History and Hope

Revolution in Hungary

Because it was a school night, my tenth birthday celebration remained a small affair, confined to our family’s dinner table.

As I blew out the candles on my cake that October evening in 1956, whatever sweet, midwestern wishes I made hardly resembled those of children a world away. Those children were marking a different sort of occasion with their own parents: an uprising that would come to be known as the Hungarian Revolution.

On October 24th, or perhaps the 25th, I passed through the dining room on my way to breakfast and noticed the Des Moines Register lying where my cake had been. A single photograph filled the space above the fold, together with a bold caption: “REVOLUTION IN HUNGARY.”

At the time, no 24-hour news cycle existed. We had no CNN; no internet; no Facebook or Twitter. We had only a newspaper, motionless and mute, waiting on the table while my father readied for work and my mother drank coffee in the kitchen.

I stood at the table, transfixed by the photograph. Eventually, my air of concentrated astonishment caught my dad’s attention. Stopping behind me, he asked, “What’s happening?” I pointed to the photograph. He picked up the front page, scanned it, then brought it to the kitchen. He showed it to my mother, then handed it to me. “Maybe you should take the newspaper to school,” he said. And so I did.

At the time, I thought nothing of my teacher’s willingness to set aside her lesson plans and talk with us about events in Europe. We made a special trip to the school library, where the librarian helped us to find the 1848 Hungarian National Poem. Back in our classroom, we made a poster of the words, tacked it to the bulletin board, and read it in unison.

Stand up, Hungarians, your country calls.
The time for now or never falls.
Are we to live as slaves or free?
Choose one. This is our destiny!
By the God of all the Magyars, we swear.
We swear never again the chains to bear.

Even as children we were moved by the straightforwardness of the poetry. Decades later, turning over events of the time in a somewhat different context, I found myself equally stirred by Karoly Nagy’s The Legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution:

Liberty, democracy, human rights are like health. Servitude, oppression, discrimination are like sickness. Totalitarian tyranny is death. A revolution that overthrows tyranny and achieves liberty is a resurrection. During the last week of October and the first few days of November, 1956, most of us in Hungary felt as if we were risen from the dead…
It was euphoria. We sang our long-forbidden national anthem, embraced each other on the streets, laughed and cried with joy. We felt redeemed. We were intoxicated by hearing and saying words of truth.
We learned the truth and demonstrated it to the world, that what defines a country, what qualifies a society is not any ideology, but the presence or absence of freedom.

Thirty-three years after I stood, transfixed, before a photograph of Russian tanks moving into the streets of Budapest to quell the popular uprising there with determined brutality, true revolution and an overthrow of communist government came to Czechoslovakia.

British historian and political writer Timothy Garton Ash, noting the series of revolutions cascading through Eastern Europe in 1989, adds a reminder that, “in Poland, the transition [from communism to democracy] lasted ten years, in Hungary ten months, and in Czechoslovakia ten days.”

Those ten event-filled days between November 17th and November 27th, known to Czechs as the ‘Velvet Revolution’ and to Slovaks as the ‘Gentle Revolution,’ embodied a remarkable, non-violent resistance whose effects reverberated throughout the world.

Reflecting on those events in a New York Review of Books article, Ash said:

In the autumn of 1989, the term ‘Velvet Revolution’ was coined to describe a peaceful, theatrical, negotiated regime change in a small Central European state that no longer exists.
So far as I have been able to establish, the phrase was first used by Western journalists and subsequently taken up by Václav Havel and other Czech and Slovak opposition leaders. This seductive label was then applied retrospectively by writers, including myself, to the cumulatively epochal events that had unfolded in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany as ‘the Velvet Revolutions of 1989.’

Ash’s description of events as “theatrical” never was meant to suggest they were in any sense ‘staged,’ but they certainly were dramatic. Marketa Hancova, former Dean of Education at Platt College in San Diego, California, was present during those ten days of transformation; her accounts of the events are intensely personal and extraordinarily detailed.

…It is late at night and I cannot sleep. And who can? The telephone is ringing, the radio is on, people are stopping by, so my friend and I are going out at four in the morning to buy a newspaper. Prague is bubbling, steaming, the city is in a frenzy and people delirious with certainty of victory, by their strength and by the historical moment we all feel palpably burning under our skin. The air smells sweet, and you can drink and eat for free. Everyone is sharing, everyone is offering, everything is open twenty four hours a day.
Revolution does not know night or day. It is one big day that ends with achieving our goal. I am tasting the life in paradise. If nothing else, these incredible moments have already made up for the years under the Communists’ despotism. The sense of giving and sharing offers me a rare opportunity to experience the uniqueness of human closeness.
Day three… The crowd is bigger. We are in the main square again, and the Communist vice-president is trying to deliver a speech. All of a sudden I hear a key chiming. Everybody pulls out their keys and we are all chiming above our heads. The whole of Prague is chiming and the politician cannot finish his address. We sing instead the Czech national songs…

The chiming in Wenceslas Square as citizens rang their bell-like keys in a final, dismissive gesture to the communist regime was memorialized in The Key Sculpture (Klícová socha) by Czech artist Jiří David. Formally installed on March 9, 2010 in Prague’s Franz Kafka Square, its 85,741 metal keys pay tribute to the courage and intransigence of pro-democratic demonstrators, the vision of leaders like Václav Havel, and the unexpected power of a million jangling keys when Češi udělali revoluci – the Czechs made a revolution.

Today, those same Czechs once again are gathering in Wenceslas Square: this time to protest on behalf of another beleaguered people — the citizens of Ukraine.

Even as Czech citizens were singing and chiming in the streets of Prague, The Estonian Singing Revolution did its own part to help secure democracy in Eastern Europe. Incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, Estonia was occupied by Germany until reannexation by the Soviet Union in 1944.

Despite the deportation of tens of thousands of Estonians to Siberia and Central Asia and the forced resettlement of Russians into the country, one aspect of Estonian culture held firm: their Festivals of Song. First held in 1869, the Festivals quickly became a revered tradition. The Tallinn Festival, held every five years, can draw as many as 25,000 singers.

In 1987, Estonian singing began to serve another purpose. Initially, smaller groups gathered at the Song Festival grounds to sing patriotic songs that had been banned by the Soviets. In the words of participant Artur Talvik,

“We sang all night and everybody went home early in the morning. It was emotionally so strong that the next day there were even more people. The day after, there were even more people. People took out their hidden flags. They had these flags hidden for 50 years and now they took these out and started to wave them.”

For reasons best known to themselves, the Soviets ignored the first song gatherings. In response, the people’s courage increased. In June of 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds to sing patriotic songs, including the banned Mu isamaa, mu onn ja room (“My Fatherland, My Happiness and Joy”).

Ten thousand people singing may be a song festival, but 300,000 people singing and waving flags is a revolution. By September, political leaders were participating in demonstrations and insisting on the restoration of independence.

In the midst of Estonian singing, alliances were forged and pressures on the Soviets increased. By August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the secretive Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, more than a million Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians were willing to travel “The Baltic Way“, a human chain stretching 360 miles from the foot of Toompea in Tallinn to the foot of the Gediminas Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Their mutual goal, re-established independence of the Baltic States, was nurtured by an assortment of national movements – the Popular Front of Estonia (Rahvarinne), the Popular Front of Latvia and the Lithuanian Reform Movement, Sąjūdis. Milda Mendeleviciute provides one reminiscence.

I was less than 8 then, so I can remember very little. As my Mom tells, we went to this small town close to Vilnius, hoping there would not be overcrowded, and we were right (only two cars there on that site when we came)… we had to struggle to reach each others hands. The pictures prove that many children participated in that peaceful demonstration.

The human chain of the Baltic Way

Despite some differences in the struggles which took place in Hungary, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and Latvia, they share certain truths: particularly, that revolution never is purely about politics, and freedom never is abstract. Human dignity is rooted not in the lofty pronouncements of autocrats and dictators, but in the freedoms of daily life, the intimacy of personal relationships and the twin joys of creativity and responsibility.

In another entry from her journal, Ms. Hancova speaks movingly of dignity and freedom.

There are many events I happily experience and one of the episodes sticks clearly in my mind. We are walking with my friends in the Wenceslas Square and we notice a big crowd in front of a record shop. We come closer and see a small cassette player sitting on a stool and playing a Christmas carol.
We are so happy to hear – for the first time in our life – the Christmas carol being played publicly. We are staying for the longest time and together with others listening, singing and enjoying a sliver of already gained freedom.

Her experience is worth pondering. Inundated as we are by carols from the day after Thanksgiving, by Christmas we hardly hear them. Cynical, irritated, or bored by what we consider an intrusion into our personal space, we forget that, in our lifetime, in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, a woman bearing a name and a history experienced publicly-played Christmas carols for the first time in her life, and rejoiced with friends and strangers alike in the freedom to listen and sing.

Today, wherever voices are threatened or silenced, whenever hearts grow weary or fearful, the same power that enlivened Czechoslovakia, surged through Estonia and made straight the Baltic Way seeks to revivify the human spirit.

Wending through city streets, holding hands across the miles, filling the public squares with a sense of  commitment and joy, it offered to those nations what others sought to destroy: a swelling chorus of freedom and self-determination.

Comments always are welcome.
The next Estonian Song Festival will be held in 2024.

84 thoughts on “History and Hope

  1. Linda this one was awesome and very needed today. While I do not read all your stories I save every one of them so I can read them later. Congratulations on this one. Well done.

    1. Patti! I’m so glad you dropped by, and I hope all’s well in your world. While thinking about Ukraine, it occurred to me that it hasn’t been that many years since other nations in the area took on the task of overcoming oppression, and their stories are inspirational. While we can’t yet say what will happen with Russia and Ukraine, it’s worth remembering that sometimes chains can be thrown off.

      It’s great to see you. Gué stops by from time to time, and Sandi. We had some good times, and I surely do have some fond memories!

  2. Amazing fortitude of people who come out of bondage into freedom; appalling apathy of people who are hushed and lullabied with no experience dealing with the harshness of most of the world. Takes the wisdom of God to know how to build strong people; it seems not to be by giving them a bottle and changing their diapers on demand.

    1. There’s no question that our society has grown increasingly soft, and increasingly unable to deal with the world’s realities. Parents who are unwilling to allow their children to risk and to fail do them no favors. Given that a perfectly ‘safe’ world is an illusion, learning to deal with the world’s various realities beats thumb-sucking every time. When the real world comes calling — in conflict, in illness, in war, in economic collapse — it takes resilience and strength to cope.

  3. I don’t remember the Hungarian Revolution in 56 – I was born in 57 – but I remember the 89 uprisings vividly. I lived and worked in Germany in the 70s and 80s until 1987. When I left nobody expected the wall to come down 2 years later. The events in Romania are also vivid, the ousting and execution of the Ceaușescus. Ironically on Christmas Day. Hope is powerful and eventually most dictators cross a line. This is such a strong piece of writing, Linda. We all need hope today, none more so than the people of Ukraine.

    1. Too many people confuse hope with wishful thinking, or simple optimism. Hope is tougher than that, and less easily discouraged.

      Your mention of the wall points to another reality; there are times when circumstances converge and bring an unexpected result, whether positive or negative. While we may be surprised at the time, a look back makes the result understandable; it can be easy to miss patterns in the apparent chaos of events. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. The resistance he’s meeting there may have surprised him. Let’s hope it leads to more surprises that benefit the people of Ukraine.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful and timely essay on liberation. The truly awful situation in Ukraine is only beginning to unfold to what is likely a long struggle to end or cope with oppression.
    I need to revisit the fiction of the Czech writers Kundera, Klima, and others who wrote about their era of oppression.

      1. I read a number of Kundera’s books quite a while ago and liked them. Another Czech I read back then is Josef Škvorecký. They all take a dim view of politics and government.

    1. Now and then I ponder a strange truth: in my childhood days of newspapers and evening news broadcasts, we often knew as much about what was happening around the world as people today with access to the 24/7 news cycle. It’s also true that as a society we’ve come to believe that ‘history’ is whatever happened yesterday, and ratings are more important than truth. More studied looks at real events in a more distant past would serve us well.

      1. There is an isolation factor of living in the Americas (which includes South America) and one has to make an extra effort to learn about what’s going on in other parts of the world. Unless of course there’s a war, and now everyone knows where every city in the Ukraine is on the map. Although Information is out there about everything, finding it, or having a reason to find it, is another matter.

  5. What a lovely hopeful song to finish your hopeful post. The paragraph underneath the Human Chain of the Baltic Way reminds me of a quote I read on 9 March; “If armed peace and war are ever to be eliminated then it will not be by emperors and by the strong people of this world; war is too advantageous for them. War will cease only when those who suffer most as a result of it come to understand that their fate is in their own hands, and that in order to free themselves from the horrors of war they can use the simplest and most natural of means: they can stop obeying those people who drag them into war and force them to become soldiers.” ( Quoted as After Harduin in Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom) Henri-Edmond Harduin (1846-1908 ) was a French journalist, correspondent for Le Matin during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05 )

    1. And in turn the quotation you offered reminds me of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay known today as “Live Not By Lies.” Dated February 12, the day he was arrested by the secret police, it was published by the Washington Post on February 18 of that year.

      It’s quite an essay, and requires some patience given his style. Still, there’s no mistaking his point: the only way forward through falsehoods is to refuse every opportunity to lie, and that refusal depends upon the individual. As he puts it, “Let us refuse to say that which we do not think.” After providing some examples, he goes on to say:

      “There are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest: On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence, or toward spiritual servitude.”

      “And he who is not sufficiently courageous even to defend his soul — don’t let him be proud of his “progressive” views, and don’t let him boast that he is an academician or a people’s artist, a merited figure, or a general –let him say to himself: I am in the herd, and a coward. It’s all the same to me as long as I’m fed and warm.”

      Recognizing the truth of his words is one thing; living by his precepts is quite another.

  6. Deep and insightful and a wonderful recap of European history. War is pure hell. My mother lived through WW1 in which her youngest brother was killed in the war fighting for Germany. This was northeast Germany where their farm was next to a river that bordered on Denmark. She never forgave the Germans and Russians for his killing. She and her sisters and one older brother had to feed Russian soldiers who stayed in their barn and slept in the hay. They had to house and feed them. After the war, she and her 4 sisters and brother immigrated to Texas.

    1. What a hard experience for your family: not only the war death of your uncle, but the fears that must have been part of being forced to house and feed enemy troops. People wonder why we have that third amendment to our Constitution: “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” Your family’s experience makes clear the importance of that Constitutional guarantee.

      I’m glad they were able to emigrate to Texas. Did they already know people here? There was such a large German community, many people did come based on reports from friends and family who already had made the journey.

      1. I am not positive if there were other relatives or not, but I know there were maybe two cousins. My mother spoke often of the war and inflation that followed but I am not sure if that was before the war occurred or after the war. She said that one needed a huge basket to buy one load of bread. She spoke of the kaiser and how much her family hated him. I think she and her siblings came to central Texas based on relatives that were here. I am sure they needed somewhere to stay. Her brother bought a farm because all the money from her dad’s farm went to the eldest but she and her sisters said that he had swindled the money from the five sisters. My mother worked as a cook for a well known surgeon in our area for about 5 years or so. She also minded their one young son. She had some interesting stories to tell of her life.

  7. Great post, Linda. The first lines you quoted from Karoly Nagy’s book really jumped out at me: “Liberty, democracy, human rights are like health. Servitude, oppression, discrimination are like sickness. Totalitarian tyranny is death. A revolution that overthrows tyranny and achieves liberty is a resurrection.” Much to think about here. Thank you.

    1. That brought to mind another passage from Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay we know as “Live Not By Lies”:

      “The simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, we will be obstinate in this smallest of matters: Let them embrace everything, but not with any help from me.

      This opens a breach in the imaginary encirclement caused by our inaction. It is the easiest thing to do for us, but the most devastating for the lies. Because when people renounce lies it simply cuts short their existence. Like an infection, they can exist only in a living organism.”

      That certainly echoes Nagy’s metaphors of sickness and health, and both men’s words are as relevant today as they were when written.

  8. Thank you so much for the thoughtful lesson on history and liberation. As I watch the “freedom convoy” (the truckers, although I’ve heard many of them are not real truckers but just people in vans and pick-up trucks) here in Maryland, people who can’t even say what it is they want other than to vent about what they think is an infringement on their freedoms, I wonder how many of them realize just how many freedoms they actually do have. They’re cold and stuck in the mud today, in Hagerstown, possibly unaware of another convoy (of Russian tanks) stuck in the mud and towed out by Ukrainian farmers. Maybe the farmers up in Hagerstown will tow them out so they can resume driving in circles on the Beltway near D.C.

    1. I suppose I’m glad my post gave you an opportunity to vent about a situation here in the U.S., but I have no desire to plunge into a discussion of that issue. I will say that when I came across a video of a Ukrainian farmer towing a seized tank with his tractor I had to smile, despite the terrible seriousness of the war. There’s a song by Rodney Atkins called “Friends With Tractors” that’s been made into a video showing all the ways tractors can be employed. In the future, there may be a new video, showing those intrepid Ukrainian farmers finding their own new uses for them.

        1. No need to apologize, Robin. I don’t mind that you raised one of our own complicated domestic issues. After all, we can’t help which associations come to mind when we read a post; that certainly is true for me.

  9. This post could provide comfort and hope to those under siege in Ukraine if they could read it. For those who can read it and continue to avoid the reality of that struggle, I hope they wake up. Thank you, Linda.

    1. One thing that concerns me is the tendency of our media outlets to see war and violence as a means of profit-making. Far too often, they present events like those in Ukraine as though they’re little more than another action film: stock characters, predictable plots, and just enough gore to satisfy the blood-thirsty without repelling the squeamish. That’s where a more sober assessment can be useful; the history of nations, leaders, and ideological movements may not be as exciting as our chosen news outlets, but history has more enduring lessons to teach.

  10. Hola y buenos dias, Linda. Just this past week you were on my mind as I recalled the random stories of your childhood that you’ve shared over the years. I feel as if I know that adorable and curiosity-filled young girl as much as I knew my own sisters — and now here you are with another poignant story from your past.

    Of course there are tears in my eyes. Thank you for the way you weave and present personal and historic stories that touch us in profound ways.

    Love,
    Lisa

    1. In the end, history always is about people. Impersonal as certain forces may seem, and as detached and impersonal as military leaders attempt to make war seem — especially in this age of drones and other forms of ‘remote warfare’ — people make the decisions, and people suffer the consequences. I suspect that behind every anonymous online attack, every rant, every unprovoked knifing in the alley or incident of road rage, there’s a story. Knowing those stories might not eliminate the nastiness, but they might reveal something of the person behind them; that could be a first step away from the violence. I know: Pollyanna. Or something. But we can hope!

      1. There was/is a person that a community of neighbors dislike, and often the neighbors share their most recent stories – which leave me a bit saddened by all sides… hours later after the last conversation I remembered the quote, ‘Those who deserve love least, need it the most.’ You are so right – behind every ugly example, we can find compassion for that person if we set aside judgment and ego.
        Sending you a big hug from the equator. Pass it along to the Pachamamas for me!

  11. I looked back at the 2014 version of this post and re-read my comment and your answer. One thing you said was:

    “I’ve wondered at times whether the passing of our grandparents’ and parents’ generations hasn’t contributed to a certain solipsism in our society. To flee tyranny, to fight a war, to survive concentration or internment camps, to cope with the consequences of economic depression – those were harsh realities, but they were realities, nonetheless. Despite the experiences of individuals and particular communities, our nation’s been spared that kind of trauma for quite some time. I suspect there will be some new lessons in coping down the road.”

    You were prescient. One of those new lessons is upon us now.

    1. Prescience often is little more than observation combined with reflection. As you know, willful blindness to authoritarian trends in our own society has been increasing for years. Combine that blindness with the manipulation of language, the impossible promise of perfect safety, and various technologies’ goal of reducing participation in the physical world, and we’re being set up for a very hard fall. Add a failing education system to the mix, stir in a dollop of human lust for power and wealth, and here we are.

      Sometimes, even the poets get it right.

    1. It’s that caveat at the end that can be so troublesome. “In time” may be true, but uncertainty abounds, patience can wear thin, and hope often erodes. Still: on we go. Excelsior!

  12. Your post on the power of the spirit of freedom has deeply touched me. My wife was fortunate that her parents could escape the oppression of freedom in the former German Democratic Republic. Others had to wait for 40 years before the wall came down. Here is an article I found that shows the power of peaceful demonstrations: https://www.dw.com/en/how-east-germans-peacefully-brought-the-gdr-regime-down/a-50743302
    Thank you, Linda, for sharing your thoughts with us!

    1. That was a fascinating article. I was especially taken by this line: “their commitment to non-violence left the state powerless because it had no pretext to take action.” I’ve had the sense that Russian forces have been attempting to create that same sort of pretext. I hope that doesn’t happen. Kathrin Mahler Walther’s point is well taken, too. I wasn’t aware of the Leipzig demonstrations. That may be due to our media’s continuing fixation on China after the Tiananmen Square protests that same year.

      The secret filming of the demonstration by German journalist Siegbert Schefke, and his ability to get that footage to West Germany, reminded me of the role blogger Yoani Sanchez played in Cuba. Passing herself off as a tourist, she’d get posts out of the country by carrying her flash drive to a hotel that catered to foreigners and using one of the computers there. It’s remarkable how much difference an individual can make — although both of course had others helping them.

        1. Indeed he was. His biography’s as interesting for his personal transformation from a shy student to a world leader as for the record of his accomplishments.

  13. Linda, this was particularly profound: “Human dignity is rooted not in the lofty pronouncements of autocrats and dictators, but in the freedoms of daily life, the intimacy of personal relationships and the twin joys of creativity and responsibility.” I imagine most of us now living in the U.S. aren’t personally familiar with dictators, and I fear some at least take our freedoms quite for granted. That makes me sad. What isn’t highly valued can easily be taken away. Thank you for a glimpse into history that many of us needed to read!

    1. I just looked at your current post, and enjoyed the story of the anonymous man’s $15 offer for Monkey. It reminds me that there are times when what’s valued isn’t taken away; it’s given away. It’s been more than a little distressing to see people across the political spectrum in our country give away the possibility of independent thought and action in exchange for the ‘security’ of being told what to do or say. Sometimes it all reminds me of the ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ of high school, with the ‘brains’ and the ‘jocks’ jostling to come out on top of the hierarchy.

      Of course, there are much more serious examples, particularly among those would are seeking to divide us again on the basis of race, gender, and class. ‘Divide and conquer’ is more than a saying, even for us.

  14. Russia has had it out for the Ukraine for quite a while. Stalin engineered a famine that killed millions. It says a lot for the Russia people that Putin has had to put bans and a news blackout in place to quash their sentiment against the war.

    1. I was reading recently about Ukrainian resources: wheat, sunflower, oil, minerals. I couldn’t help thinking about that old saying filled with irony: the operation was a success, but the patient died. History’s full of military and political ‘operations’ that were death-dealing rather than life-affirming. Pete Seeger’s song is as relevant as ever.

  15. When the window of oppression is thrown open and the sunlight of freedom shines into all the corners of your world, you are overcome with emotion. How could you know what you had been missing if you had never experienced it before?

    Much has been written and stated about the negative aspects of “nationalism” and how such a mindset must be eradicated from the planet. I argue that, as in many things in life, “nationalism” can be used as a weapon or a tool.

    Ask the Czechs or Hungarians or Estonians if nationalism played a part in their decision to say “ENOUGH”. Ask native Russians within Russia if they feel strongly about their nation?

    Leaders use our strong emotional feelings for their own purposes. It is up to each individual to know what is right for them and when and if to take action for change.

    Once again, we have been doomed to repeat historical lessons we failed to learn. Those who would prefer we remain quiet so they can go about the business of amassing personal power have also failed the history lesson and they, too, will eventually fall.

    Cheer on the downtrodden. Support liberty everywhere. Defend your home and family if necessary. Be wary of shedding blood in other lands for the benefit of a salesman.

    Facts are very difficult to discern during conflict. Doubly so when the conflict is on the other side of your world. Try and be certain what you are being told is true. Some of our messengers have their own agendas.

    Freedom is too precious to put in the hands of those who would like us to be sheep.

    1. Your comment’s so rich it would take a book to properly reply; I’ll spare you that, but I did have a couple of thoughts.

      Speaking of freedom, you wrote: “How could you know what you had been missing if you had never experienced it before?” That cuts both ways.

      In the 1970s, I visited Spain a year or so after the death of Franco and the beginning of Juan Carlos’s reign. I wondered why people smiled when I asked if it would be safe in Madrid, and I got my answer the first night I was there. Walking to a restaurant from my hotel near the Plaza Mayor, I passed innumerable pairs of soldiers, complete with bandoliers and rather large weapons. While they weren’t overtly threatening, they stood as a reminder of the cost of the ‘safety’ I enjoyed; seeing those armed soldiers was a bit of a shock.

      A more dramatic experience occurred on the streets of Monrovia in the mid-1980s. I’d returned for a six-week visit between the end of one dictatorship and the beginning of a second bloody civil war, and I’d been briefed on ‘survival’ tactics. When a young ‘soldier’ pulled me out of a taxi and took my passport, I knew he wanted a bribe to give it back, and he clearly wasn’t about to push the limits. Still: it was unnerving, and another glimpse into what life under dictatorship or irrational forces can be like.

      A third example: being detained at a Sierra Leone border crossing for hours, playing it cool until the dudes decided I wasn’t going to pay the exorbitant ‘fee’ they demanded and let me go on.

      Suffice it to say, some of my subsequent decisions, especially during the pandemic, were based in part on convictions shaped by those past experiences. Give anyone hungry for power a metaphorical inch, and you’ll soon be miles down the road.

      1. You are so right about freedom cutting both ways and in part that is what ignited a conflagration of emotional thoughts. I truly didn’t mean to “hijack” your very poignant and excellent post. My sincere apologies if that may have happened.

        Your experiences are not unlike many in my own history. Tense times in Moscow and Prague; a dangerous mistake getting on the wrong U-Bahn in Berlin; sharing beers and tears with my Czechoslovak-born landlord while living in Bavaria.

        My final return from living overseas found me, literally, bending down and kissing the tarmac at JFK International.

        There is no place like Home.
        For me, there is nothing like Home in the USA.

        (I’ll try hard to keep future commentary centered on birds, blooms and bugs.)

        1. My goodness; you didn’t hijack anything. After all, this wasn’t a post about birds, blooms, and bugs. It’s about history, freedom, and various nations’ struggles for self-determination. Granted, there might be a snake in the grass or an assassin bug lurking about, but they belong in a different post. One reason I sidestepped the comment about the truckers’ convoys was that the struggles of the eastern European nations I highlighted have been almost forgotten in this country, so that’s where I wanted to keep the focus.

          I particularly love two things about blogging. One is the way real conversations can develop. I post, you comment, I respond. Social media doesn’t allow for that, except in the most rudimentary way. I’ve always understood my posts as only the first step in an interesting process, and I’ve encouraged comments from the beginning.That’s one reason I never put a ‘like’ button on The Task at Hand.

          The other advantage of a blog is the possibility of thinking before posting. Occasionally, when I’m slow to respond to a comment, it’s not because I’m working or down at the local watering hole having a cold one. Sometimes, I’m thinking. I knew there was something about your comment about people experiencing freedom for the first time that was intriguing, but it took me a while to realize that a first experience of oppression can be just as significant.

          To put it simply, I appreciated your comment because it caused me to think. Don’t you dare limit yourself!

  16. As with the Hungarian and Czech people who set examples of patriotism or, as Wally mentions above, Nationalism and the desire for freedom, the people of Ukraine are exhibiting once again that when a nation of people decide to stand up and fight for their liberty or self-determination it is hard to defeat them. Unfortunately through time the weapons of oppression grow stronger and only time will tell whether the outcome of this current battle ends with liberty or destruction. This time the stakes are even higher with the threat of the ruination of the entire planet and challenge to the survival of most all life forms.

    Your telling of the history of resistance is very poignant and offers hope for something better to come from this but right now that prospect is challenged by a madman with incredible ability for devastation.

    1. Sometimes, as with Ukraine, people are called to resist an invader from beyond their borders. (Of course, there’s some complex history to that situation, but just now ‘invader’ will do.) But sometimes, a power-mad dictator arises within a country, and does just as much damage.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about Liberia’s civil war, and the role the Liberian women played in ousting Charles Taylor and bringing the war to an end. Peter mentioned Gandhi, and the power of peaceful resistance; that’s exactly what happened in Liberia. I went back for a few weeks between a coup and the civil war, and it was obvious that trouble was coming. But when it was over, a wonderful documentary was made about the events, and now it’s available for viewing. When I can figure out how to do it, I’m going to include it in a post, but for now, if you have an extra hour or so, you can find it on Vimeo. The title? Pray the Devil Back to Hell. I wish we could do so with our current devil.

      1. I remember that title although have not seen the film. I’ll give it a watch on your recommendation. There is a meme going around on social media of Meryl Streep saying that she believed if women were more in control of the world it would be a much more peaceful place (not her exact words but her exact meaning) and I tend to believe that. While there are certainly some women who let their egos get in the way of peace it is definitely more prevalent in men…at least in my opinion and maybe even in my case. I’ve my own opinion on that last sentence in your first paragraph but am pretty sure you don’t want to go there. But we have seen that happen in countries throughout history and Putin seems willing to do that in his own country as he declares those in opposition to the war traitors.

        1. Actually, I was thinking of Cuba and Liberia in that sentence you mentioned, but I suppose we could find other examples. As for Streep’s contention that if women were in control things would be more peaceful, I’d question that. I’ve known mean, vicious, and dictatorial women who weren’t as violent as a Putin, but who had other means of imposing their will. On the other hand, some of the kindest and more peaceloving people I’ve known have been guys. They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and given the right set of circumstances, anyone with that kind of power could be transformed into something terrible.

          1. I did allow that some women can be mean aka egotistical, dictatorial, etc. But men (some at least) have more of a tendency for physical fighting and violence, at least in my experience and opinion. There certainly are plenty of kind and gentle males. Look no further than Mr. Rogers. And maybe me.
            Once ahold of great power, just as with great wealth, the desire to maintain or grow it seems to dominate.

            1. I’m grinning, now. I well remember the first physical fight I ever saw. I was in grade school, it took place on the school grounds, and it involved girls with sharpened can openers: the kind with the pointy ends. It certainly provided some interesting dinnertime conversation that night.

            2. Wow! That would leave a lasting impression. Not exactly a knife fight but probably just as serious. I’ve been in exactly one fight in my life. A guy twisted my arm during a fire drill in Jr. High and my friends all goaded me into meeting him after school. Won by a tko…he threw the first punch, missed me, lost his balance and stumbled backwards, fell down, and hightailed it out if there in embarrassment. Undefeated!

  17. Thank you Linda, for this lesson in history and exploration of human dignity. I love your reference to freedom being experienced in quotidian ways. I also found your expression of the joy of the articulation of truth in post-Soviet states to be powerful. Insights into the before of those worlds speak of stranglehold of falsehood, and the manner in which it eroded joy, life, etc. Thanks as well for a reminder of the power of song.

    1. There’s a great video of Dire Straits playing Wembley in 1985. In Mark Knopfler’s spoken introduction to “Walk of Life,” he says, “I know they don’t let you stand up in this place, but if you all do, there’s nothing they can do about it.” That’s exactly what so many of these liberation movements were based on: everyone standing up together. There was nothing that could be done about it. The Ukrainians are standing together; whether we’d be willing to do the same seems to me an open question. Too many groups still are seeking power by attempting to divide us from one another.

  18. I join the many other comments in saying “thank you!” This post reminded me of the power of the human spirit, and our eternal quest for freedom. Together, we can do it. Even today.

    1. When ideology trumps reality, problems ensue. We’re certainly seeing that today, both in this country and abroad. A glance back into our history certainly is one way to encourage those who are attempting to reclaim their freedom: both individuals and nations.

  19. Wars are terrible and Marlene Dietrich sang ; when will we ever learn? The NY Times had an article on ‘How Russians See the War in Ukraine’.

    Let’s also not forget the The Western Interference in middle Eastern Countries, ( Iraq, Syria
    Libya and Afghanistan were done in very similar way as Putin’s Ukraine invasion. Those victim of wars are no different as the victims in the Ukraine. Estimated dead in those wars are over one million. What was all that about, and aren’t we whitewashing those historical events now?

    It demonstrates that we have a long way to go in sorting out how we relate to each other.

    Solzhenitsyn went back to his beloved Russia disappointed with the US way of life.
    Home for many ordinary people do not always depend solely on politics or ideologies.

    1. It’s true that Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia with a less than rosy view of the west, but he also became increasingly dismayed with the Russia he’d returned to. In light of current events, this article discussing Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts about his homeland, and the perspective it offers on Putin, is more than a little interesting.

      It’s worth remembering that civil strife, genocides, and civil wars have done untold damage, too. Events in both Liberia and Cuba have affected me to one degree or another, and yet most people rarely think of them — if they ever knew of them at all. We’re so prone to pay attention only to what the media is serving up, and when they decide to cease coverage, it’s easy to imagine the problems have been solved. From what I’ve observed, that usually isn’t the case.

  20. Thank you for reminding us how much we take for granted our freedoms here in the USA. I pray for Ukraine. The lines of people holding hands resembles the lines of truckers in peaceful protest in Canada and now USA.

    1. I found those lines of people stretching across the countryside deeply moving. We certainly could use more of that spirit, and that commitment, today. It’s good that we have the lessons of the past; whether we’ll learn them for our own time is still an open question.

      Thanks for stopping by, and again — happy birthday, and all good wishes for the coming year!

  21. This is a sobering reminder that a change of regime and liberation doesn’t always have to involve bloodshed. After all the years of the cold war, I was amazed it actually happened as it did. It is a reminder that hope for freedom can never be quashed, in passive resistance, in song and in jubilant transition of government, not with tanks and bombs.

    1. Of course, peaceful resistance to oppression also should alert us to its opposite. The process of establishing authoritarian rule sometimes comes in an equally quiet way: unnoticed, until everything has changed. It’s easy enough to know when a Putin has invaded a country: harder to notice the sorts of corruption that eat away at a nation’s heart. The good news is that both can be resisted, both by individuals and by nations as a whole. You’re right that being reminded of that from time to time is important.

    1. Thanks, Dina. There’s a lot of inspiring history to be remembered, as well as all the crises and disasters. There’s no question that looking back sometimes can help us move forward — or at least endure the present.

  22. Thank you for this post. I don’t know much about the history of the revolutions in these regions. I do like the quote: “Revolution does not know night or day.” That strikes me as something to remember. It’s easy to think of history as happening in an 8 to 5 way, but it doesn’t. It stumbles forward in its own clumsy way. I like the photos of the peaceful demonstrations.

    1. That’s really true: that history doesn’t happen from 8 to 5 — or on any other schedule, for that matter. Even when a dramatic event seems to appear out of ‘nowhere,’ there always have been signs and portents of change. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of people beginning to recognize others who share their convictions; the realization that they’re not alone can be very, very powerful.

    1. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged an awareness of the wider world, and teachers who were able to help us understand it. Reading the newspaper with my dad was a daily ritual, and even in grade school we spent time talking about current events. With parents and teachers working together in the service of education, we not only learned famous names and dates, we learned to be curious about history, and that may have been the best gift of all.

  23. Interesting read, worthwhile to read again…no one really wins a war. I remember my Mom told my Dad did not came back from war: the one who luckily came back was very different from the one who left. Before the war my Dad was an happy young man, he liked to go dancing on sunday with my Mom and friends, he liked many other things…when came back he was solitary, introvert, it took him years before to smile again…war changed him very much.
    I’m horrified from what is happening not so far from here…in 2022! Who had believed it?
    Thanks for your article, grazie.

    1. So many who come back are like your father: changed in profound and often unhappy ways. I’m glad that in time your father was able to smile again, but it does take time. The poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and the realities of war are hard to bear. When I was a child, my grandparents had an even older friend who sometimes came to visit. Every now and then, he would simply stop talking and stare off into space. I asked my grandmother once why he did that, and she said, “He is remembering.” At the time, I didn’t understand at all, but now I think I do.

      Your mention of your father and mother going dancing reminded me of a song I’ve loved for years, but had forgotten. I enjoyed watching the video again; you might like it too. The baby and her sister are the singer’s actual children.

      1. The video with the song is beautiful, thanks.
        I remeber in my teen years I sometimes asked my Mom why Dad was a solitary charachter, introvert, with very few friends. And her answer was because of what he experienced during the war.
        And you can imagine being german living in Italy short after WWII must have been not easy.
        War is crazy…no one wins a war…

        1. That’s absolutely true: that no one wins a war. The only possible exception would be war profiteers, but the wealth they accumulate from conflict hardly is ‘winning.’ It’s only — profiting without regard for larger consequences. The experiences of Japanese people living in this country during and after WWII no doubt was similar to your father’s experience. It must be terrible to feel ill at ease — or even threatened — in one’s homeland.

  24. Thanks for expanding my knowledge of the history of this region. Given recent events (and to me it means almost the entire 21st century to date), both here and abroad, I have given a lot of thought to how revolutions come about. In my thinking, there have been several in Russia, going back farther than I know, but with the more recent ones (even in the 20th century), I continue to hope that the people there will rise up as those in the surrounding countries have and free themselves!

    1. I first became interested in Russian history after seeing the film Dr. Zhivago, and some years later I became aware of the Ukrainian presence in Alaska and Canada while traveling in those places. Both were real revelations, and I’ve thought about that Russia-Ukraine relationship a good bit in recent weeks. It seems that many who live in Ukraine identify as Russians, and many in Russia think of themselves as Ukrainian. It’s not the whole recipe for what’s happening now, but it’s certainly an ingredient; like you, I hope a peaceful resolution can be found.

  25. Linda, thank you for sharing. Being born in 1956, I can remember the Czech uprising in the 1960s. While unsuccessful, the movement set the stage for what would happen in the 1980s.

    1. Exactly so. And who’s to say how what’s happening around the world now isn’t setting the stage for other nearly unimaginable events? While we tend to imagine the fearful, there’s always the possibility of a new good emerging. May it be so!

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