The Birth of Freedom

Of the many books published recently on the fate of Eastern Europe, Andrew Nagorski’s deserves a special place. A trained journalist, he reported from the Soviet Union for several years before being expelled by the Brezhnev regime. He never believed in the myth of the Soviet Union’s total domination of its satellites, and he looked for stories that revealed how people coped with and sometimes defied political oppression. At the same time, he admits that he, like virtually everyone else, was caught by surprise at the rapid demise of the Soviet Empire and the go-for-broke efforts of countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary to rejoin Europe and to develop social democratic governments and capitalistic economies.

What makes Nagorski’s perspective especially valuable is that he is steeped in Eastern European culture. His grandfather served in the Polish government-in-exile during World War II, and his father fought as a tank battalion officer. His family spoke Polish at home. He spent time in Poland as an exchange student and married a Polish woman. This personal background informs both his reading of history and of current events. He is never less than objective, reporting conflicting points of view, but the people of this part of Europe are like family to him. He views them sympathetically and skeptically, knowing how shaky the independence of these countries has been and how prone they are to blame their troubles on powerful neighbors.

Nevertheless, Nagorski regards Eastern Europe as roughly equivalent to the American Wild West— its institutions barely established, its political structures tenuous and makeshift. Yet with its fund of ideas and enthusiasms, this part of the world bids to become the most exciting theater of human possibilities, where whole peoples are forging new identities.