I first came across them in the 'Infobiuras' of the Lithuanian pro-independence movement, Sajudis, in early 1990.
Young, bright-eyed Americans, Canadians and Australians, steeped by fervently patriotic parents in the history of countries they hardly knew, bent on fulfilling their historical destiny. They translated documents into English, briefed journalists, advised politicians and generally brought a blast of optimistic, confident radicalism to the nervous, blurry world of collapsing Communism.
Sometimes the results were more spectacular than productive. During one of the hairier moments of the Lithuanian independence struggle, when it seemed as though the West, with the honourable but minor exception of Iceland, was going to abandon Lithuania to the mercies of Soviet stormtroopers, I remember hearing one beefy young Lithuanian émigré bellowing down the phone "Don't be such a f***ing jerk!" I asked him who he'd been talking to. "The American ambassador in Moscow," he replied tersely.
There were grown-ups too. The most impressive, Stasys Lozoraitis, ran, unsuccessfully, for president of Lithuania in 1993. He had spent his whole life as ambassador to the Vatican and United States, in quixotic service to a country that most of the world thought had disappeared in 1940. He was urbane, polyglot, amusing, and charismatic, with an Italian wife who added a rare touch of glamour and sophistication to the drab, stodgy world of Lithuania. Elsewhere, these high-powered émigrés included a deeply impressive Canadian-Latvian professor of linguistics, a forceful young man who ran the Estonian section of Radio Free Europe and an ambitious Polish refugee-journalist, who after studying at Oxford in the early 1980s spent time in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan with the resistance.
The galaxy of talent had some black holes too. There was one adviser to a Baltic foreign ministry whose sole qualification was a diploma in bar management and a hard-drinking old bat in an economics ministry whose previous job was as a junior public relations woman for a theme park. One of the most energetic and engaging Lithuanian émigrés turned out to have been working for both the KGB and the Americans (in what order was never completely clear).
But the presumption then was that even the most modest émigré talent was badly needed. Even the most superficial knowledge of the way the West worked was a big advantage. Knowing how to use a computer, handle phone messages, talk politely to strangers in English and organise travel to faraway places were all rare skills. That changed quickly. But the best émigré talent is still around. The Canadian professor, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, is now president of Latvia and one of the few East European politicians with a claim to world status. The young man from Radio Free Europe, Tom Ilves, is now a leading member of the European Parliament. The Anglo-Polish journalist, Radek Sikorski, has just been sworn in as defence minister. But the political balance has changed. Now the diaspora appears provincial and out of touch. In Toronto, Ealing and the Chicago suburbs, they are still baking the old recipes, learning folk songs, sending children to Saturday school and keeping the church afloat. But the diaspora is no longer the political lungs of nationhood: the source of free ideas and discussion, a constant reminder that the Communist version of the past, present and future was an evil fiction.
In politics, it's the homeland that's humming. But not in economics. A million East Europeans or more have gone abroad in search of jobs and education. That raises a big question for the ex-captive nations: can they ever attract these bright, mobile people back home?
Friday, November 11, 2005
When East Met West
In his witty and always informative weekly newsletter, Edward Lucas describes the "brainy émigrés" who helped to put the restored democracies of Eastern Europe back on the rails after the collapse of Communism: