Eastern Europe’s adversary today, now that communism is dead, is the melange of brutal liberalism pouring in as an ideological menace from America. Those who will shape the new Eastern Europe want very much a renewal of cultural links with the West, but they already sense that a severe selection will have to be effected in the list of its Greek gifts, which create, as in ancient Troy, distrust as much as gratitude. The reestablishment of cultural links is by necessity politicized to some extent, since those calling themselves “nationalists” or “populists” have a different view of culture and politics than those calling themselves “liberals” or “cosmopolites.”

However, culture (which next to politics is the great force) remains and respect for culture is pervasive enough to inspire hope. While political events are literally devilish—the Slovaks have dug a new channel for the Danube, ruining parts of northern Hungary; Armenia and Azerbaijan are still at war; conflicts between Germans and Poles, Croats and Serbs go on, etc.—culture emerges as an expression of supranational solidarity, or at least of exchanged glances and words beyond borders. Vaclav Havel made a beautiful speech as a new foreign member of the French Institut des sciences politiques et morales (Mgr. Ratzinger, Prince Charles, and the King of Spain are also honorary members) in which he warned public figures against the hubris of rushing time, of impatience, of universal planning. (Are you listening President Clinton, Fukuyama, tutti quanti?)

No week goes by in any of the region’s capitals or even secondary centers without the holding of an international symposium, where the important thing is not what is produced but the reality of warming relations among strangers, even enemies. The various nations’ cultural embassies are reactivated; the Italians and the French send lecturers, exhibits, whole programs, and invitations with generous scholarships; governments offer lavish tours to foreign specialists and journalists; even Turkey recently invited viewers from as far as Chile to inspect the new finds at Ephesus, one of Christianity’s birthplaces.

The political intention is never too far from these official occasions, but let me emphasize again that after a half-century of hibernation they open up new channels for friendship and, for the locals, give a feeling of acceptance and reintegration. Within the circle of larger events, sponsored by governments, foundations, and businesses, there are the smaller ones, organized by religious authorities, which permit the chronicling of the suffering under Marxist regimes. In this respect, the communist regimes had an intriguingly selective policy in cultural matters that many have come to praise in retrospect. The enormous loans these regimes had taken out from international banks led, in part, to the domestication of intellectuals: books were widely and lavishly published, while underpriced; concerts and exhibits were favored with heavy royalties and underpriced tickets; the restoration of old buildings, including medieval ruins, proceeded very well, employing archeologists and historians. Publishers and impresarios profited considerably, as did the cultured classes, except of course the multitude of those who refused to sell themselves.

Today’s cultural life suffers from reductions in all these fields, and publishers have three choices: get out of business; sell their firms to book speculators who then convert them into video stores or market the cheap junk that floods in from the West; or vie for the modest manna that some banks and the government hand out twice a year to facilitate the publication of some 300 titles judged to be meritorious, although not necessarily financially profitable. This situation creates strange occurrences. My first book sold out in two months (1,500 copies), but the second received no government backing, with the argument that its 3,000 copies would sell anyway on the market. But nobody denies—in Europe, not America—that cultural matters need government support. Whether in Prague, in Warsaw, in Kiev, in Budapest, bookstores are numerous and full of customers, though they are forced to choose among relatively few offerings: publishers are unable to pay for works, local and imported. Nevertheless, scholarly and scientific books of superb quality appear, not in the larger stores but as academy publications (with a separate, although also reduced, budget) and in hole-in-the-wall shops where only the cognoscenti go to browse and purchase at prices too high for local readers.

Under these circumstances two phenomena may be observed, one sinister, the other promising. The first is the vast disaffection from reading and the consequent turn to junk, VCRS, bad films, worse-than-Woodstock festivals: a subculture that attracts questionable elements and lowers taste. The presence of these hooligans is known to all societies (because they spend a lot of money), but in transition periods they constitute a class among which crime flourishes. On the other hand, there is an elite youth, purposeful, of sure taste and remarkable culture, whose conversation is a delight and whose aspirations are of the highest. Correcting exam essays, I found my students at two universities to be not only accomplished writers, but quasi-ready scholars whose work could be submitted to high-caliber journals. When a 20-year-old blond girl, besides being pretty, devotes 18 pages to Hegel’s analysis of Spinoza’s pantheism, and with sustained argument, you feel that your professorial career has been recompensed.

One conclusion that may be derived from these observations is that class differences, with a new democratic base (students recruited, at university level, with regard only to their preparation and worth), will again be the central feature of Eastern Europe. One way or another, the Geistlich again predominates, while economically the area develops into a free-for-all, on the model of Western industrial democracies. Thus parallel to a savage liberal economics, there are also the beginnings of a talent-led cultural network, also international and very selective. This network is fighting for survival against the encroachments of the economic argument, powerful in impoverished countries. One example: I learned from the Hungarian Minister of Schools and Culture himself that under Western pressure (in reality the blackmail of offering or withdrawing aid) his ministry is preparing a new academic program and curriculum. According to Western “advisors,” the country must inflate the number of students at its universities and academies from the current 11 percent to at least 30 percent. This means, of course, the dilution of the programs of study, the creation of an unemployable, hence revolutionary, intellectual class of eternal students and halfbaked champions of demagogic cultural policies. Western “experts” also suggest that academic life be linked to industry and business, a policy that, according to them, works well in their own countries. Because he asked my advice, which he is not anyway allowed to follow, I suggested that the present 11 percent be reduced to 8 percent and that he investigate the so-called beneficial link that exists between business and the universities. No question that the minister and the entire government are not in a position to follow this line of thought, although it is based on many years’ experience. The whole matter offers, however, an example of how the West regards that “other half” of Europe as inferior, as an area ready for colonization.

The other type of “colonization” can at least be nuanced and criticized and deflected. After 40 years of relative cultural isolation, the intellectuals of Eastern Europe are today to some extent corralled by Western intellectual fashions and their spokesmen. This, too, is an effect of international congresses paid for by sponsors and organizers. Precisely because of the region’s need of capital, these sponsors, whether governmental or private (semiprivate would be a more adequate term), favor the fashionable schools of thought, which today means the quasi-monopoly of the liberal/socialist approach, or, more concretely, such thinkers as Derrida, Foucault, Habermas (of the otherwise agonizing Frankfurt School), the Anglo-Saxon analytical and linguistic thinkers, Richard Rorty, the German progressivist theologians, Umberto Eco, and so forth. No fewer than 500 people gathered last year at Budapest University to listen to Jacques Derrida’s abracadabra, translated from his spoken French into English. Granted, these public manifestations are largely mere fashion, but one could wish something better on people who for decades were obliged (and confined) to hear Georg Lukacs and his Russian guarantors.

This, too, is the accompanying phenomenon of slow convalescence in societies that have not yet regained their cultural independence and that accept, tacitly, the following equation: the West is rich, the West knows best. But here again, there are two signs pointing in opposite directions. Hungarian radio and television have two directors who wreck their channels by introducing huge doses of advertisements of the most vulgar character, hence low-quality programming. Everybody agrees that they ought to be fired, but since their posts have become subject to political football. Western and local business interests insist on keeping them.

The other sign was given by Denmark, which originally voted against Maastricht, in effect against the whole abstract and bureaucratic concept of a united Europe: another “melting pot” that majorities do not want to be stirred into. Lately Europe’s model democracy, Switzerland, sober Switzerland, voted against joining the combined Twelve-and-Seven free economies. After all, why opt for a “united Europe,” which too will sink into chaos and be dominated by the Germans? If this is not a cultural decision, what is?