowners onto boxcars and shipping them to Siberia, where most of them froze to death. Nearly every family in Estonia lost someone in this first purge, and on its anniversary, to this day, they gather at their local train stations to remember the victims.

Hatred of Soviet rule was so intense that when Hitler broke the pact and invaded Russia, the Baltic population greeted the German army as liberators. Some even joined in fighting the Russians. But after the war, Stalin enacted terrible reprisals. He bombed cities, executed thousands, and ordered mass migrations of Russians into the former republics in an attempt to eradicate their cultures and to assimilate them into Mother Russia.

Estonia's independence movement had its beginning in a music festival, after someone started singing the old folk songs that had been forbidden by the Soviets. Soon the whole audience started singing, and then the whole nation rose up in the "singing revolution."

By the time I was there, in 1991, though Russian troops patrolled the streets, communism was completely discredited. I was invited to the Writer's Club, where a birthday party was being held for a poet who had just been released from a mental hospital where he was consigned for writing a poem critical of communism. He had long hair and a goatee, looking quite a bit like Frank Zappa, the rock renegade of the 1960s. This bohemian poet was starting a political party based on radical capitalism. The counterculture under communism was what we would call conservative.

When communism collapsed and Estonia won its freedom, a major question was how to restore private property. What about the land and the farms? Should they divide the farms up among the collective farmers who worked them? Estonia went further. Property rights are sacred, the Estonians reasoned. Land belongs to the descendants of those from whom the communists stole it. Those who suddenly had titles to land or houses sometimes didn't know what to do with them-the country suffered through years of almost no crops-but, in the long run, they reversed the Soviet damage.

What Estonia did in economics, Latvia did in religion. Thousands of Marxist-indoctrinated atheists came to Christ. The church came alive. Moreover, it reversed the theological liberalism that has sapped the vitality of the old European state churches. Earlier, the Latvian Lutheran Church, under pressure from the ecumenical Western establishment, agreed to ordain women. But in the biblical revival that came with political freedom, the Latvian church reversed itself and rescinded the ordination of women.

New Europe could be a good influence on Old Europe. And on the rest of us.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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