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A Child and a Country at the End of History
by lea ypi
w. w. norton, 288 pages, $27.95

Behind the Iron Curtain, everyone valued freedom. But they saw it in radically different ways. In Free, Lea Ypi describes growing up in Albania, in the long senescence of the Eastern Bloc. Ypi was taught to revere Stalin and the late Albanian autocrat Enver Hoxha. She recalls being horrified when she found out that a much-loved statue of old Uncle Stalin had been decapitated by anti-communists: “I tried to think like my teacher. We had socialism. Socialism gave us freedom. The protestors were mistaken. Nobody was looking for freedom. Everyone was free, just like me.”

For Ypi, the end of communism meant disillusionment. In Poland, where I live, people had fewer illusions in the first place: Nobody would have admired a statue of Stalin, still less of one of his charmless goons like Bolesław Bierut or Wanda Wasilewska. At best, communism inspired the grudging acquiescence of a hungry man working for a hated boss. 

Poles were quite aware of the contrast between their own society and those of the free world. It would of course be condescending to suggest that they spent their lives dreaming about the multi-colored fruits of Western liberalism. They had their own culture. But people tuned in to Radio Free Europe, and awaited packages if they had relatives abroad. Solidarność was driven by the sense that there could be a better, freer, and more prosperous Poland without communism.

The fall of the Soviet Union exposed the bodies that such monuments were built on, and exposed Ypi’s own familial skeletons as she learned how much her relatives had sacrificed and lost. 

Yet as much as “freedom” brought hope and opportunity, it brought its own trials. In Albania, as Gavin Haynes explored in a fascinating recent essay, pyramid schemes—built so high as to put the Egyptians in their place—brought the country to the point of civil war. Men like Ypi’s father were made professionally and existentially redundant by economic reforms. Organized criminals exploited and abused vulnerable markets.

So was the new world just another version of the old? Ypi, in my opinion, tries too hard to draw equivalences between communist and capitalist states. Reflecting on the struggles faced by Albanian migrants, for example, she asks whether there is a difference between the border guards who keep people inside a country and the border guards who keep people out of them. But is there really no difference between a man who holds you hostage and a man who does not leave his door unlocked?

Yet for all the problems one might have with her leftist leanings—and at the end of the book Ypi has embraced Marxism again, if in a somewhat opaque form—Free raises troubling questions about the post-Soviet world. What kind of freedom did we envisage for the countries of the Eastern Bloc? What were they free to do?

In Poland, too, freedom brought challenges. Free-market reforms encouraged economic growth but unemployment rose as well. Organized criminals, like the notorious Pruszków Mafia, cleaned up. Yet what radical transition entails no challenges? 

The biggest problem was ideological. “Freedom from...” can be a very unifying goal. Freedom from communism. Freedom from Nazism. Freedom from imperialism. The sheer scale and power of an oppressive institution unites different enemies around a single aim. “Freedom to...” is a much more difficult concept. Freedom to what? The answers are more numerous, and more ambiguous.

Poland is far from being alone in struggling with this question, but struggle it has. Achieving freedom from communism, Poles have struggled with the question of what they are free to do. The plan that followed 1989, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes write in “Imitation and its Discontents,”

...could be summarized in a single imperative: Imitate the West! The process was called by different names—democratization, liberalization, enlargement, convergence, integration, Europeanization—but the goal pursued by postcommunist reformers was simple. They wished their countries to become “normal,” which meant like the West.

Ypi sums it up in an image. “Europe was like a long tunnel,” she writes, “When the journey started it didn’t occur to anyone to ask where the tunnel ended, whether the light would fail and what was on the other side.”

At the far end of Poland’s dark tunnel, the divisions hardened. Hold on, asked Polish conservatives—now most prominently represented by the ruling Law and Justice party—had Poles not been struggling for national independence since 1795? How close did they want to get to a cosmopolitan and increasingly supranational European Union? Had it not been the Catholic Church that had united Poles in their struggles against the communists? So, why now imitate the secular West?

Hold on, Polish liberals said in turn. Had their predecessors not struggled against communist censorship, intrusiveness, and indoctrination—against, in other words, the subordination of the individual by the state? Should they not in turn resist conservative attempts to set the boundaries of their individual freedom when it came to reproduction, sexuality, and artistic expression?

Liberals are redirecting “freedom from...” arguments here, toward governmental and religious authorities. In practice, conservatives tend to do so as well, such as in the philosopher and Law and Justice politician Ryszard Legutko’s elegant little book The Demon in Democracy, which argues, with considerable data drawn from Western experiences, that liberal conceptions of freedom from restraint harden into demands for freedom from discrimination, freedom from judgement, and freedom from all forms of inequality.

Freedom, as a concept, is malleable enough that almost everyone can claim to act in its defense. Amid protests against anti-abortion laws, for example, liberals marched in defense of the freedom of women and conservatives stood in defense of the freedom of the unborn. As the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on, meanwhile, in one of the charming pseudo-paradoxes that a complex world presents our models with, liberals were likelier to emphasize freedom from risk and conservatives were likelier to emphasize freedom of choice.

At a recent event, the powerful Law and Justice chairman Jarosław Kaczynski was heckled by protestors demanding a “free Poland.” Kaczynski turned these accusations around, accusing them of being the heirs of the sinister communist security services, and of “trying to destroy Poland.”

Freedom is never as intoxicating or as unifying as in its absence. Total lack of choice inspires various people to lock arms and to resist oppression. Freedom of choice, once acquired, divides them as it exposes the fundamental incompatibility of values. Freedom is once again construed defensively, though in a more fragmented and bitter fashion. 

Perversely, this can inspire nostalgia for totalitarianism, or a sneaking enthusiasm at the prospect of external threats. This is a mistake. Oppression and war are only unifying because they have so many victims.

It is also a cop-out. Polarization, and resultant pessimism, even in nations that have experienced great material development since the fall of communism, illuminates the inescapability of ideological conflict. Nations must develop positive models of freedom, as well as wage war against its absence and endangerment, for people to feel free together and not embattled by division.

Ben Sixsmith is the author of Noughties: Eleven Echoes of a Dismal Decade.

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