In March 1990, I entered East Germany for the start of nearly seven months of travel throughout Eastern Europe. In my backpack, I carried an early version of a laptop and a cutting-edge portable printer. I had a simple agenda: talk to people, write reports, and send them back to my employers by snail mail.
Dramatic changes had taken place in the fall of 1989. The Berlin Wall had fallen. Governments had collapsed in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. More gradual but still important change had transformed Poland and Hungary. Yugoslavia was in slow-motion disintegration.
My job in 1990 was to figure out what all these changes meant. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization, hired me to be their eyes and ears on the ground. From my reports, AFSC would decide what kind of work to do in the region.
By the time I wrapped up my tour with a final return trip to Prague, I’d interviewed about 250 people. They were a diverse crew: Slovenian anarchists, Hungarian environmentalists, ethnic Turkish activists in Bulgaria, Polish economists, Czech journalists, a famous poet, a future prime minister. I had more than enough material for a book, which I published in 1992 under the title Shock Waves: Eastern Europe after the Revolutions.
Beginning this September, I will be heading back to Eastern Europe as an Open Society fellow to track down those 250 people and see what they’re doing today. I want to see how their individual stories reflect the changes that have taken place in the region since I last saw them more than 20 years ago. I want to understand why liberal values have taken root in some places and are under renewed attack in others. I want to test some hypotheses I have about political transformation, which I hope will be relevant for people looking at these questions in other parts of the world.
I’ve kept in touch with some of the people I met in 1990. Deyan Kuranov, for instance, was a dissident intellectual 20 years ago and continues to occupy that role at the Center for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria. Marko Hren, on the other hand, once led a revolt of anarchists and artists against the communist elite but now works on transportation issues inside the Slovenian government. Some people have died (the late great Bulgarian poet Blaga Dimitrova), and others have seemingly disappeared. Tracking down all these people will be part of the story.
My laptop will be lighter. I won’t need a printer. The reports that used to take a couple weeks to reach my employers will now be uploaded instantaneously to my website. But in this age of instant information, I’m more interested in change over a longer period of time. In the movie series that began with 7 Up, director Michael Apted has revisited the same group of schoolchildren every seven years to chart their progress in society. I will attempt something similar with a larger group across a wider gap of years. I’m not sure what I’ll find. But that’s why the project excites me.
Because of this new project, however, this will be my last World Beat for a while. I’ve been writing these essays and compiling the Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) newsletter for six years. Across these 250-plus pieces, I’ve tried to approach foreign policy issues through a multiplicity of forms (satire, poetry, book reviews, imaginary letters, state of the union addresses, movie pitches, unsolicited commencement speeches) and from a multiplicity of angles (sports, music, visual art, television, architecture, graphic novels, demography, seismology, food). We’ve collected the best of World Beat in an e-book, All Over the Map, in case you’d like to have them all in one place.
This summer, I’ll take a pause between finishing one set of 250 and embarking on the next. But it will be a working pause. If you’re in Washington in July or New York in August, come out and see my latest theatrical production, The Pundit. After doing three one-man shows, I’ve put together an ensemble cast in a play about power, politics, and punditry. You’ll never look at CNN the same way again.
Which is, come to think of it, one of our major aims at FPIF as well.