A couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, I asked Adam Michnik, one of Poland's leading dissidents who had founded a major new newspaper, how he thought the country was doing. "Terribly," he said, describing factional squabbles among the emerging political parties and his growing disdain for Lech Wałęsa, who had become Poland's president. He called him "Piłsudski without a horse," invoking the country's strongman of the 1920s and 1930s, a brief era of Polish inter-war independence ending with the Nazi invasion.
"But what about the defeat of the Communists?" I asked. "Oh that," he said, dismissing decades of subjugation to the Kremlin as so much historical detritus, of which Poland has accumulated a great deal.
Our exchange came to mind the other day when I read an interview in the Wall Street Journal with Michnik, still a leading intellectual voice in Poland. Asked to describe the country's situation today, he replied, "fantastyczne," the exact opposite in Polish of his assessment to me all those years ago.
It's been a while since I was in Poland, but Michnik's view strikes me as a good place to begin measuring what is happening there and elsewhere in the former Soviet empire in this season of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic implosion of Moscow's hegemony in the region. The spectrum of development is broad; from the autocratic kleptocracies of Central Asia, the wars in the Caucasus, the political stalemates in Ukraine and Byelorussia, and the burst economic bubble of the Baltics to the differing but essentially positive trends in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Rumania, and Bulgaria, with Poland probably the best off for now. Germany, the land of the wall itself, seems to have integrated its halves well enough to be comfortable with the kitsch status of Ostalgie, a peculiar yearning for simple life styles in the Democratic Republic.