Saturday, October 31, 2009

1989-2009: Remembering October 23rd

As regular readers know, in the fall of 1989 I was an exchange student in Budapest, Hungary, and was fortunate enough to see many of the events of that historic period firsthand.

Among them: Hungary's first open and officially-sanctioned commemoration of the 1956 Hungarian uprising on October 23, 1989, the thirty-third anniversary of the toppling of the country's Stalinist government. During the popular uprising, the reformist prime minister, Imre Nagy, had announced his country was pulling out of the Warsaw Pact and called on the United Nations to help ensure its neutrality. A few days later, Soviet forces invaded from the East to crush the revolt. Some 2500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed and 200,000 fled to the West. In 1989, entire Budapest neighborhoods still bore the scars of the fighting.

There were rallies in front of Hungary's massive Parliament building scheduled for noon and 6pm, and I attended both. The #2 tram ran straight up the river from my dorm to the Parliament, but had to stop two blocks short because the crowds had overflowed Kossuth Square and blocked the tracks. The atmosphere was festive. Bands played. Soldiers marched. There were long speeches I couldn't understand -- except for part of one in which the names of various countries were read out loud; the U.S. was cheered, the Soviet Union booed. At another point they chanted "Gorby! Gorby!" in thanks to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who hadn't rolled the tanks this time. Hundreds carried the Hungary's tricolor flag, but with the emblem of the Hungarian communist party cut out of the middle, just as in 1956. Some guy came out at noon next to a photograph of Imre Nagy and gave a speech. Bells rang across the city. People cheered.

We students could barely ask directions in Hungarian, didn't have access to CNN, and, this being the pre-Internet age, we didn't learn what most of the rest of the world knew until later that afternoon: Hungary had proclaimed itself a republic. The guy I'd seen was Matyas Szuros, who a few days before had been named Hungary's first president, and he's the one who made the announcement. "This is a prelude to a new historical age," Szuros had declared. "The Hungarian Republic is going to be an independent, democratic, and legal state in which the values of bourgeois democracy and democratic socialism are expressed equally." He was prophetic on all counts, it turns out, though he missed the bit about the far right.

In the evening, the mood was more somber. People carried candles and torches. Old men -- the generation who'd lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Stalinism, and '56 -- wept openly. The rally was lit with eerie floodlights, which reminded me of the last scenes in Close of Encounters of the Third Kind.

It seemed incredible: in a single week Hungary had announced multi-party elections, disbanded the party militia, rehabilitated Stalinist political criminals, and declared itself a neutral state. Pressures created by Hungary having allowed tens of thousands of East Germans to escape the Eastern Bloc had just forced the hardline leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, out of power, replaced by a Gorbachev-esque reformist. We'd been fortunate enough to witness history take place. Little did we know that 1989's most epic events were yet to come.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain and visits to Ceausescu's Romania and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Eastern Europe: remembering the bad old days

I've been a longtime foreign correspondent of The Chronicle of Higher Education, for which I covered Eastern Europe for much of the 1990s. On the occasion of this, the 20th anniversary of the collapse of Communism there, I put together this feature on how some prominent university professors see their professional lives then (underground classes, listening devices in the walls, etc.) as compared to now (as European Union citizens with academic freedom, university autonomy, and more conventional challenges.)

At this writing, at least, the piece is freely available online. If that changes, it's also in the Chronicle Review section of the print edition.

I was actually an exchange student in Eastern Europe in 1989 and saw many of the historic events of that fall firsthand; I've been posting about that here at World Wide Woodard.

My last piece for The Chronicle was on the role of Iceland's universities in addressing that country's economic meltdown.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

1989-2009: Visiting Ceausescu's Romania, Part II

Continued from this post.

Morning broke, revealing a gray landscape where two time periods existed side-by-side. Farmers tilled over the ground with horse-drawn plows on the outskirts of dilapidated villages that looked to have changed very little since the late 18th century. The train regularly passed the ruins of medieval keeps and, at road crossings, peasants in horse-drawn carts. But every dozen miles or so -- usually in towns or large villages -- Ceausescu had deployed an early 1950s-style complex of prefabricated concrete housing blocks and smokestack-studded industrial facilities. While these appeared in as poor shape as the surrounding peasant cottages, they were actually quite new, part of Ceausescu's plan to create a rural industrial proletariat. (Peasants themselves, the dictator and his wife distrusted cities.) I would later write in my journal that while living in Budapest felt like stepping back to the 1970s (in terms of technology, clothing, the design of everyday objects), nothing in Romania looked like it post-dated the 1950s.

I was 20 years old and, until six weeks prior, had never been outside North America. Stepping off the train in Brasov that morning made a powerful impression. I described the scene as "the most disturbing place on Earth." The central railway station of Romania's fifth largest city had no power or heat and downtrodden people shuffled through the cavernous gloom under the watchful states of submachine-gun toting guards in great coats. The station and surrounding apartment blocks were crowned with billboards praising the dictator and his "Epoch of Light." In Czechoslovakia or East Germany people might take a second glance at a foreigner; here people stopped in their tracks and stared, unblinking, as if we had dropped from the moon.

At the bus stop in front of the station, commuters formed a silent semi-circle around us, everyone staring in silence. Nobody would return greetings. Five minutes passed. Still staring. Ten minutes. Staring. Then, as if responding to a starting gun, everyone rushed inwards towards us, faces desperate, wads of decomposing currency in their hands, pleading urgently to buy most anything: food, cigarettes, candy. We gave what we had of the latter, handing chocolate bars in grasping hands, refusing pay until -- as suddenly as it began -- everyone swooped away, back into their silent semi-circle. A man walked by. People stared. The bus arrived: an electric trolley bus dragging itself painfully up the street, three of its four tires completely flat.

In Brasov's medieval center -- a gorgeous place under other circumstances -- more guards were posted in pairs on many street corners. Peasants in traditional dress wandered the streets -- for real, not for tourists -- alongside at least one middle-aged woman with a full-on beehive hairdo. Most shops looked to be closed and empty, until you ventured to peer into their gloomy interiors where, under the light of a single 40-watt bulb, people were lined up between the empty shelves and display cases to buy the only items available from the workers behind the counter: pig's feet in the case of the butcher's shop). One exception: a bookstore with window displays full of the works of one man, Nicolae Ceausescu, including his 32-volume magnum opus, Romania on the way of building up the multilaterally developed socialist society. (It's available in English and is about as gripping as it sounds.)

As the sun set, the city became shrouded in darkness on account of electricity rationing. Even my "first class" hotel had just one low-wattage bulb in each room and in each eight-bulb chandelier. The Carpathian Mountains are cold in October, but the heat came on only briefly that night. At 7 pm, power to the city was cut off altogether, plunging the hotel corridors and stairways into pitch black darkness. My traveling companions and I joined other guests creeping along behind a man with a cigarette lighter, feeling our way along the walls until reaching the moonlit streets. Everything was blacked out -- shops, homes, streetlights -- except the police checkpoints and the billboards celebrating Ceauescu's greatness.

The next day I caught a train and country bus to Bran, home of a very atmospheric castle falsely touted as having belonged to Dracula. Once in the countryside, people seemed more relaxed, acknowledging our presence with friendly nods. Apart from being confronted and stared down by a menacing six-year old in a Young Pioneer's uniform, the excursion was a pleasant intermission from what was an otherwise sinister environment. In retrospect I wonder if the security situation in Brasov was particularly extreme on account of there having been an uprising there against Ceausescu just two years earlier.

That night, we spent a couple of hours in the darkened interior of Brasov station, waiting for the train back to Budapest. It soon became clear that there was a large band of orphaned children -- five to nine years old -- wandering around the station. Some of them apparently lived there, begging a precarious subsistence from Brasov's undernourished commuters. One seven-year old boy took notice of our foreignness and struck up a conversation in Romanian, unperturbed and apparently uninterested in the fact we couldn't understand him. He had a small flashlight which he kept pointed in his own face, flicking it on and off He laughed in a sort of maniacal way from time to time for no apparent reason. Everyone else in the station was afraid to speak to us -- the invisible presence of informants was reflected in their body language -- but eventually a young man sitting beside us asked the boy a few questions and whispered a translation, while pretending to look the other way. "He is going to a school for hopeless children in Moldavia, alone. He is sick. He is actually 11 years old. Yes, he is small, because of his sickness." The man added that he could be arrested just for talking to us. "I want to leave Romania," he said, before stating the obvious. "There is no freedom here."

Seat reservations were mandatory on the train we were taking, but the station agents refused to sell us any. This meant we had to stand, sardine-like, among the hundreds of people in the corridor for the eight hours it would take to get to the Hungarian border (which was fine) and that we would have to bribe the conductor with a package of Kent cigarettes to not be kicked off the train (which was a bit more harrowing, and involved a cloak-and-dagger hand-off in the space between the wagons.) I spent much of the next seven hours conversing with a relaxed man who had to have been a securitate agent; he was the only adult in Romania who spoke with me freely and without worry. We drank a bottle of his grandfather's homegrown wine and, after an hour or so, the man -- "call me Johnny, Johnny Doe" -- lowered his voice a bit and confessed he intended to leave Romania. "I want the freedom to live," Agent Doe declared. "I love Romania: the people, the mountains -- it is the most beautiful country in Europe. But you have only one life and here is not life, only survival."

He later pointed out securitate agents on the train for me. I, already knowing the answer, asked him why he wasn't afraid to be observed speaking with me. "Because I'm half one of them," he explained, even showing me his secret police i.d. "If they come over and yell at me I can tell them: brother, you are talking too loudly." Now, however, he said was only "one of them" on paper. "When I was younger, I didn't think. Then I traveled, I saw what it was like outside, all over the Mediterranean and in the Soviet Union. Now I know better. But at least I don't have to be afraid of Them."

Doe took his leave and got off the train before we reached Hungary, giving me his postal address and an invitation to visit if things ever changed. As the train headed for the Hungarian border, I felt certain there would be no change in Romania for a very long time. I had come to entirely the wrong conclusion, of course. Ceausescu had lost the loyalty of many in his own security apparatus, and would be executed in a bloody coup staged amidst a popular uprising. I would return to Romania nine months later -- and more than a dozen of times thereafter -- but I never did look up Agent Doe. Part of me always wondered where he was and what he was doing when Romania's December Revolution broke out. Another part of me didn't want to find out.

[For more on my experiences in Eastern Europe during the 1989 revolutions, here is the complete series to date.]

Monday, October 19, 2009

Secret Lives of Mainers

My piece on the "secret lives of Mainers" is on the cover of this month's issue of Down East magazine.

The article -- which is available online -- explodes some myths about Mainers and reveals some surprising facts that may surprise you. Example: the Maine town with the highest crime rate doesn't even have a stoplight. Or guess which state is the least religious in the country, after New Hampshire and Vermont? And what do you think is the most common occupation in the state? (Hint: you don't need a boat, chainsaw, or tractor to take part.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In Canada

If you're holding your breath, waiting for the rest of my posting on visiting Romania in the final months of Ceausescu's Orwellian rule, don't turn blue!

I'm on assignment in far Eastern Maine and the Canadian Maritimes this week (more on that later) and will finish my Romania postings just as soon as I have a free hour.

Mainers beware: snow fell in Calais yesterday. Winter is upon us.

Monday, October 12, 2009

20 Years Ago: Visiting Ceausescu's Romania

Twenty years ago this evening two friends and I boarded an overnight train to the Transylvanian city of Brasov. It was to be a dark, cold, and scary trip.

Just about everyone in Budapest had warned us not to go, many of them with wearing the grave expression of the villagers in those old Dracula movies when the main character asks for directions to the Count's castle. Be careful, we were told. Bring food. Don't take anything of value. Dress warmly.

It wasn't vampires they were worried about, it was Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, whose dictatorial rule had degenerated into madness. Ceausescu had built a cult of personality modeled on that of North Korea's Kim Il Sung backed by the securitate, a secret police force believed to have Orwellian omnipresence. Some securitate officers were said to have been recruited as children from Romania's massive population of abandoned children, itself a direct product of Ceausescu's rule. Possessed with the notion that Romania's national greatness would grow in direct proportion with its population size, he had banned abortion, banned the import or sale of birth control, slapped taxes on couples with few children, and instituted surprise examinations to detect illegal terminations of pregnancy. the result was a flood of unwanted babies, many of whom wound up in horrifying conditions in overtaxed, under-supplied state orphanages.

Meanwhile, having spent millions razing much of historic Bucharest to build his Stalinist palace, Ceausescu had become fixated on the need to immediately pay off appreciable his foreign debt. His solution: import nothing and export everything without regard to domestic needs. By 1989 the situation had become dire, with severe rationing of even the most basic foodstuffs. Buildings were heated for only a few hours each day, elevators and many electric appliances were banned, and inspectors arrived at homes unannounced to ensure that no more than one room was lit at a time, using a bulb of 40 watts or less.

As we prepared to visit, Ceausescu was making bellicose noises about the reformist government in Hungary and cutting back on the issuance of foreign visas. We got our visas by chance: one of the coordinators of our exchange program at Karl Marx University was related to Budapest's Romanian Orthodox bishop and had friendly contacts at the embassy. We packed our bags with food for ourselves, chocolates to give as gifts, and cartons of Kent cigarettes, which had become Romania's unofficial currency-of-graft. Then we boarded the old Orient Express bound to the East.

At midnight the train screeched to a halt at the border. The heaters in the compartment shut off. Romanian border guards marched through the wagon, throwing open doors, yelling at passengers, tearing into bags and dismantling the seat cushions. Outside someone was cackling into the public address system, his mad laughter echoing through Curtici's railyard. The other passengers just stared down at the floor in silence, as if awaiting their fate. A guard screamed threats at one couple - the wife was apparently ethnic Hungarian -- but eventually lost interest and stormed off to terrorize the next compartment.

Then two customs officers stepped into the compartment: a slim, pale-faced, raven-haired women with Natasha Fatale's demeanor, and her male colleague, who was portly, drunk, and loud. She confirmed we had no subversive materials (Hungarian newspapers, bibles) and collected $30 for each day we would spend in the country. In exchange I was given a wad of greasy rags: greasy and smelling of dirty socks. On closer examination this proved to be Romanian currency -- $30 worth at the absurdly optimistic official exchange rate -- although the notes were in such terrible condition their denominations could only be identified with considerable effort. The national mint had apparently stopped functioning in the late 1960s. The aging notes, like most things in the country, were falling apart. "Have a nice time in Romania," Agent Natasha said ominously before sliding the compartment door closed.

An hour later the train jolted into motion, pulling us further into Ceausescu's nightmare.

Continued here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Maine: Portland Charter Commission disclosures now online

In case you missed it, Portland is considering rewriting its constitution and the possibility of again allowing voters to elect their mayor (instead of having the city councilors appoint one of themselves to the position.) Most of the action is taking place within the 12-member City Charter Commission, which will play a big role in the future of politics in Maine's largest city. So who made them boss?

Three of the charter commissioners were appointed by the city council, but the other nine were elected by those of you who turned up at the polls earlier this year.

I've finally had an opportunity to photograph, crop, and post the campaign finance disclosures for the winners of those elections (since the city hasn't.)

A preliminary review turns up nothing unusual. Most candidates' war chests were measured in the tens or hundreds of dollars, and the biggest donors tended to be relatives, friends, or political associates.

City councilor John Anton (Green) supported James Gooch (Dem), while former city council candidate Bill Linnell donated to fellow Greens Ben Chipman and Anna Trevorrow. Trevorrow also got backing from current Green schoolboard candidate Anthony Zeli, who's her longtime partner, and Chipman's election committee, which gave her $125. (Trevorrow is the Green party state chair, Zeli is the treasurer, and Chipman heads the Cumberland County branch.)

Richard Ranaghan (Dem and former city finance director) received contributions from John O'Brien, the longtime Cumberland County register of deeds. Former mayor Jim Cohen got money from the Portland Longshoreman's' Benevolent Association, school committee and planning board member Jaimey Caron, and Washington, DC power attorney and congressional investigator Michael Bopp; (Bopp and Cohen have been friends since the attended school together at Baxter Elementary and Deering High.)

For the 99.9% of you who haven't been focused on the charter commission, the three political appointees are former transportation director Tom Valleau, 2008 city council candidate Naomi Mermin (who received contributions from Anton, then-mayor Ed Suslovic, schoolboard members Kate Snyder and Peter Eglinton, and the Portland Chamber of Commerce PAC), and former mayor Pamela P Plumb (chair), a past director of People's Heritage Bank (now part of TD BankThat'sChargingYouNewFees) and past president of the National League of Cities.

Of course if you think I've missed anything or made an error, feel free to comment. And if you have copies of any Portland disclosures from before 2004, consider contributing them to the website, as the city has destroyed their copies.

[UPDATE, 1:40 EST: Have added a few more references to donations by elected officials as readers have pointed them out to me.]

Monday, October 5, 2009

Anthem sues Maine

Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, which dominates Maine's insurance market, has reportedly sued our state over regulators' refusal to approve an 18.9% rate hike earlier this year.

Anthem's parent company, WellPoint, made a profit of over $580 million last year and has assets of over $49 billion, or a billion dollars more than Maine's entire GDP. Meanwhile the company has been putting the squeeze on Ellsworth's hospital and on small pharmacies.

I'd heard a rumor about the suit last week, but as far as I can make out, Maine's media left it for Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films to break. Greenwald -- who delivers progressive agitprop on timely public policy issues -- today released a new short film on Anthem's move which is making a splash across the Internet this afternoon:

It's not top-notch journalism, but it does raise a number of serious questions that Maine's mainstream media should already have been asking. How our news gathering organizations can be scooped in their own backyard by an outfit out of Culver City, California is beyond me.

[UPDATE: 10/06/09: In case you were curious about how much money Maine senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe have received from the health care industry, there's this from Daily Kos.]

Friday, October 2, 2009

Bad Hotel: the German spa that abused my childhood doctor

This week I read with dismay that my childhood doctor in Phillips, Maine -- Gretl Hoch -- spent her final years being neglected, abused, and robbed by the owners of a German spa where she became effectively imprisoned.

Dr. Hoch -- perhaps the only foreign-born person living in our western Maine hamlet in the early 1970s -- was an intimidating figure among the under-10 set, with her no-nonsense approach to administering shots and a strong German accent that was inevitably (and unfairly) linked to stock characters from Hogan's Heroes. She practiced medicine in Phillips for more than 40 years, and had willed her ample estate to the Shriners' Hospitals for Children, SOS Children's Villages, and the Franklin County Animal Shelter in nearby Farmington. In 2004 she decided to return to her native Germany, to be closer to where her parents were buried.

Unfortunately she chose to check into a very, very bad hotel while her home was being renovated. At the Naturhotel Hessische Schweiz in Meinhard, owners John and Gudrun Stifel took advantage of the octogenarian doctor, who was suffering from Alzheimer's' disease. The Stifels cut off her access to her friends, family, and legal representatives, kept her in conditions that at one point had her hospitalized with dehydration and bedsores so serious they required surgery, and secured power of attorney over her $7.5 million estate, court documents show. When a relative was able to gain access to Hoch, she reported living in fear of Mr. Stifel who she said hurt her.

Dr. Hoch, 84, died in June 2008 while law suits on her behalf were still pending in Maine courts.

Last week, a Maine judge awarded her estate with nearly $7 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The judge found the Stifels had "cloistered Dr. Hoch at the Naturhotel when she was in an extremely fragile and vulnerable state...prevented her from having contact with her closest friends and family..[and] bullied, manipulated, and intimidated her to gain control of her money." A third person, Mary Wagner-Burkhart of Alexandria, Kentucky, was also found to have tried to improperly gain access to Hoch's estate.

Hoch's estate will now be going to charity, as she wished. The Stifels appear to still be in business. Maybe someone should check up on their guests.

[Update: 3/2/2011: The Stifels appealed the decision, but refused to turn over key documents to the court and yesterday were found in contempt. Their attorney says they are facing litigation in Germany as well. They are, as of this writing, still in business.]