October 19, 2009

From Bucharest to Chernobyl

“The defeat of communism 20 years ago,” Matt Welch writes in Reason magazine, “was the most liberating moment in history. So why don't we talk about it more?”

That is an excellent question. I don’t talk about it, write about it, or even think about it much either, but that’s about to change.

I have just arrived in Bucharest, Romania. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited me and three other journalists to spend the week here, and they have us scheduled to meet some serious and interesting people.

Romania was in rough shape not long ago. Michael Yon told me it was “like hell,” as he put it, when he came here shortly after the Cold War ended. Now I’ll get an up close and personal look at how much the country has healed since its communist tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu and his Lady Macbeth of a wife Elena so thoroughly and violently ravaged it.

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Romania during Communism

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Romania during Communism

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The Lady Macbeth of Romania, Elena Ceausescu

After I’m finished with the official program in Romania, my old friend Sean will join me on a road trip to Chernobyl and the radioactive ghost city of Pripyat in the Exclusion Zone of Northern Ukraine. We’ll pass through Moldova and Transnistria on the way.

You may recall that Sean and I drove from Istanbul to Iraq for lunch a few years ago. If you haven’t read that story, you’re in for a treat. (Am I supposed to say that about my own writing? I don’t know. Who cares? Just click here and read it.)

If you haven’t heard of Transnistria – and I’m almost certain you haven’t because hardly anyone has – you’ll be in for another treat (I hope) when I come home and write about that crazy place. It’s a quasi-communist breakaway province of Moldova that’s secured, if that’s the right word, by the Russian military as South Ossetia is in Georgia.

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Poster in the Museum of Communism in Czech Republic

Modova’s Communist Party had a majority in parliament until – believe it or not – just this summer. Communists trashed a huge part of our world, and not every part of it has been free of them for the last 20 years. Some parts of it still aren’t completely free of them, not really, not even in Europe.

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Chisinau, Molova, and its brutal Stalinist skyline

One of these days, when I have enough material, I just might write a book about my road trips with Sean. He and I have already driven to Kosovo and Iraq, we’re about to drive to Chernobyl, and we’re seriously thinking about road trips to Afghanistan and Somalia.

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Pripyat, Ukraine, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Despite my jam-packed itinerary, I won’t actually be gone very long. I can’t afford to be because I have a book to write. This trip, though, is a welcome break that should keep me from hitting the wall or flaming out. I’ll try to post some photographs from the road.

See you soon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 19, 2009 2:08 PM
Comments

Because it was twenty years ago, and except for those personally and directly affected, our attention span is about three days.

The mass media have probably spent more time, with highly excited voices, over the recent ballon hoax, then they have over the past fifteen years about the end of the Cold War and the functional end of Communism.

Or so my jaded self tells me.

Posted by: Ron Snyder Author Profile Page at October 19, 2009 2:52 PM

Tiny typo and I’m almost certainly you haven’t because hardly anyone has ... almost certain.

Of course, living in ex-Czechoslovakia Slovakia, I have watched Romania, Moldova (Russian Romania), and Transnistria (?) a bit. But spell checker doesn't seem to know.

It's been 20 years since the huge November Velvet Revolution -- but most folk are too busy trying to make more money to recall the small horrors of communism. Like a lack of toilet paper, or the use of newspaper, instead.

With a layer of insulation and nice paint, those ugly commie buildings look quite a bit better. Often tiny kitchens and a single toilet, even in family flats.

I loved your Chernobyl stuff; you're allowed to mention how great your prior great stuff is (even a little more than you do); you'd make more money if you made an e-book out of your prior blog posts.

Just select, edit, self-publish, and get the dozens, maybe hundreds of dollars per quarter. Plus a book already done.

Why be surprised about the fall of communism being ignored -- the victory in Iraq is much more recent and is almost as ignored (and is much more fragile, I fear).

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Author Profile Page at October 19, 2009 4:55 PM

.....Our Host is a real 19th Century-style adventurer....that's a compliment. "Cf" some of Frederick Remington's paintings....

Posted by: Morningside Author Profile Page at October 19, 2009 5:34 PM

If you're going to be walking around contaminated areas (chemical or nuclear), I strongly suggest packing rubber boots or overshoes, nitrile gloves, and even N90 dust masks (though the snow should alleviate that.)

While you're in Ukraine, you may also want to visit Zheltye Vody. That's the yellowcake processing plant of the Gulag on the Ingul river where hundreds of zeks labored for a few weeks at a time, only to be removed and allowed to die a slow death from radiation poisoning as a new lot took their place to begin the same process over again. Truly, it was the wicked heart of the Evil Empire, and why the USSR was condemned to die under Gorbachev's perestroika - because without slaves, such an enterprise could no longer function, hence the Soviet Union could not long remain a nuclear power.

Posted by: Solomon2 Author Profile Page at October 19, 2009 8:36 PM

Greetings from Czechia.

I do not think that you will need any special gear in Černobyl exclusion zone, as the site is not recent. The disaster took place 25 years ago. Most of the territory has greater radiation than normal, but nowhere near "killer" values.

There are a few high-risk places, like the meadow where radioactive rescue vehicles from 1985 are buried (they are made of metal, turned into secondary sources and still radiate vigorously), but the guide will not let you anywhere near them. Do not go alone anywhere, though.

The whole exclusion zone is lush with wildlife, including the large beasts like boars or wolves, as if people never existed.

There are some people, especially old pensioners with personal bond to the place ("samosely" - "self-settlers") who have broken the official ban on living in the exclusion zone, and they actually live there. So far, they seem to be remarkable cancer-free. The authorities turn blind eye on them (probably they are actually happy to have some experimental rabbits right there, without spending any money from tight Ukrainian budgets).

Anyway, your report from such place will be extremely welcome here - and possibly an eye-opener for people on the other side of the ocean.

Posted by: Marian K. Author Profile Page at October 20, 2009 12:50 AM

Grr, remarkabl-y, not remarkabl-e. And I try so hard to write gramatically (not politically) correct English texts :-)

Posted by: Marian K. Author Profile Page at October 20, 2009 12:53 AM

If you've got a short-wave radio, Transdnistria actually broadcasts a 15-minute English-language program on weekdays. It's surreal stuff. One probably shouldn't be surprised, but Transdnistria is extremely chummy with South Ossetia.

Posted by: Ted S., Catskills, NY Author Profile Page at October 20, 2009 6:15 AM

Oh my goodness. That trip with Sean to Iraq read so much like my trip to Pittsburgh 14 years ago.

Posted by: gus3 Author Profile Page at October 20, 2009 8:44 AM

I thought of Transnistria just the other day when planning to visit Cyprus, including the North, and wondering what other breakaway states I could visit without risking getting caught in crossfire. I wonder whether the sliver of Transnistria is one of the reasons Moldova and Romania don't reunite; that would give more credibility to the Transnistrian "cause," such as it is. Good luck; I hope you don't have any border problems between the Russian-controlled de facto state and its neighbors (all non-Russian).

Posted by: calbear Author Profile Page at October 20, 2009 9:42 AM

Marian K, your written English is better than that of about 95% of the native speakers I know :)

It's even better than mine, and I've always had a talent for writing when I set my mind to it.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at October 20, 2009 1:58 PM

Marian,

Adding to Craig's comment, fewer and fewer Americans today are even close to being as fluent in any second language as you are in English. It's also sad, and embarassing actually, to see how much influence style has today compared to substance. But clear thinking takes time and effort, and that television remote control is so close...

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at October 20, 2009 3:22 PM

And then, ironically, I misspell "embarrassing." My laziness; I should have proofread.

Think about how far you've come since you started, Marian. You have a lot to be proud of.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at October 20, 2009 4:09 PM

I've been reading your posts for about two years now, and I just felt the urge to comment about Romania. As a Foreign Service brat, I spent my first and second grade elementary school years in Romania from 1994-1996 (yes, I'm a young'un - a ripe 21 years old). Even then, five years after Ceausescu, Romania could kindly have been called a hellhole. The disgusting remnants of communism were still prominently evident, and attempts at westernization, as it were, tended to be miserable failures.

Stunning examples include the fact that Romania did not produce any plastic products, despite being the only European state capable of producing oil products (by virtue of having the only oil in Europe), having to import cereal products from the Czech Republic because the "Breadbasket" of Europe exported all of its grain, and the existence of major oil refineries within site of Romania's resort beaches, because nothing attracts tourism like smokestacks belching out black clouds.

Hopefully you won't experience much of the disgusting racism towards the Roma people in Romania. Western Europeans like to equate Eastern Europe with Romania, and Romania with the Roma, and I think you're well aware of how poorly the Roma are treated in Western Europe. So the Romanians, who already didn't like the Roma, now have extra reason to dislike them, because they get equated with "dirty, stinking gypsies" when they try to see Paris.

But besides the bad, hopefully you get to see some of the amazing castles of Vlad Tepes, and hear the stories of "beating back the evil Turks", - all of which ties nicely into the violent, fractious history of the Balkans to the south - and enjoy some of the beautiful landscapes and music. Thankfully Ceausescu didn't manage to destroy the Romanian culture along with the infrastructure and economy.

Posted by: Jonathan Schmeelk Author Profile Page at October 20, 2009 6:35 PM

Regarding Romania, Olivia Manning's "Balkan Trilogy" and Saul Bellow's "The Dean's December" provide some interesting background---as far as novels go....

Posted by: Barry Meislin Author Profile Page at October 21, 2009 3:36 AM

Can't wait to read your posts on this!

A woman named Elena took a couple of motorcycle rides through the Chernobyl area. She posted informative photo essays of her journeys at a website, kiddofspeed dot com.

At one point she says there "is a credential control point, one of two dozen checkpoints that lead into dead zone. Special permission is required to enter the zone of exclusion. Mine is issued by a governmental organization. Thank You, Daddy!"

She wrote that a while ago, so it's not clear that the control points are still there, but bureaucracy usually has a very long half-life..

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at October 21, 2009 10:35 AM

That poster from the museum of communism really brings back memories. That could very well have been the sign in front of the US Army repair shops on the FOBs in Iraq. They never opened shop on time, they left early for lunch, came back late from lunch, and closed early. Need a weapon repaired? Be prepared for 99 reasons why they can't do it (they had 99 problems, but the mission wasn't one). Just as the fall of communism brought a capitalist incentive for people to work, so too did replacing our logistics personnel with civilian contractors.

Posted by: Schmedlap Author Profile Page at October 21, 2009 12:15 PM

“The defeat of communism 20 years ago,” Matt Welch writes in Reason magazine, “was the most liberating moment in history. So why don't we talk about it more?”

Good question. Some upthread have already mentioned our hummingbird-like attention spans, coupled with our media's overall ineptitude and fascination with flash-in-the-pan stories, but I'd also posit that it's simply a difficult subject to tackle with any equity and length since it highlights yet another example of humanity's blunders.

For all our decency and ingenuity as a species, given the right circumstances of social unrest and economic disparity, "we" (used very generally) can also do some pretty stupid, wholly unproductive and even evil things under the guise of "good", or sometimes under no "guise" at all. When I look at the era of communism, I don't feel anger, nor happiness at the end of it...just sadness. A lot of people suffered, a good deal of which at some point or another, even until their dying breath in some cases, thought it was for "good".

I wasn't alive (or aware, at least) during the Cold War to read or hear about the goings on behind the Eastern Bloc and throughout other parts of the globe as it occured, but whatever commentary I see about the fall of communism seems to hinge around some overly bombastic pro-capitalist message, which, speaking as an American who likes our way of life very much, serves little purpose as far as I'm concerned.

The discourse I'd like to see more of would hover around a more academic understanding of why "it" happened, and how to best move on.

Posted by: jon r Author Profile Page at October 21, 2009 9:44 PM

I wasn't alive (or aware, at least) during the Cold War to read or hear about the goings on behind the Eastern Bloc and throughout other parts of the globe as it occured, but whatever commentary I see about the fall of communism seems to hinge around some overly bombastic pro-capitalist message, which, speaking as an American who likes our way of life very much, serves little purpose as far as I'm concerned.

I was still in the Marines in 1989 and the "end of the Cold War" came as a bit of a surprise to me. I mean, we knew we had the edge by the late 1980s but I'm baffled by all the pundits who talk as if everyone saw it coming. I didn't. I'm also baffled by all pundits who say we were winning the Cold War in the early 1980s. That wasn't the vibe I was getting as an infantryman the USMC at all. Maybe that's why I don't have much "attention span" when it comes to the Cold War. Turns out all my memories are false! And that's a scary feeling! maybe early onset of alzheimer's or something!

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at October 22, 2009 1:02 AM

Romania's Bloody Revoltion: 20 Years Later

http://abcnews.go.com/WN/romanias-bloody-revolution-20-years/story?id=8877685

Posted by: gus3 Author Profile Page at October 22, 2009 1:17 AM

The Russian regime can't quite figure out how or why it happened either.

Which is why they're trying to claw their way back to supremacy.

And so one one had better darn well figure out why that evil, dishonest, repugnant, corrupt and murderous regime collapsed...or one ought to prepare to meet it once it returns to the stage.

Posted by: Barry Meislin Author Profile Page at October 22, 2009 6:17 AM

Another reason why the fall is so little discussed in legacy media is that it proved the bankruptcy of Marxism and Marxism still has a very large constituency in academia and, to some degree, in journalism. Anyone with a Humanities degree obtained in the past 25 years knows what I mean or is an example. A lot of people still haven't worked out why it happened or who was responsible. I still have a child in college and I know she will learn nothing about it there.

Posted by: Mike K Author Profile Page at October 26, 2009 9:43 AM

Mike,

Case in point: who isn't attending the Berlin Wall ceremony.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at October 26, 2009 7:02 PM

Echoing Mike K a bit its also a possibility that many still think the wrong side won.

Posted by: Pat Patterson Author Profile Page at October 30, 2009 9:42 PM

"Echoing Mike K a bit its also a possibility that many still think the wrong side won."

There is more than a possibility. There is no question in my mind that a faction of the Democratic Party that I call the "Michael Moore wing" thinks the wrong side won. They are not a majority of Democrats but they are loud and vocal and have way too much influence - the acceptable level being zero. As for Obama I don't know if he feels that way himself. But I strongly suspect that at the least he does not consider the fall of communism to be the great inspiring moment of history that it was.

Posted by: Gary Rosen Author Profile Page at October 30, 2009 11:46 PM

Rush Limbaugh nailed this fraud today.

"I know...I'll bring cameras with me to Dover to meet returning coffins---now---so Americans can see me care. And those remains certainly don't hurt for making a case to back away from Af-Pak."

The timing plus the cameras disgusts me.

President Bush met with hundreds of families, in private.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at November 1, 2009 3:12 PM

We drove through parts of Czekoslovakia and just-reunited east Germany in early 1991. The contrast between the former communist areas and the west was astounding.

At one point, the Iron Curtain (now with holes in it) wound through a little German village. On one side were nicely kept vacation cabins; on the other were shacks; along the fence were hideous concrete watch-towers.

I suspect it's a lot better now.

Posted by: John Moore ( Useful Fools ) Author Profile Page at November 1, 2009 6:38 PM

Oddly it only seems to be academic leftists who actually care about the fall of Soviet Communism these days (with stress on Soviet, since 1 billion people in China, North Korea and Cuba are still ruled by Communists). Case in point, the University of Scranton is hosting a film festival next week of the last East German films - and all critical of the regime. In academia at least most leftists tended to feel kinship with the East European dissidents, and envy too because every left-wing academic wants to be a heroic dissident. I was at Stanford when the USSR collapsed and everyone in the Polisci department was very happy and celebrating, even the leftists.

Posted by: Ivan N Author Profile Page at November 5, 2009 6:47 AM

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I am blown away by the dynamics of what has happened here. Great site and I look forward to seeing more of Michael and his travels.
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Posted by: mrtwoonine Author Profile Page at November 6, 2009 4:31 AM
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