BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Andrew Nagorski, author of "The Birth of Freedom." If someone buys this book, what do they get?
ANDREW NAGORSKI, AUTHOR, "THE BIRTH OF FREEDOM": Well, what I hope they get is a look at what's happened to countries like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and to the people in those countries since those remarkable developments in 1989 when they were in the headlines, when these people were bringing down the old system. And since then I think a lot of people in America and in other countries have sort of lost track and said, "Well, what's going on with these people?" And how, once -- when all the rules are changed, when everything absolutely changes in your life and the possibilities are suddenly totally different than they were before, what happens to individual lives; what happens to political institutions; what happens to the economy? And through the stories of individuals I've known before communism fell and how they've transformed their lives since then, I try to give an answer to those questions.
LAMB: You married a Polish woman.
NAGORSKI: That's right. I was an exchange student in Poland in my senior year in college in 1968-69 for a semester and it was a busy semester because at the end of it I ended up married and so that, of course, has affected my interest in the region. My own parents came from Poland, originally, so there always was that interest. I grew up speaking Polish at home. So that was all the more reason why I really wanted to be able to tell the next chapter in this story.
LAMB: How many kids do you have?
NAGORSKI: Four kids.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
NAGORSKI: We live in Warsaw. Once I had been based in Bonn for Newsweek in the mid '80s and traveled all around Eastern Europe then. And then in the late '80s, I came back to Washington for two years. And once everything started opening wide open and opening up in Poland and in the other countries I asked to be based in Warsaw so that I could cover the region on a permanent basis, not simply flying in and out.
LAMB: We were looking at this cover. Who is the young man there with the flag? And what flag is it?
NAGORSKI: It's sort of a generic individual as far as I can tell. This person is not identified. I think it may actually be a young woman. It's hard to tell. I suspect the flag is the flag of Czechoslovakia. But it's done in such a way that it's meant to represent the changes in the region,the revolutions in the region, but not one particular country.
LAMB: Where were you born?
NAGORSKI: I was born in Scotland. It's a rather -- because of the fate of my parents. They were in Poland at the start of World War II. My father fought against the Germans in 1939. After Poland surrendered, Polish officers were supposed to surrender as well. He escaped -- eventually making it to France. And after France fell, getting to Britain and he fought with the Polish forces under British command. And after the war, they decided to go back -- go to the States instead of back to Poland because of the communist regime, and I delayed their departure somewhat.
LAMB: Where did you grow up in the United States?
NAGORSKI: I grew up a bit in New York and then a bit in Washington. And then my father joined the American Foreign Service when I was 12 years old, so from then on I started bouncing around the world as this son of an American diplomat, the way I've bounced my own children around the world as a journalist.
LAMB: What do your kids think of living in Warsaw?
NAGORSKI: They've enjoyed it very much. My two oldest daughters already -- one's just finished college and one is in college, and then I have two younger boys. So the two older daughters have just been commuting in and out; they've been in and out on vacations and they've been -- one daughter spent a semester as an exchange student as well. But what's been fun in Poland is that in the three years we've been there you see the remarkable changes, and it affects everything from the fact that my 13-year-old son can now go out and not only go to McDonald's and Taco Bell and do the sort of things American 13-year-olds like to do, but just you see how much more vitality and energy there is in that system when the brakes have been taken off on people's ability to go out and do things for themselves -- when those limits, which were there, are removed.
LAMB: You quote somebody in your book as saying that they used to count the number of Western cars against the Trabants to know how well the country's doing. You said now they count the number of Trabants against the Western cars the opposite way. How many Trabants are they? And what is a Trabant and how many are there in Poland now?
NAGORSKI: The Trabant is the infamous East German car, which is made out of -- not even out of metal but some sort of composite plastic and it's a small, two-cylinder car that produces more pollution than the largest American car you can imagine. It's one of the great achievements of the old system's technology. But it was cheap and that was what people drove. Now that's seen as a car that nobody who can aspire to anything higher would want to be seen driving in. Of course, there are some left, but for the most part right now, you see very few of them. Sometimes you have a problem in Poland in that East Germans -- so many of them had Trabants, now to get rid of them in the new era, as they all want to move up to West German cars, sometimes they cross the border into Poland and just ditch the car to avoid the rather high fee the junkyards in Germany take for these Trabants.
LAMB: What is different in Warsaw -- besides the McDonald's -- for you? And in the context of that question, tell us how many years, overall, you have lived in Warsaw.
NAGORSKI: Well, I have actually lived in Warsaw only these three, but I spent that semester before as an exchange student, and then I was in Krakow -- in southern Poland, and then I used to go in and out of Poland quite a bit, both privately to visit my wife's family and some relatives I have there, and then as a journalist. What's different, aside from just the range of choices, which the beginnings of a consumer society produces -- what I found most different and startling was instead of coming into a society where there was a government in power that was essentially at war -- war with its people and trying to suppress every popular impulse, you now have the people, who I knew in the old days as dissidents who were in prison, who were fighting their running battles, those were the people who took power. And so for me, as a journalist, to suddenly find people who were poets, or philosophers or banned writers suddenly becoming prime ministers, presidents, members of parliament, editors of the main newspapers -- to see that transformation, that was the most startling difference. And, of course, having known these people in the old days when they were really looking for contacts with the Western press, it's been a pleasure to be able to deal with them in a new situation. You have a kind of access then and that goes with having known them for a long time.
LAMB: You picked Poland, Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic -- actually, you also wrote about Slovakia and Hungary. How come no East Germany?
NAGORSKI: I felt that if you wanted to look at what this transformation means, then those three countries you mentioned were the most logical because East Germany is a very special case. It's a country that did not so much liberate itself as it was simply re-integrated into Germany with all the problems that has entailed, but it had that big brother, West Germany, to try to deal with its problems. One can talk about whether it has dealt with problems and I'd argue that, in some ways, East Germans are in a more difficult situation than the Poles and Czechs and the Hungarians even though they've got a lot more money flowing in there. But I felt the East German situation was so peculiar that I couldn't really make comparisons in a systematic way, while between the Polish and the situation in Czechoslovakia and Hungary you could because these were countries that were all the most advanced in terms of their struggle against communism and then had the most ambitious agenda in terms of transforming themselves into modern European nations who would try to overthrow the -- overcome the legacy of the last 40 years.
LAMB: Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland -- who's done the best?
NAGORSKI: It depends what area of life. The Hungarians, for instance, have done the best in terms of foreign investment, attracting foreign business, but they started even in the Communist era to do that. They began to change their banking system. They tried to make things more attractive for Western businessmen. In Poland, I think maybe there is the most individual initiative. You see people who started -- when I came there three years ago who started by, say, selling food from the back of their truck or bringing in food supplies or consumer items from Germany to forming their own store and then a company and then going on from there. You see a great deal of enterprises more chaotic maybe in Poland than it is in Czech Republic or in Hungary, but it has that vitality to it. The Czechs had a little bit of a better start because they were not saddled with huge inflation, a huge foreign debt the way the Poles were, and this was once a very -- Czechoslovakia was once a very powerful industrial country in the beginning of this century, and the Communists managed to run that down, but there was still more there, and the Czechs have been working hard towards beginning a privatization process that's more systematic maybe than the Poles or the Hungarians. So we really got to look at various areas of life to decide.
LAMB: Give us a broad overview on each country -- the size and who's running it and what kind of government they have. Try Poland.
NAGORSKI: Poland is the largest of these three countries with a population of about 38 million. It has had -- until recently -- governments which stem from the old Solidarity movement. Most of the people in power were people who either were activists in Solidarity or were people who supported the Solidarity movement. Now you've just had an election in which, because the Solidarity movement has fragmented into so many different small parties and because of a backlash against some of the reforms, especially problems with unemployment, the growing gap between rich and poor people, the former Communists have actually rebounded and have gotten a leading position, and they are now trying to negotiate a coalition government where they will have a very important role. But these former Communists are very different people than, say, the former Communists in Russia who we see right now.
LAMB: What's Lech Walesa doing now?
NAGORSKI: Lech Walesa is president of Poland. He has been. He was elected in a free election in 1990, but what you see happening to him is what has happened to many people who were heroes of the '80s and fighting the old system. At once, they have to take responsibility for a new system, for the government. It's a much harder role. And so his popularity is down -- way down from what it was. He's no longer the kind of icon you had. You find that former dissidents have had a hard time adjusting. It's one thing when you're fighting the system -- some of the qualities you needed as a dissident -- that you are very stubborn, that you are uncompromising, that you would tend to see conspiracies everywhere because there were conspiracies everywhere -- don't necessarily lend themselves to being a good politician.
LAMB: How many times have you interviewed him?
NAGORSKI: Maybe about a half dozen times.
LAMB: When was the last time?
NAGORSKI: The last time was about six weeks ago.
LAMB: Have you noticed him change over the years?
NAGORSKI: You noticed him changed in many ways. Physically, he's changed. He's become heavier, more serious-looking, and this was someone, if you remember the photos from the 1980s when the first strikes erupted, he was a guy who sort of vaulted over the fence of the Gdansk shipyard. It's hard to quite imagine him doing the same thing today. He's a person who's become, I think, more worn down by the frustrations of trying to function in a democratic society. He's very impatient with the rules and the constraints. As president, he doesn't have big powers. He's not like an American president with huge -- with very strong executive powers. It's more of a parliamentary system in the European sense where there's a prime minister whose government's making the day-to-day decisions. He's often frustrated by that.
Sometimes people accuse him of wanting to be a dictator, of wanting to take over and he's sometimes tempted, I think, privately. People have said that he looks at Boris Yeltsin and says, "Maybe that's the kind of leader I'd like to be, just sort of sweep away all the rules," but he hasn't, and that's the big difference. There are rules in Poland that work, rules of parliamentary democracy -- that's the big difference between the Russian and the Polish situation.
LAMB: You recount about three jokes that they tell about Lech Walesa. One of them was about the water and the empty glass on the nightstand. What is that joke and why do they tell them about it?
NAGORSKI: Well, the jokes can be fairly cruel. The one you're referring to is -- it's about a -- Lech Walesa is a worker, a shipyard electrician who's been vaulted into these high positions, and among some of the Polish intelligentsia in particular, there can be a bit of a condescending attitude towards him. And so you would have this kind of story -- the one about Lech Walesa goes to sleep every night and he has two glasses by his bedside; one has water and one is empty. Why does he have these two glasses? One for when he's thirsty and one for when he's not. These are kinds of jokes that you had about Communist leaders in the old days who were maligned and were considered sort of blockheads.
I think it's a vast underestimation of Walesa's abilities to portray him in the same light, but it's a measure of some of the bitterness that has emerged in the old Solidarity camp about the differences between -- their political differences, the different personal ambitions that have been at play here. Walesa is faulted by many of the former Solidarity people for precipitating the splits among them very shortly after they won that produced a big range of political parties that have been very weak when, say, if we had stayed together, we'd have been more effective. We would not never be in the position of coming in second to the former Communists in these elections, for instance. And so that bitterness comes out in these kinds of jokes.
LAMB: Which countries border Poland?
NAGORSKI: Well, Poland is, of course, bordered by Germany. One very interesting thing is that every country on its border has changed in the last four years. It was bordered on by East Germany. East Germany no longer exists. It's part of a greater Germany. Off to the south, the border was Czechoslovakia. Now you have the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. And to the east, you had the Soviet Union. Now you have an independent Lithuania, an independent Belarus, an independent Ukraine. So you can imagine -- everything has changed, including the map, so when Poles look around themselves, of course they were aware that the Soviet Union was not a monolith and that there were these different nationalities or the Czechs and Slovaks had fundamental differences. But it's quite different being aware of that and then to see this whole transformation of your neighborhood.
LAMB: Some of your family came from the -- what? -- Belarus?
NAGORSKI: My mother's family came from near Minsk -- what is the capital of Belarus. As a Polish family that had a farm near there, and my mother was actually born right there on that farm just about in 1917, right before the Russian revolution. And they fled when the revolution came. One of the most moving experiences I had in recent years was I went to Minsk in 1991 and I had the name of this village where my mother was born, and her assumption was it'd probably been wiped off the map. There'd be no trace. I found it, and I actually found a woman whose mother and father had worked on my grandparent's farm there -- she's in her 80s, who actually remembered my mother being born there and remembered what it was like in those days.
LAMB: How'd you find that farm?
NAGORSKI: I had the name of the village, and I knew how far it was supposed to be from Minsk. The name in Polish didn't quite agree with the names on the map in Russian, but I started -- but I found the one which seemed closest in terms of the distance that my mother remembered it was and in terms in direction and closest in terms of name. And I went out there and there was this terribly decrepit state farm there where in sort of typical kind of Soviet scene of farmers sitting in mud up to their ankles and a few shacks and there was a burned-out cottage, and I started asking, at first, some of the older people, "Did anyone know, were there Polish families here before?" I thought at most, I might get some vague confirmation that once, some Polish families had lived here, but that's all.
And then a woman came up and said, "Oh, yes, there were Polish families here," and she had been born in the early 1930s. And she said, "As a child, I remember right over there, there was a church where a woman -- where Mrs. Bogdashevska was buried," and Bogdashevska is my mother's maiden name. And she was talking, actually, about her grandmother, my great-grandmother; and about what happened to this grave, how it was looted during the Stalinist era when people driven by desperation and hunger were actually looting graves, hoping they'd find some jewelry or something. And then this woman -- I was just astounded and this woman then told me that there is this older woman whose house had just burned down -- and this was the house that I saw where there was just a sort of remains of a cottage -- who had been moved to an apartment in the village next door, but that her family had worked for my mother's family and I found her and spent an hour talking to her, hearing her stories.
LAMB: What language do you use?
NAGORSKI: I speak, aside from Polish, I speak Russian. And this woman spoke in, I'd say, a mixture of Russian and Byelorussian which is fairly close to Russian linguistically. I taped it because I was, for one thing, I was so overwhelmed by what I was hearing, I wasn't confident I'd be able to remember everything. And so then I replayed the tape and I could decipher things that maybe I didn't understand the first thing around.
LAMB: Were you able to take your kids or your wife with you on these kind of trips?
NAGORSKI: On this particular trip, no. No. I wasn't, but I've often, when I have traveled around the region, I've been able to take, especially my older children with me. They've continued some of the interest in this area and have I been able to take -- and my wife has traveled with me quite frequently.
LAMB: Got two other countries to talk about to get the broad overview. Hungary.
NAGORSKI: Hungary, as I say, is a country which has been going through a transition longer than the others. It is a country, relatively small in size, a population of about eight million. It has a sense of proximity to Austria where it used to be part of, of course, the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- there was a bondage there, a sense of a middle European or central European identity. And the Hungarian Communists throughout the '80s, and even earlier, tried to portray themselves as the reasonable Communists, as the ones who would allow maximum contact with the West, that would try to make some sort of mixed economy work. And as a result, Hungarians were freer to travel and also, politically, less repressed than the others. There was repression, but it was often in milder form.
One of the dissident writers once called it a "velvet prison." Whereby, you were never -- especially in the '80s, your dissidents were not in prison, they might be allowed to travel abroad. They might lose and not be able to publish or they might lose their jobs, but compared to the really Draconian punishment which other Eastern Europeans faced, they lived relatively well. And as a result, the transformation in Hungary became a more evolutionary process. There was less of a one-defining moment when everything collapsed and something started anew. And this is both good and bad. It's made for a more stable situation and a more reasonable -- a more predictable situation. I think it's sometimes made people more frustrated in that they didn't have the catharsis of a moment of victory. And coming to terms with your past and who you were then and who you are now is sometimes more difficult.
LAMB: There are 100,000 Jews in Hungary.
NAGORSKI: That's the approximate number that's estimated in Budapest. It's the only Jewish community in Eastern Europe that survived in a fairly large number.
LAMB: How many in Poland?
NAGORSKI: Today it's hard to know, but people talk about anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000.
LAMB: How many in the Czech Republic?
NAGORSKI: Very few. We're talking a few thousand at most.
LAMB: Jozsef Antall.
NAGORSKI: Jozsef Antall, the prime minister of Hungary, is compared to say, Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel, the Czech president, both of whom had very glamorous dissident pasts, who brought down the system. Antall is a former schoolteacher, historian, a rather bland individual, but who was always against communism, but did not lead any big crusade against it. And he's been, again, a very stabilizing influence on the country. He's tried to be very low-key and moderate, when you think about it that, for instance, on Hungary's southern border you have civil war in Yugoslavia going on. He's tried to balance the need to express concern about ethnic Hungarians living in former Yugoslavia and other countries in the region without re-awakening fears about Hungary's alleged imperialistic ambitions, because Hungary once was a major power in this region.
So he's been someone -- politically he's done rather well. But in the last year or two, his popularity, too, has been slipping. There's a sense that this kind of very bland, low-key policy is not enough. People are looking for other answers -- in Hungary as in Poland, for instance, or Slovakia, not so much the Czech Republic. You do have problems with unemployment in a time when state factories that were unprofitable have to be closed down or restructured. So he's beginning to feel the pressures of that. And in the next elections next year he may not do as well.
LAMB: How many times have you been to Budapest or Hungary?
NAGORSKI: Well, I've commuted regularly between these places -- I really couldn't count the times, but it's been an awful lot. This is not a huge region, these three countries. And it's easy to go back and forth, especially, you know, since the changes.
LAMB: Do you fly? Or do you drive? Or you take the train?
NAGORSKI: I usually fly, simply because you're on deadlines so much of the time and you don't have much time -- sometimes I've taken the train. I rarely drive, as I said, but you lose time at borders. I drive within the countries, but I find that on lengthier trips, given the demands of what I'm doing, even though it's sometimes would seem more pleasant to drive, I just can't manage it.
LAMB: What are the countries that border Hungary?
NAGORSKI: Well, Hungary, to the south, of course, has Yugoslavia. That's the big neighbor who's extremely troubled, whose agony has also been felt acutely by the Hungarians. They also border on Austria, and to the north on Slovakia. And then, of course, there is Romania. In each of those countries, with the exception of Austria, where there are not so many Hungarians, there's a large Hungarian minority. Because Hungary's borders used to be much bigger than this before World War I. And then they were on the losing side along with Austria and Germany in World War I. Their borders were shrunk to a large extent and that left several million ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries.
LAMB: In Hungary, based on all the -- when was the first time you ever went there?
NAGORSKI: I went there the first time, I would say, let's see, that was early 1970s.
LAMB: What would you notice today -- if you had to go back to the '70s -- different?
NAGORSKI: Well, you would have noticed Budapest, for instance, is -- especially in its center -- a very Western city now. And it's already has started to become that in the late '80s, but by the '90s, it is more like Vienna in many ways than it would be to a city certainly in the former Soviet Union anywhere. It has the central European architecture of the last couple centuries. That's very stately buildings, even somewhat polluted and run-down, in many cases, but the kind of a business center has been cleaned up, redone, and it's a very attractive place. It's a city that has a very -- is a very beautiful city with the Danube flowing through it and the difference is that, as in Poland, it's come to life. You have a sense that it's part of the world again.
That's something you feel in so many places in Eastern Europe, in any of these countries, even in small towns. The small towns as they were near the border of Germany, in the Czech Republic where before that was kind of the outer reaches of the Soviet empire and the world stopped at the outlying district of that town. Now it's simply a nice focal point for Europeans, East and West. And that's very much the kind of -- and even more so in Budapest. You feel that it's a very cosmopolitan city these days.
LAMB: You go back to the earliest time when you could see all this changing over there and credit Austria with allowing the Hungarians to come through Austria to get out?
NAGORSKI: Well, there was a crucial moment in 1989 when all this was changing where there were two major historical moments, I'd say, that were the cataclysm of this change. One was, of course, the Solidarity movement in Poland and forcing the government to negotiate a partial giving up of its power and allowing opposition movements to be politically represented. The second crucial moment was Hungary in 1989, September 1989, began taking down, literally, taking down the Iron Curtain. On the border between Hungary and Austria, there was the barbed wire, all the trappings of what we knew as the Iron Curtain. Not, maybe, as many barriers and so forth as in some of the other countries, but it was there, at least, symbolically. The Hungarians had been allowed to travel to Austria freely for about 10 years by that time. Because, as I had mentioned, the former Communists had been trying to make a point that they were freer -- that this was a more Western-Eastern European country than the others.
But to demonstrate that they were changing, they decided to, symbolically, take down that barbed wire. They actually went there and took wire clippers and started taking it down. At that point, the East German people who had been trying to get to West Germany had always been allowed to travel within Eastern Europe, the so-called "Communist" countries, not to Western Europe. And so they were still able to flood -- travel to Hungary and they suddenly discovered the Iron Curtain has been taken down in Hungary. So they would come to Hungary and then flee across to Austria. And it opened up a gaping hole in that Iron Curtain. And the East German regime was faced with a prospect, either we just try to seal -- lock everyone into our country and not even allow them to go to their Eastern European neighbors or something's got to give -- and something began to give.
They tried to get the Hungarians to close their borders again; the Hungarians refused because they knew this would be seen by the West as a sign that they aren't as progressive and enlightened as the Hungarian Communists wanted to present themselves, and then this opened it all up. When you have a system which relies on keeping people in, keeping people in terror and feeling that they have no options, once that begins to crack and just opens a wide open hole, as you did in the Hungarian case, then that had implications. That was the one event that probably, more than anything else, brought about the end of the Berlin Wall.
LAMB: The story about Czechoslovakia, the split, who runs the two countries, how big are they?
NAGORSKI: Czechoslovakia, before the split, was a country with about 50 million inhabitants. The Czech Republic, which is made up of the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, has about two-thirds of that -- about 10 million -- the Slovaks, about five million. Now we in the West are used to thinking of this as one country, as Czechoslovakia, but throughout most of their history until after World War I, when they became an independent state and were unified, the Czechs and the Slovaks had very different histories. The Czechs were under Austrian rule in recent history. The Slovaks were under Hungarian rule. The Slovaks are more rural, Catholic -- Roman Catholic people. The Czechs tend to be more secular, more industrialized, more urban. And what happened was after Czechoslovakia threw off Communist rule -- and during the Communist period, of course, you had centralized control as in any Communist government, and any talk of Czech-Slovak tensions was just, basically, forbidden -- the differences began to come out and pretty soon within Slovakia you had various politicians and a bid towards winning elections playing on those differences. And the current prime minister of Slovakia, Vladimir Meciar, is someone who did precisely that and said to the Slovaks, "We don't have to be seen as second-rate Czechs anymore, let's be seen as Slovaks." And a lot of it had to do with this sense of "We have to affirm our own identity."
LAMB: You tell a story about seeing the prime minister Meciar. Tell the story about stripping of the hare.
NAGORSKI: Yes. This was before Meciar became prime minister. I went to see him. It was clear that he was going to become prime minister. And I went to his party headquarters. And Meciar is a former boxer -- big guy, big hands, sort of the kind of guy you expect to meet in the local bar and you wouldn't want to cross too often. And the prime minister at the time, who was trying to preserve Czech-Slovak unity, but also advance the Slovak interests, was very much an intellectual, a former dissident, a very mild-mannered guy. And what struck me as sort of the capsule in encapsulating their differences was when I went to see Meciar.
I was going up a stairwell of this building and I looked out in the courtyard. There was a caretaker who had a hare hung up and he was stripping and he was gutting this hare and the blood was sort of dripping over the garbage pails. And I went up to Meciar's office and in the next office down the hall I saw there were about four or five dead hares. It was the hunting season and some of colleagues had gone out shooting and these were the trophies. And this sort of fit his populist image or of the tough guy out there -- even though he told me he did not hunt himself, but he conveyed the image of the type of guy who -- sort of a red-meat politician in literal sense of the term. And it turns out that in the new politics of Eastern Europe, those are tactics that sometimes work.
LAMB: Geographically, what's around Slovakia and the Czech Republic?
NAGORSKI: Well, of course, the Slovaks have Hungary, which is the neighbor that they are most concerned about. They are also bordered on to the east by the Ukraine and to the north by Poland. And then, of course, they have their border with the Czech Republic. They ...
LAMB: Do they have anything with Austria at all?
NAGORSKI: No. They ...
LAMB: How far away are they, though, from Bratislava to Vienna?
NAGORSKI: Oh, no. I'm sorry. Sorry. Do the Slovaks?
NAGORSKI: Yes, of course, they have -- -- yes, Bratislava is very close to Austria -- to Vienna. You can drive there in half an hour or so. So they have -- but the neighbor that they're most concerned about are the Hungarians. Of course, since the Hungarians dominated Slovakia for so long, they are very nervous about the Hungarians. They have a minority -- the population of Slovakia, as I said, is about five million -- about 800,000 of that are ethnic Hungarians. And so there is always the sense of tension there that there might become an issue, although it has so far been relatively muted. But in the new independent Slovakia there have been some tensions. For instance, Meciar has at times tried to take down Hungarian names of villages in villages where Hungarians are the main group. They usually have both the name of the village in Hungarian and in Slovak, and he's wanted to do away with some of that, and that's created some problems.
LAMB: Mr. Havel, the Czech Republic.
NAGORSKI: Mr. Havel, the playwright, the philosopher, whose incredibly creative writing -- I think -- and ideas really had a major impact on these changes and told people that even if you are powerless -- in his famous essay he wrote on the power of the powerless -- you have more power than you think because the old system relies on your tacit complicity, and when you refuse to go along with it, you begin to undermine that system. He's found it both stimulating and frustrating to become president. You see him -- I used to visit him in his apartment when he was a dissident. Now I've visited him in his office as president. He's in this wonderful castle in Prague, which is a presidential palace. But he generally feels ambivalent sometimes about the trappings of power, although, I think likes it ultimately as a playwright, as an intellectual, as a philosopher.
He's someone who's always very conscience of how bizarre and surreal this is that he's made this transformation. As a politician he sometimes has had a hard time making himself heard, being as effective as he'd like to be. He finds the rough and tumble of politics difficult and the daily politics is more dominated by the prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, who is a very different kind of character, someone who's more of a politician in the Western sense of someone who addresses simple messages and tries to present programs which are very clear. While a philosopher and a writer, like Havel, tends to speak in much more general terms and in much more philosophical terms, which often are harder to translate to your electorate.
LAMB: New York Times reporter Malcolm Brown was here a couple of weeks ago with a book, and he said that Prague is the most beautiful city in the world.
NAGORSKI: I think it's hard to find many cities that compete. Of course, whether it's Prague, Paris, we're talking about that league certainly.
LAMB: Why is it so beautiful, in your opinion?
NAGORSKI: It's a city which has, well, architecturally just wonderful buildings. Its setting is beautiful, but it's primarily the architecture -- which in the Communist era, much of it had again been become very run down. There was some renovation towards the end, but the grayness of the political atmosphere or the fact that somehow people heard about Czechoslovakia and they said, "Oh, this hard-line Communist state," somehow it didn't register on people's minds what a spectacular city this is because there was a grayness that was not only physical in terms of the buildings, the lack of renovation, but also in terms of the psyche of people there. You felt that people were beaten down there.
Now that that's changed, people are rediscovering Prague and it is crammed with tourists. I mean, it's wall-to-wall tourists, especially in the summer. It's become a favorite spot, for instance, for young Americans after graduating from college to show up there and try to find a job teaching English or starting a business, or in the early days many tried to be advisers to new government ministries. And there was a real fascination with America in all of these countries in a sense that, "Oh, Americans will explain to us how to make democracy work; how to make the economies work." And often they would, you know -- somebody very green from the US could be treated as a very serious adviser. That's changed as people have become a little more realistic, but there's still a very -- it has the feel for, I think -- young Americans treated it a bit like sort of Paris of the -- it was treated by the Hemingway generation in the 1920s, as a great place to be. Relatively cheap still and just a sense that you're living in a beautiful place with a sense of history that's enormous.
LAMB: In the Oval Office right behind the President's desk is a credenza that has a leather-bound edition of writings of Mr. Havel. When you hear that, what does it mean? Why are people so fascinated about his writings?
NAGORSKI: Because this is a man who, I think, by his writings managed to have a huge impact on history. And one can talk about the impact that people have in terms of their ideas in the abstract, but in a very specific way in this case Havel used to love to talk about what he called the "radioactivity of words." I remember when I interviewed him in, I think, 1986. He talked to me about this at great length. And at first I was trying to figure out what it was he was trying to say. And his point was pretty simple when you think about it, but it hadn't occurred to people so much. That why were the dissidents so important and have such an impact in these societies, when they were a relatively small group of people, especially in the in Czechoslovakia?
There were more of them, say, in Poland. But in Czechoslovakia the dissidents were relatively small and isolated group at first. They were constantly harassed. They were thrown in prison. They were lost their jobs. They were cut off from other people. But what he said was that in a society where there are only lies, where everybody is officially saying everything's wonderful, economy is going up, everybody's happy, that if you can make yourself heard for a moment with that truthful word, it has more impact often than, say, five million voters voting a certain way in a Western democracy. It means suddenly other people realize, "Hey, that person is saying what I've been thinking all along but have not been able to express because of the political system." And that puts a seed of dissent there in lots of people and that begins to undermine the system.
LAMB: What's the green grocer story?
NAGORSKI: The green grocer story is about the kind of complicity that everyone had in the old Communist system. Even if you said, "I'm not political at all. I really don't want to support this system, but I'm not going to go out of my way to jeopardize myself by being against this system." And as an example, Havel took a green grocer, a person who has a little market, and he said in order to live a quiet life, he would do everything that was required of him. If the Communist Party said, "Go to a meeting and vote a certain way," he did that. If it said, "Put up posters in your window extolling the virtues of communism," he did that. He said, "I'm not involved in this. It's just for show." And he would go and vote in the so-called elections, which were not elections at all. There was only one list of candidates and you dropped the ballot in the box. But that whole show, which some people described as meaningless, Havel said was very important because it gave the impression of conformity. And as long as that impression could be maintained, then people who thought otherwise, even if they really thought this was all nonsense, were afraid to speak out.
LAMB: What kind of a guy is he to meet?
NAGORSKI: He's a kind of guy that you would love to have more and more time to talk to. If there's a downside to this transformation for me as a journalist, is that people like Havel, who in the old days you could go and talk to for any amount of time almost because they were open, they were not allowed to do anything officially; you could just ruminate about life, the world or what's happening; now, of course, they're pretty occupied. They're presidents. He's president of his country. You don't have time for a lot of chitchat.
LAMB: Does he speak English?
NAGORSKI: Havel speaks English. It's not great English, but it's adequate English. When he was a dissident, I would usually interview him in English and he often said, "I'd bring my brother along to translate," but it turned out he didn't need it as much. As president, of course, when he wants to express himself very carefully and realizes that his words have yet another impact that, as he says, any misplaced word can get him in trouble, he uses a translator.
LAMB: Does he still spend the night in his apartment down on the river and then go up to the castle in the daytime?
NAGORSKI: He did that throughout his first term as president. I just heard recently that he's moved up to the castle. I haven't been back to Prague in the last a couple of months to find out if that's definitely true, but I'd heard that he's now actually moved into the castle, which surprised me a little bit. But that's what I'd heard.
LAMB: You have a chapter called "Life Without Sensors," and you talk with George Konrad and his wife Judette -- is that how you pronounce it?
LAMB: Who are they?
NAGORSKI: George Konrad is a very well-known Hungarian writer. He's actually also now the head of the International Pen Club. He's written many novels about in the old days, which were considered somewhat dissident novels. They were not published officially; they were published in the West or underground. And his wife has also been involved in the literary scene and they're people I have known from those old days, and I've kept in touch with.
LAMB: Here's a quote from Judette: "With the end of communism there is the end of intellectual snobism. Before it was important for people to have good books on their shelves. Now what's important is videos and MTV."
NAGORSKI: That's a feeling many intellectuals had, especially when the change first happened, because imagine selling -- you had these societies which had very little access to what we call the pop culture, whether it's Hollywood blockbusters or best-sellers, thrillers, MTV, all of that. And there was that sense of all these people who had fought the system to get rid of censorship, to open it up, as some of these writers said, "Whoa! What's happened here?" Suddenly, in the old days it was prestigious -- it was good to have a book of poetry or to have read the latest political essay to get the latest nuance of what may have slipped by the censors.
Suddenly, when you have this tremendous choice, there was fear that the real schlock culture will overwhelm the positive parts of culture that survived during communism, precisely in opposition to that system. But I think what now happened over time, is that there's been a balancing. You still have the best-sellers, you still have MTV, you have that, but then there have been new publishers who have found there is a market for serious Hungarian books or Polish books or Czech books. There are people who are learning to make movies in new ways, because in the old day, for instance, if you made a movie that managed to get some little allusion, criticism, of the old system in, that everyone went to see it. Well, now that's no big deal anymore. You don't deal with censors, so you got to do one that's entertaining.
LAMB: Here's who you dedicate this book to. Tell us about these three people.
NAGORSKI: My parents, Marie and Zygmunt, I dedicated the book to them. I think they're ...
LAMB: Are they alive?
NAGORSKI: They are alive. They live here in the Washington area. And, of course, my own sense of who I am and my own mom -- my own identification with Poland comes through my upbringing, which they provided me with. And then the other person there is my youngest son, Alexander, who is five years old. I dedicated the book also to him perhaps because I did one previous book in which I dedicated to my wife and other children at the time -- Alexander was not around -- I didn't want him to feel left out.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
NAGORSKI: Growing up, I went to high schools in various places: Egypt, Korea, France when my father was in the Foreign Service. And then I came back to college in the United States -- I went to Amherst College in Massachusetts.
LAMB: What did you study?
NAGORSKI: I studied history; mostly modern European history. And then that senior year where I spent a semester in Poland, I used that as material for a lengthy thesis on the changes in Poland in 1968 during that period when the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia, when a Polish student movement was put down by the Polish authorities. And so it's quite an incredible feeling to have gone from that to be describing the birth of these totally new societies.
LAMB: Where did you go to work right out of Amherst?
NAGORSKI: I taught high school for three years in the Boston area, in Wayland, Massachusetts. And after that, I tried to break into journalism flogging my college clips, whatever I could, and I was lucky enough to get a tryout at Newsweek, in those days they had a tryout program whereby they took relatively -- very inexperienced people, like myself, and for a period of anywhere from two weeks to six months they kept you on tryout. And at the end of any week they could say, "Sorry, kid, it hasn't worked out." It made for a very stressful period, but it meant you had a shot at something that could develop into a good job, and somehow I survived.
LAMB: You took a breather at what point to do the Carnegie Endowment for Peace?
NAGORSKI: This was after I'd been abroad as a correspondent for 10 years in various places: in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome and Bonn. And then I came -- in 1988, I came to Washington to go to the Carnegie Endowment to give me a chance -- which was a wonderful opportunity to do maybe some more analytical writing, to write for -- and speaking and to look into some subjects in more depth and in a different way than when you're faced with the weekly deadlines.
LAMB: How much longer do you expect to be in Warsaw?
NAGORSKI: At the moment I'm in no hurry to leave. It continues to be a fascinating part of the world, and I'm also from Warsaw. I also now go back to Moscow from time to time. I was for many years not able to go there because in 1982 I was expelled from Moscow, as you remember, but now I'm able to go back and forth, and so I've been able to also follow that story. So I find it's hard to imagine right now a more exciting part of the world to be in. So if Newsweek wants me there, I'm happy to be there.
LAMB: If it was time for you to make a choice on where'd you live for the rest of your life, what would you pick?
NAGORSKI: That's a real hard one and I'd better discuss it with my wife first. But I think at some point we will certainly come back to the United States; and where depends, obviously, on what I would be doing and what the job possibilities would be. But we've bounced around so much in our lives, that we don't -- while we consider Washington our home because we lived here for two years, and that's the most recent experience in the Unites States, it's hard for us to know at this point where we'll end up.
LAMB: What is you favorite city? Forget that you might have to live there someday, but what would you pick as your favorite city in the world?
NAGORSKI: It depends for different things. I mean, Prague has to rank real, real high in cities I like. I like Paris an awful lot and I like Hong Kong very much.
In THE BIRTH OF FREEDOM, Andrew Nagorski provides an unprecedented personal look at the individuals and issues in the newly free nations of Eastern Europe. He takes readers into the hearts of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia as they undergo the painful yet exhilarating transformation into modern democratic states.