My first book is a collection of short stories narrated by a refugee from Communist Albania. While I was researching it I learned a lot about the authoritarian regimes that dominated the political landscape in Eastern Europe from the end of World War II to the late 1980s.
Imagine living in a country where the government operates under a shroud of secrecy, where questioning official policy is a punishable offense, where your next-door neighbour or best friend or cousin or brother might be watching and reporting on your activities, where a harmless act or innocuous remark could land you in prison. That’s what life was like for people in Eastern Europe for much of the previous century. The fear was real, the threats genuine.
The edicts of Communism do not make oppression inevitable. But because an essential theme of Communist philosophy is that the prosperity of the collective comes before the prosperity of the individual, it’s not surprising that the idea that the state knows best in all matters forms an ideological cornerstone for many of the regimes from that period. In countries like Romania, Albania and Yugoslavia, the notion that the common rabble is ruled by self-interest and doesn’t know what’s good for itself translated into decades-long dictatorships characterized by one-party rule, a lack of tolerance for opposing political views, profound mistrust of foreign influences, and the brutal suppression of dissenting ideas.
Where books and writing are concerned, people had few options. Only those works that praised the state and its rulers, or were deemed acceptable by a team of bureaucrats, were printed and distributed. Any writer whose aspirations included publication had to conform to a prescribed set of ideas. Those who were unable or unwilling to compromise stopped writing, worked in secret, left the country, or were blacklisted or jailed. Often, classic works by iconic writers from previous centuries were suppressed because government censors felt the ideas they promoted did not conform to the prevailing ideology.
A common absurdity of the time was that some of a writer’s works would be well known and widely available, while others were treated like they didn’t exist. Works by foreign writers were likely to be banned altogether and anyone caught with these in their possession would be arrested. In Romania a 1983 law declared the typewriter a “dangerous weapon,” and anyone who wanted one had to obtain permission from the police. If permission was granted, the new owner had to submit a typeface sample so that unique characteristics of the machine could be registered with the authorities. The private person-to-person sale of typewriters was forbidden. Typewriters were only available for purchase from state-run shops.
Censorship was everywhere, but many people were willing to take risks. Unsanctioned manuscripts were secretly copied and circulated through underground networks. Sometimes a work critical of the regime would be smuggled out of the country and published elsewhere. If this happened and the identity of the author was known, he or she had to go into hiding or find a way to leave the country. More than even violent resistance or outright rebellion—which could be quashed with brute force—those in power feared the uncontrolled circulation of subversive ideas. Unlike typewriters ideas are dangerous, and who better to know this than a ruling elite that was able to grab power in the first place because of the spread of ideas?
All information exchange and all forms of media—the press, television, radio, printing—were controlled by the state. With absolute control over the message that reached the public, the regime ensured that reality became what they wanted it to be. Government reports would gush about a booming economy while people stood in line for hours to buy a loaf of bread and endured service shortages and utility breakdowns because the tools to fix things were hard to come by and because the infrastructure had been falling apart for decades. The arrest of dissidents was never made known because that would be an admission that dissident activity existed. When the Berlin Wall fell in August 1989, the Romanian press did not report it. People in Romania only became aware of this momentous event through a trickle of foreign news reports that within a few weeks became a torrent. In the end, even the government couldn’t stop the flow of information.
It has been said, facetiously, that Communism failed because people didn’t want to wear Bulgarian shoes. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other socialist states in Eastern Europe is due, at least in part, to an unwieldy and ponderous and, as it turned out, unsustainable system of surveillance and control that over many years burgeoned in support of an inefficient power structure. East Germany has been described as a country where half the population was watching the other half. It couldn’t have been a surprise when the system eventually collapsed under its own weight.
In Canada our freedoms are enshrined in a constitution. We can read (and write) whatever we want. We take for granted that a vibrant, clamorous and vigilant media stands ready to pounce on the smallest gaffe or misstep committed by our political leaders. Despite how some people feel about Harper’s conservatives our freedoms have never been seriously threatened. But all you have to do is read a little history and you’ll see that Canada is an exception. We should celebrate our freedoms from time to time, if only to remind ourselves how lucky we are.