In the past two weeks, I have been traveling along the Danube River, visiting various former Communist countries in Eastern Europe. My wife and I have visited Prague in the Czech Republic, Bratislava in Slovakia, and Budapest in Hungary (as well as Vienna in nonaligned Austria).
Travelling through these cities and speaking to some of the people, especially the guides, has been enormously interesting. These are people who lived through the communist period. Their views of communism are not (merely) based on abstract arguments about its problems. These people lived under the system and experienced what it was like.
After speaking to several of these people, I found their stories — while differing in details — to be consistent. The communism that they lived under was a brutal system that both deprived people of freedom and impoverished them. But it is the specific events of their lives — stories about their parents and relatives and friends — that give special power to the critique of communism.
The story that they told about Hungary was a horrible one. The Soviets came in and decided that this largely rural country should industrialize, even though the people did not have the skills for this and the circumstances of the country did not support it. The Soviets moved large numbers of families from rural areas into the city and forced them to share apartments with families that they did not know. The Soviets forced the pig farmers, who had traditionally raised high quality pigs that required special care, to raise lower quality pigs, which were valued far less by farmers and consumers. In the early years of the occupation, the Soviets encouraged children to report on parents and the secret police was everywhere.
Other people talked about the dilemmas created by the decision whether to leave a communist country illegally. Occasionally, people had that opportunity, but the prospect of freedom had to be balanced with the enormous costs it imposed. I heard of stories of husbands leaving wives, parents leaving 5 children, and parents and two children leaving the youngest child of the family. I also heard of stories of children deciding to return to the communist country, not wanting to leave their family behind, presumably forever. In all of these cases, everyone understood that the person leaving would cause tremendous harm to those who remained — in particular, the family members who remained would typically lose their jobs. In one case, a daughter was forced to withdraw from college, and decades later still blames her father for ruining her life by preventing her from pursuing higher education.
Despite the similar stories, it is important to keep in mind that the conditions in different countries differed and changed over time. Things were horrible in Hungary prior to the 1956 uprising, but then the Soviets relaxed their restraints, which significantly improved matters. The Hungarians in the post 1956 era were not starving, but the Rumanians, by contrast, often were. The Slovakians had relative religious freedom to attend church, whereas people in other countries did not.