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.



  • halo

    The message from Eastern Europe is that right wing parties are failing miserably there, too. The message is that just as the people overturned communism there (which contradicts the stance that the people are suffering because they imbibed communist ideals), they will not be fooled by the forces of dark reactionary throwback-to-the-19th-century politics.

  • Current Affairs

    The message from Eastern Europe is that right wing parties are failing miserably there, too. The message is that just as the people overturned communism there (which contradicts the stance that the people are suffering because they imbibed communist ideals), they will not be fooled by the forces of dark reactionary throwback-to-the-19th-century politics.

  • Christine

    Reading this article filled me with so much hope that maybe we had all learned something from history and wouldn’t be repeating it…up until I read all of the comments. I pray that most of the people who take the time to comment on Emily’s articles don’t take the time to go vote. Gees Louise but that was scary how so many could misread what she wrote. Wonderful reflection, Em!

    • abadilla

      ” I pray that most of the people who take the time to comment on Emily’s articles don’t take the time to go vote. Gees Louise but that was scary how so many could misread what she wrote.” I agree and find it sad how her words are distorted beyond belief, but these are the folks who call themselves Catholic and do not have a problem voting for a pro-abortion candidate, nor do they see the dangers of the type of socialism which almost ruined Eastern Europe.

  • Shawn

    Wow, it sounds like you gained more from your trip then expected. Thank you for continuing to write for us.

  • Mara

    Emily, the worst thing that has happened in this country and many other countries over the last 20 years regarding religious freedom is the Catholic cover-up of the sexual molestation of children. That cover-up was, without question, a very Communist act; the denial of truth, the suppression of the people and the objectification of human beings. How dare you accuse Obama when you represent a church that hides the truth from us and then claims a higher authority.

    • abadilla

      As Reagan once said to Carter, “Here we go again!” Perhaps you should read the article before reacting to it because the article has nothing to say about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church even though you keep using that ugly accusation to discredit the moral teachings of the Church.
      Like Rich, you keep coming back to a Catholic forum to hurl your venom at us. It does not work Mara, but you are like the energizer bunny, you keep on trying.

      • Mara

        I post because these articles “has nothing to say about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.”

  • Rich

    You have got to be kidding. You spent time with the wonderful people working hard to rebuild the faith of people in eastern Europe, and you waste your column talking about your view of politics. Apparently, your lack of sleep lead to the delirium that allows you to make absurd political analysis that has no basis in fact, but only serves to please the Conservative “Catholics” for whom this website is geared.
    Of course the Roman Capitalist Church where you worship would call anything that does not honor the dollar deity as “Communist.” But what is sad here, is that you did not use this blog to share what really inspired you about the people who want their faith to be shared with others in the country, who live lives dedicated to the belief in God, and are motivated by the love of Jesus. To use these people, and demean their faith, by the comparison with Mitt Romney or Barrack Obama is like using the Church for political motives. – Oh wait, that is what you like to do. Perhaps there was nothing inspirational for you in your trip. The Holy Spirit living in the people in Eastern Europe should be more important to your faithful citizenship that the GOP. Shame on you for misusing these people and their holy faith. And shame on you for missing the beautiful gift laid out for you to witness.
    Perhaps you should join your new friends in rebuilding you own faith, and like them take the party politics out of it, allowing the wonder of a great and loving Savior to live in your heart.

    • Emily Stimpson

      So good to hear from you, Rich. If I ever post an article that doesn’t merit at least one unpleasant personal attack from you, I’ll know I’ve done something wrong. In the meantime, keep in mind that the politics of the past and the present state of the Faith are inseparable in the East. And don’t worry, I’ll be writing lots about the latter in plenty of other venues in the coming months. In the meantime, thanks for keeping charity and chivalry alive in the comment boxes.

      • Ohio Pole

        When you take swipes at Eastern Europeans for being beset with a mindset that they they don’t “have to sacrifice or work hard,” you sound just like Romney criticizing the “47%.” So if you are going to talk politics, you have to expect some blowback.

        • Emily Stimpson

          Point of Note: What I said was that Communism taught that. Which it did. I wasn’t taking swipes at Eastern Europeans, but rather the system which has fundamentally harmed the people there. And after spending dozens and dozens of hours interviewing people from former Soviet Bloc countries who said exactly that (and observing the fruits of it myself), I feel pretty comfortable repeating their words. As for blowback, it’s always expected, even if I were only writing about the color of the sky. It’s just less appreciated when it gets personal rather than stays substantive. I’m always a little more touchy about the direct personal nastiness when I’ve been away from the blog for a while and in the land of the living where people speak respectfully to one another.

          • Rich

            Emily – stop this right now. You are not a weakling. And you can dish out some pretty mean stuff for pretending to be so demure.
            You should take a bit of your advice and learn how to be respectful of people who do not chose to agree with you. You are not the Omniscient one after all, you might actually learn something from discussions with others. That’s how the rest of the groundlings do it. Welcome back to humanity.

          • Shawn

            Perhaps you should take your own advice, all of your comments have been attacks and are mean spirited.

          • Rich

            It is not mean spirited to expect that someone talks of faith and not uses the faith of others to score political points.
            it is not mean spirited to call someone out because she tries to make any questioning of her statements to be assumed to be personal. If she writes to the public, then she should expect public response. If she only wants adoring fans, then she should seek other medium.
            The issue is not about the difference of opinion, but about the misuse of the gift of faith.
            Emily is a grown up and needs to respond on an adult level, without regard to whether someone like her writing or not. This wasn’t written just to be hung up on a refrigerator, she was using the lives of people to make patisan commentary. And that is awful, plain and simple.
            But worse is that when God grants you insights, you should share the joy of the insight with the world, and not use the gift from God to make an attack on a political leader.
            You can be a fan, I will be Catholic. I will expect those that talk in the name of the Church to have some standards and not just be more political rhetoric. If you expect less, go ahead.
            “May today there be peace within.
            May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
            May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
            May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
            May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
            Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
            It is there for each and every one of us.”
            ― Thérèse de Lisieux

          • Joe M

            Rich. Taking a trip down the river Hippocrates? “Earth to abadilla”

      • Jason

        lol I love the passive-aggresiveness 😉 great article BTW it really moved me. Keep up the good work!

      • Rich

        Please Emily do not pretend to be a victim.
        When you write on a blog you should not expect that every one will kiss you keyboard and flow praise upon you (unless you are writing for a cultic following.
        All I said was that your first comments about you wondrous experience maybe should have show more about how God moved you heart that to use it as a politic ad. Please, if this is your vocation then follow it, but do not expect that people will really think that all you got from going to the Ukraine was and idea how to promote Romney. I find it amazing how you seem to find him more heroic than Jesus.
        A great idea for a tee-shirt though – “I spent time with great people of faith and all I got was an idea for another ad on CatholicVote.”
        Too bad you wasted your trip or your gift, and too bad you don’t want to be a better person. You obviously have a gift for writing that God has bestowed upon you. I really doubt he mean you to be just another campaign staffer.
        How beautiful you could have told the story if you didn’t have to be so partisan. As the lessons that you learned are not just for the next few months, but will enrich your life forever as you continue to reflect upon them. The desire for these folks to want to enrich their culture and their society with the fruits of faith – Now that is Catholic. I am sure you saw that and probably felt that. So do not hide the message under a political basket, be the Prophet not the Partisan.

      • abadilla

        Don’t worry, you are not the only one he badgers to no end. I just opened my mail box and found not least than 8 notes I have to respond to as if had nothing better else to do, and I thought I had explained myself quite clearly!

        • Rich

          Actually, to save you a lot of time and trouble, you don’t have to reply. There is nothing that you add any time you do so, do please feel free to omit this from you tasks.

    • Shawn

      Rich, were you actually there? She wrote about the devastating effects of communism on the people an there faith, which she got from personal interviews. Did you interview people from there as well? Maybe it is time you took a step away from the computer and got some air, because there is no need to have so many personal attacks against someone that did you no wrong.



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