Lessons From the East

Politics matter. If there’s one cogent thought my jet-lagged, exhausted, and somewhat overwhelmed self can express in the wake of my two-week tour through Eastern Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union, that’s it.

As some of you know, I spent the latter half of September collecting stories from graduates of the Language and Catechetical Institute in Gaming, Austria, most of whom grew up under communism and are now working to rebuild the Church in the East…some quite literally. One graduate in Ukraine has coordinated the construction of 160 plus parish churches, all needed because the buildings seized by the Soviet Union were never returned to the Church there.

When I set out on the trip, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I guess I thought I’d get some great stories, eat some great food, and share some great laughs with the friends with whom I traveled. And I did, a hundred times over.

But what I didn’t expect was that the devastation left by Communism would still be so pervasive. The Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago. The Berlin Wall fell 22 years ago. Surely, in that time, I thought, the evil Communism had wrought would have been rolled back.

But evil, it seems, has a way of lingering.

In some places, it’s lingered in the governments, where the nepotism, corruption, and graft that dominated Soviet politics dominates still.

Ukraine: Signs of long neglect and decay are everywhere.

In other places, it lingers in the buildings and infrastructure. It seemed as if the farther east we traveled, the more homes and roads alike were scarred by poverty and indifference and the landscape marred by architecture that smacked of politburos and central planning.

Most of all, however, it lingers in the people.

For some, it lingers in the wounds they carry with them—wounds inflicted when parents and grandparents were betrayed by friends and neighbors, arrested, and never seen again. For others, it lingers in their fear of authority, their lack of trust in the Church, and their belief that honesty and openness are dangerous habits. It lingers in their work ethic, their expectations of government, and their suspicion of outsiders.

It also lingers in their hunger for something more than what their culture offers them, a hunger far too many are increasingly filling with the West’s most prolific exports—materialism, consumerism, and hedonism.

There are, of course, exceptions. Some countries have fared better than others in the post-Soviet years. Some individuals have done the same. Over the past two weeks, I spent many a wonderful hour in and with those exceptions.

But, the fact remains, communism undermined human dignity and broke the human spirit wherever it reigned. It taught people that they didn’t have to sacrifice or work hard, that they didn’t have to give generously or receive humbly, that diligence and attentiveness would not be rewarded, that life wasn’t sacred, that families weren’t necessary, that neighbors weren’t to be trusted, and that God wasn’t real.

Those lessons took. And 20 years of “freedom” hasn’t changed that.

Like I said at the outset of this article, the trip left me tired and overwhelmed. We didn’t so much sleep at night as take brief naps, and there is so much I’m trying to process. But it’s hard not to do that processing in the light of our own upcoming election.

I know there are people out there who think it doesn’t matter who wins or loses in November, that Mitt Romney isn’t much better than President Obama, and that maybe an Obama victory is, in fact, exactly what this country needs to bring it to its knees. Some of those people are people whom I consider dear friends. I love and respect them. But after my two weeks in Eastern Europe, I’m more convinced than ever that they’re dead wrong.

Too much of what the Obama Administration stands for is rooted in the communist tenets of old. The lack of respect for private property and individual initiative, the preference for big government and statist solutions, the denigration of a lived faith and traditional values, the desire to increase not decrease government dependency, and grow the welfare state—not only are those bad policy ideas, proven time and again not to work, but they’re also part and parcel of what has done so much damage in the East.

Hungary: Large leaden balls mark the spots where Soviet bullets ripped through crowds of peaceful protestors gathered outside the parliament in Budapest in 1956

It wasn’t just KGB agents, bullets, and torture rooms that undermined human dignity in the former Soviet Union. It was also many of the same policy initiatives that President Obama is peddling. To let him win in November is to let the ideas behind those initiatives tighten their grip on our culture. It’s to give them a firmer foothold. And there is simply no guarantee that we’ll be able to undo their effects after one or five or even twenty election cycles.

Mitt Romney is a far cry from being the perfect presidential candidate. He’s not who I would have chosen. Electing him may be the equivalent of the little Dutch boy plugging up the proverbial hole in the dike with his finger. But if that’s the only option I’ve got, I’ll take it. I’ll take the guy who does the smallest thing to preserve the dike over the guy who takes a sledgehammer to the dike. I’ll take whatever time that affords to find better solutions and better people to implement those solutions. I’ll also take whatever time that affords to transform the culture with the truth of Christ.

We need that time. We need it badly. The state of the former Soviet Union is proof positive that politics matter and bad governments can quickly and effectively destroy civil society. But it’s also a reminder that government can only effectively rebuild when it’s led by truth. That’s one of the reasons why the now democratically elected governments in the once Eastern Bloc haven’t been able to undo the damage. It’s not democracy that heals. It’s Christ. The governments and the people of the East need him. The governments and the people of the West need him too. And it’s up to us, those who know him, to give people what they need—to give them who they need.

That is our most important and most urgent task. But right now, preserving our right to carry out that task is equally urgent. So too is holding the line against policies shot through with lies and half-truths, policies which contain within them echoes of the beliefs that have wrought so much damage in the East.

Doing anything less is a gamble a visit to Ukraine has made me utterly unwilling to take.

Ukraine: Four stone tablets bear the names of the Greek Catholic priests who lost their lives in the Soviet takeover of Transcarpathia.

Emily Stimpson is a Contributing Editor to “Our Sunday Visitor” and the author of “The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years,” where she dishes on the Church’s teachings about women, marriage, sex, work, beauty, suffering, and more.

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72 thoughts on “Lessons From the East

  1. abadilla says:

    “Did you know that this website was paid $10,000 in 2010 by the group that said that they would “fan hostility” against gays and blacks?” Have you ever listen to or saw Mr. Peters at a EWTN program? He is an orthodox Catholic and in charge of this website and would never harm Blacks or Gays as you claimed. One thing is to disagree with a person’s position, or a website’s position, another is to spread lies and calumnies against people you disagree with. Shame on you, and if you are Catholic, time to hit the confessional!

    1. Rich says:

      YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING that he would never harm blacks or gays. He has, he does and he is. FACT.
      That is why so many of us confront the ones on the website that may actually be good people misled by his distortions.

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