Onward Young Pioneers!
As Communism's old guard is gradually relegated to the past, much of Eastern Europe is faced with a decidedly non-traditional youth movement. But are countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic ready for the political make-over?
During the height of Communism in the Soviet Union and various countries in Eastern Europe, membership in groups such as the Young Pioneers was a way to demonstrate socialist solidarity, and contribute to the growth of Communist ideals. Since Communism's collapse throughout the eastern block in 1989 (and in the Soviet Union in 1991), an entire generation has grown up with few, if any, memories of this dying system.
Although not members of an official state-sponsored group geared towards ideological socialization, this demographic of young people are the pioneers who will lead their countries into the post-Communist era. Most likely, as they focus on the future, they will view their parents' and grandparents' stories of a politically oppressive past as irrelevant to their lives; much like the way young Americans of a similar age view archaic family stories of the Great Depression and World War I and II. Still, for the foreseeable future, it will be impossible for even those born in Eastern Europe after 1989 to completely ignore their Communist history. The present is ambiguous, the outlines of the future unclear. So these new "young pioneers" will have to juggle the remaining influences from a Communist world which no longer exists, with the new world of western enticements, which are far removed from the time of Socialist solidarity.
I first traveled to Hungary in June of 1988 when it was still a Communist state. Much of my visit was spent in the southern city of Pecs. A university town, though somewhat grimy due to its industry, there were several attractive parks scattered around the city. Each morning as I headed out to Jannus Pannonius University (since 2000, the University of Pecs) where I attended seminars on Hungarian politics, history and culture, I passed through the nearby park. Despite the city's pollution, the grass was green, the paths well-swept and lined with rows of bright flowers and bushes. And, without fail, each morning, roughly two dozen youngsters would enter the park in neat rows, two-by-two, an adult at each end of the lines.
The kids carried rakes, shovels, and, sometimes, small buckets with water. They quickly spread out across the park, directed by the adults to various tasks: raking the paths, sweeping any trash away, or watering the flowers. It was as if a group of dedicated little soldiers had descended upon the park, cleaned it from one end to the other, then marched off as they'd entered. One of my Hungarian hosts told me that this was a way youngsters learned the Socialist credo of deriving satisfaction through work for the whole community, and were often rewarded with medals or pins and special recognition at their schools.
Nearly two decades later, I am in the midst of a huge party in Budapest, on the sleekly beautiful Chain Bridge which spans the river Danube. It's a hot and humid June evening, but who cares! All along the river Danube, on either side of the bridge is a mass of people, spilling off into the streets and parks close by the river. The crowd appears fairly young, and is moving back and forth, singing, eating scrumptious Hungarian pastry, and watching the fireworks burst over the stolid lion statues guarding the approaches to the famous bridge.
It's June Festival; a celebration of freedom. Fifty years ago, Soviet tanks arrived in Budapest to crush a democratic revolution. In October, on the actual date of the failed revolution, the ceremonies will be somber. Now, however, it's a party. Although the festivities do not specifically celebrate the revolution of 1956, or the end of Communism in 1989, to me, an outsider, it seems a celebration of freedom.
I wander along the bridge and then down into one of the nearby parks. On a medium sized stage, before a large and appreciative crowd, a dance troop of children in their early teens, energetically performs a series of traditional Hungarian folk dances as several string players provide the music. The girls' dresses are a swirl of colors as they spin around, the boys' puffy shirts a blur as they twirl their partners. The evening is hot, the performers dripping with sweat, yet the playing and dancing are crisp and exact. The music, the colors, the clapping of hands and stomping of boots, are mesmerizing. I wonder if the young dancers will eventually be beckoned away from more traditional national music towards the western style pop that now permeates Eastern Europe.
Down a path, through the park, the river and the Buda hills visible on the Danube's opposite shore, there is another group of young Hungarians, they're in their early 20s, I think. The sign behind the makeshift performing space notes that they call themselves Joker. During breaks in their sets, they speak in Hungarian and English about their songs; some original, some reworked versions of other groups' material, such as songs by U2. And they offer their CD for sale, only 1,000 forints, or about $5 US. Maybe they'll make it big some day. I offer no predictions about what might be happening in Hungary's musical life, or what it will be like the next time I return. But there is one other important aspect in the life of these young people, these pioneers, dancers, and rockers alike: these people have freedom, economic choice, and a social mobility that those children whom I saw in 1988, obediently marching and cleaning for the community good, did not appear to have.
In the recent Hungarian elections in April, Hungarians re-elected the ruling center-left coalition. These parties, led by the Hungarian Socialists, won almost 50 percent of the vote. I can only assume many young persons voted for the Socialists and the current Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, although the demographic analysis is incomplete. The Prime Minister is an interesting role model for young Hungarians. Born in 1961 he was a leader of the Communist youth movement in his 20s, moved deftly from Communism to capitalism, and became wealthy, after Communism's collapse, buying state assets in the early years of privatization. Not unlike current young Hungarians, he seems to have quickly shucked his Communist clothes, and now favors a reduction in public sector jobs and an increase in taxes to stimulate economic growth in the near future. Young Hungarians must hold Mr. Gyurcsany in high regard as someone who grew up with the Young Pioneer trappings, but now leads the way for capitalism and the Euro Hungary already belongs to the European Union.
A few days and several hundred miles later, I traveled from Hungary's Chain Bridge in Budapest to the Charles Bridge in Prague, the Czech Republic. This was my third visit since 2002, and it's always a party in Prague. Communist rule in Prague was quite harsh (more so than in Hungary after the 1956 revolution) but young and old have had no problems moving quickly into the post-Communist era, while celebrating freedom and the market economy.
Here too, elections have just been held. The government holds a special concern that young Czechs have been losing interest in their still young democratic process. From what I've heard and seen in Prague, some older and politically active Czechs are trying to rekindle young political participation. They've created the "You Decide" voter awareness campaign, (http://www.radio.cz/en/article/78540), a series of short films aimed at young voters, showing what Czech politicians think they must do to lure disaffected youth. These 30-second films are shown on TV and in cinemas; examples include a cartoon of two bored young girls in a desultory discussion of politics, or footage from Czech Parliament sessions showing members sleeping, nose picking, ogling scantily clad women in a tabloid paper, and playing solitaire on their PC. The videos are hilarious, but don't take my word for it, you can watch them at www.rozhodnete.to.
In another attempt to attract even younger voters, the Czech Green Party proposed to lower the voting age to 16. This idea doesn't seem very popular, at least among older Czechs, such as political analyst Zdenek Zboril, who warned, "These (young) people are not completely formed politically, sociologically they often carry radical attitudes, irrational sentiments and so on." (Radio Prague 9 June 2006 http://www.radio.cz/en/article/79912)
Speaking with my Czech friends, who are mostly in their mid-20s and politically active, it seems that in the recent election, overall turn-out was up. Perhaps some of that can be attributed to an increase in younger voters. Maybe watching members of Parliament make asses of themselves had an impact, after all. It inspired a desire among new young voters to, as one friend puts it, "kick these guys in the butt!" Although one tabulated result does seem to support the charge that the Greens want to lower the voting age for their own party's benefit. (Radio Prague, ibid.) They pulled around 17 percent of the young vote, beat the five percent threshold for party entry into the Parliament, and have become a more important political force. (Axis Globe 5 June 2006, http://www.axisglobe.com/print_article.asp?article=903) Still, I would hazard a guess that those formerly inactive young Czechs who voted Green appreciate the fact that they have some choice in the Czech parliamentary system -- that they can, unlike their formerly Communist elders, fill the "pioneer" role in a real and substantive way, and alter politics by their collective presence.
I must admit that politics seem rosier to me when I'm away from the States, standing on the Chain or Charles Bridges, soaking in the excitement, and watching the Danube and Vlatava rivers slide by under the stone arches. Although I also concede, it is true, that the "new" democratic politics in the Czech Republic and Hungary are no less messy or, as my friends in both countries say, "discouraging", than in the States. It is somewhat disconcerting to see barons like Mr. Gyurcsany nimbly enter, and quickly rise to financial and political dominance within the new democratic systems. The Hungarian Prime Minister was part of the system that made previous generations don the Young Pioneer red scarves, and endure the exhortations of their leaders. As a result, it is difficult, especially for today's youth, not to feel unsure about life in the new era.
The Czech writer Ivan Klima, who suffered under both Nazi and Communist tyranny, writes of this sentiment in his 2001 novel, No Saints or Angels (Granta 2001). As Evan Rail's review of the novel notes in the Prague Post, "An uncomfortable ambiguity remains in the air, as if Klima himself is undecided as to the good or bad nature of life after the Velvet Revolution (which ended Czech communism in 1989), but it was and to a certain degree still is a highly ambiguous time." (The Prague Post, 26 August 2004, http://www.praguepost.com/P03/2004/Art/0826/featu1.php).
The novel details one family's struggle in the immediate aftermath of communism's collapse. The 15-year old daughter, Jana, is alienated, cynical, and ends up in drug rehab. She seems crushed between two worlds, incapable of moving forward. Klima, then, is critical of how some young Czechs react to the demands and pioneering challenges of post-Communism. As Rail notes, the novel suggests that all of Prague's teen population are addicts, petty criminals and sexual deviants. Based upon my own discussions with my Czech and Hungarian friends about their kids and their kid's friends, I think Klima exaggerates. And yet, through the musings of Jana's mother, he aptly describes the challenge of the new era for all these kids:
"But what is freedom? The gateway to an unknown space that even adults get lost in, and my little girl isn't 16 yet. She's lost in a landscape that lures her, but in fact it's a swamp that she'll go on sinking into until one day she'll disappear altogether."
Only time will tell.