Mixed Emotions

Mixed Emotions

Faculty emigrants from Communist nations see their home countries through a new lens

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

If you were Romanian, it was hard not to feel heady optimism in the last days of 1989, recalls Prof. Emeritus Radu Florescu (History), with the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu's totalitarian regime.

"I think many of us felt that democracy would simply fly in," said Florescu, son of a Romanian diplomat who moved his family to the United States when Romania was forced to enter World War II on the side of the Nazis.

"As an historian," he said, "I should have known better."

Florescu is one of several BC community members whose ties to Central and Eastern Europe lent a special meaning to the dramatic events of 1989. As their former homelands have settled into the sober task of remaking their societies, these expatriates have often sought to comprehend the changes, in themselves as well as their native lands.

Much like Romania's progress toward democracy, which Florescu describes as beset by political and economic difficulties, the course to this understanding is hardly a straightforward one.

Two years ago, Florescu was appointed an honorary consul for Romania, helping to arrange visits to the US from officials and establish exchange programs. But he has also fought with the government over family property confiscated during the old regime, before the family home was finally returned to him a few years ago.

"Romania is a land of contradictions, almost like a banana republic," Florescu said. "You'll see stretch limos and casinos in Bucharest and people starving in the country. Having free elections was an important step, of course, but there is a long way to go."

Asst. Prof. Maxim D. Shrayer (Slavic and Eastern Languages), who left Russia for the US with his family in 1987, found that the Soviet Union's disintegration triggered a number of often conflicting sensations. Some of these feelings surfaced on a 1993 trip, not to Russia, but to the Czech Republic. Although his parents were dissidents, Shrayer felt a vague sense of unease as he visited the country the Soviet Union had once suppressed.

"You feel somehow complicit by virtue of having been a resident of that country," explained Shrayer, who notes that he spoke German, not Russian, on that trip. "I felt a joy about the change that had taken place in this part of the world, but it was a joy layered with many other emotions."

Shrayer says he tried to distance himself emotionally as well as politically from Russia during his first several years in the US, but eventually found it necessary to "re-evaluate my whole experience." He took an avid interest in Russian culture, seeking to separate it from its ideological context.

After emigrating to Canada from Czechoslovakia as a teenager in 1949, Prof. Paul Davidovits (Chemistry) did not re-establish a connection with his birthplace for three decades. His impression then was of a country where "people were taken care of" and repression was relatively benign. He also had an inkling of even greater changes, noticing that the government-run local youth center in his old hometown had installed a popular American video game.

"When I saw that," quipped Davidovits, who as a teen had drawn an official rebuke for missing a military parade, "I knew Communism had had it."

That prophecy fulfilled, Davidovits follows the progress of his native land - now called Slovakia - through World Wide Web sites as well as reports from a cousin still living there, who aptly symbolizes the country's struggles to adapt to a free-market approach. A physician, his cousin has had to take on an extra job to make ends meet.

"There was a euphoria at the beginning, of course," Davidovits said, "and more recently there has been a certain nostalgia for the security and paternalism of the old system, especially from the 1970s on. Life there has many possibilities now, but it is a difficult life in some respects."

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