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From wild dingo children to the cannibal generation: the history of the disappearing East
A speech of the Romanian writer Vasile Ernu given at the reception of an award from the magazine Observator Cultural, won for his novel "The Wild Dingo Children"
The novel Sălbaticii Copii Dingo (The Wild Dingo Children, Polirom 2021) by Vasile Ernu was awarded the Observator Cultural 2022 prize for the best book in the memoir category. This text is a longer form of the award speech.
My generation – what I call the “wild dingo children,” the last generation of Soviet children – was perhaps the most liberal generation of the East. The writer of our generation, Viktor Pelevin, called it Generation P – for Pepsi. But they soon turned into the “cannibal generation.”
But let’s take it one step at a time: on 10 April 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed limiting and destroying nuclear weapons. To mark this event, a coin was produced, one side of which was the USSR ruble – the other side the US dollar. It was a coin made from destroyed nuclear missiles, made of a very light alloy. It is 2.5 times lighter than silver. “When you hold it in your hand, you get a strange feeling. You expect it to be heavier, but it feels like goose down,” a friend told me.
That’s what our liberalism has been like: part Soviet, part American – it leaves you with the feeling that it’s very heavy, hard to destroy, but it’s like fluff blown by the winds of history. In 30 years, our generation has gone from being the most liberal to perhaps the most conservative – an unbridled revanchism has swept over us. And I’m afraid it’s a much deeper revanchism than an Eastern one. The currency has two faces.
In 1988, we, the children of perestroika, were more liberal than the West, more American than the Americans – we believed so much in their values that we scared even them. We were giving them not only the country of our parents and grandparents, not only our souls – but the future as well. Our future was their future: we offered it with mystical enthusiasm. It all happened after 1989-1991. Only we were the other side of the coin. We were not aware – they don’t know how aware they were of the “great transformation.”
The liberal world and the whole of capitalism, which in the 1960s and 1970s seemed to be in crisis, were resuscitated by one of the crucial events of the 20th century – the fall of communism. Which is largely due to us: we, the people of the East, made it, and we destroyed it. And we became a kind of terrible transfusion of energy: from the infusion of market, capital and human resources to the mad enthusiasm that every regime needs. As we used to sing: This tender vampire has received a new barrel of fresh blood. We resuscitated the whole system. And it seemed to work, but something, profoundly, didn’t work. Somewhere, somehow the “chain of love” broke.
Although the new idols – nationalism, orthodoxy and oligarchic capital – even then did, not bode well. And so I end my novel, The Wild Dingo Children (Polirom 2021), with a deep sense of dread that an age of revenge is coming: a strong sense of unease. I recite the Romanian poet Bacovia with this eerie feeling: “I must drink, to forget what no one knows/ It’s time… all my nerves ache…/ O, come at once, great future.”
As long as five years ago I was writing that an age of revenge was coming: the idea that the generation of greatest hope had become a generation of despair had been clear for more than seven years. Frankly, I didn’t know what this revenge would look like. We had some scenarios, but no war: but we were already calling it the “cannibal generation.” The terrible desire for revenge is built on resentment. Let me remind you that, according to Nietzsche, resentment is a state of anger and hatred in which one considers oneself the victim of an injustice and has no possibility of redressing that injustice. Unlike ordinary anger and envy, resentment has a kind of creative power: it creates a system of values which, on the one hand, justifies the exceptionality of the sufferer and, on the other, explains his misfortunes, which come from vile enemies. This does not mean that the desired revenge does not also have a social, political and economic reality. It has it in spades.
But we knew a few things for sure: that in the transition we were soldiers who fought on all fronts and lost all possible and impossible battles. We could have fought and won any battle – but we lost everything. From education to health, from infrastructure to social lifts, from family to career, from security to stability. Everything – we have seen our social carpet shredded and we have lost our total autonomy and political, social, intellectual practice – everything. The problem and the solution were suddenly no longer in us, but elsewhere. I’m not one to blame others: we lost; we became our own powerlessness; we lost our historical meaning. After the excitement of the 1990s passed, there followed a vast process of self-shaming – “brainwashed,” “underdeveloped,” “uncivilized.” That’s how we were labelled. Full of social and economic humiliation – massive job losses, unskilled and low-paid work, economic migration, destruction of families and social relations, destruction of industry, education and health. The utter insecurity brought about by shock therapy.
We were asked to “change our mentality” – we were subhuman. We were offered, instead of a natural integration – with our good and our bad – a new, bottomless form of violence and humiliation. We had, humiliatingly, to give up everything we were, our past – we had to be ashamed of ourselves and our past. Were we considered politically illiterate, those of us who maturely destroyed a dictatorial regime? The harshness and violence of the transition, totally unjust and inequitable – politically, socially and economically – was for a large section of society humiliating and dehumanizing. In place of the old humiliations and dehumanization came new ones. Perhaps even more profound. Some that have drained us of a modicum of hope and meaning. The many have been silent and await revenge. The transition has been a kind of “counter-revolution”: the victory of the very few over the very many.
That is, we felt betrayed, used, abandoned, humiliated. But most of all – defeated. I repeat: I never blame others. But even worse – we feel we have totally lost control over our children and the whole of society. The bulk of our children no longer want to stay in the East – they run outside: their future is “outside” the East. That’s all we could do. The result? States captured by oligarchs and corporations, by the new landlords – predatory elites, abandoned populations transformed into the new serfdom– estates functioning only for a small elite, huge masses whose interests are not represented and whose voice is not heard. This huge mass, removed from the mechanisms of access to political decisions, representation, redistribution, access to social lifts, to education, health, social protection, decent work and political sense, will sooner or later retaliate. And surely the “populist” Putin will emerge, who will direct this huge discontent towards aberrant, revanchist and violent ambitions and goals.
Speaking of the Putin regime: it is both an Eastern and a Western product. It is born out of the fury of Russian illiberal revenge, the humiliation of the 1990s, and the enormous thirst for power and profit of the Western world. Over the past 20 years, many of the great leaders of Western politics and capital have sat down with it and profited. They legitimized it. Let’s not forget that. “De-empowerment” should start there. The Putin regime averages over 65; the Kiev regime, around 40. My generation, 50 years old, is caught in the middle. It’s also a generational conflict. What I am saying has nothing to do with justifying war: I admit that even now I cannot accept that this is the reality. War does not enter into any of the more pessimistic analyses of my generation. It is a scenario that was beyond us. This war will become the greatest tragedy of my Eastern generation.
The fact that it happened is more than catastrophic. Beyond the death of innocent people – which cannot be accepted and legitimized by anyone or anything – there is a historical catastrophe that can forever transform the East into something profoundly harmful or exclude it from the Western – or rather European – world. It’s a bit like what happened to the Balkans: total negativity and removal from history.
Worse still: this war may remove the East from the history of the West not only as a form of the future, but also as the past. The East can disappear from the imagination – it can be dissolved. War can radically change even our past. I am a profoundly Eastern man. I strongly believe that the East is an important alter ego of Western Europe. So is the United States. The experience of the East – in its expanse, its time, its geography, its religion, politics and culture, its colossal history of suffering and imagination – is overwhelming. One of the West’s most fascinating legacies. An indispensable part of it.
Europe has two terrible children – two prodigal sons. It has powerful and terrible sons who can produce catastrophes that even Europe is incapable of. Although they have learned from it. These two children are the USA and Russia. Can Europe do without them? Possibly, but it will no longer be Europe. Maybe without one of them? Yes, probably – but it won’t be Europe. Europe without its two children, in the current global context, looks like a powerless province. However, in this conflict it is playing so helplessly that it should worry us.
The two terrible children had a boundless zest for life and experienced it differently. America’s immense desire for modernization, taken from Europe, gave it a speed that scared the world. Even if that modernization also had slavery, and colonialism, and the razing of civilizations and peoples in a radical violent manner. All these are marks of the West. And wounds of the West. Let us take them on. It’s our violence.
On the other side, we had Soviet communism as another facet of modernization, even more radical and with even more accelerated speed, because it was a less developed area: burning stages and bridging gaps. Yes, communism, like fascism, are facets of Europe, children of the West. Like the Gulag, like the Holocaust. Both immense tragedies, unprecedented systemic crimes, are faces of our Western world. Hitler and Stalin are the children of Europe. We cannot forget that and we cannot pretend not to know.
At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that we also achieved a long political and social peace, through conciliation, forgiveness, punishment, law, agreements, institutions, negotiation, distribution, rights, and the welfare state. Every time, war has been the worst strategy. Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the US have had a long peace – there has been a balance. Even if outside this space there have been many abuses, generated by the Western world itself. It is very important to be fair and honest with ourselves. Our anger, the anger of the Easterners, now comes from helplessness, shame, guilt, responsibility: how could we not have prevented the tragedy? I believe with all my being that we could have. How is it that our profoundly liberal generation has now become profoundly illiberal and anti-social? And it’s not just Russia – although it bears immense blame and responsibility for starting this war. But is it different in Hungary? Poland is better off silent: the revenge is total.
We Romanians don’t count for much, but there are signs: the liberals have come to be led by the military – is the army the most liberal institution here? After 30 years of transition, the Liberal Party (PNL) had only one candidate for president, an army general elected with 94.64% of the vote. No women in the new leadership. This is the essence of “eastern liberalism.” Have we forgotten that the new political construct had a single slogan of hate reduced to Muie (Fuck off)? The politics of hate – where did that come from? If we had the power of Russia, I think our hysteria and hatred would take the globe out of orbit. The two new parties have policies like this: some ban and some force. And the “progressive&ngot” world is of a “good-narrative” fundamentalism that if you said that to a “dingo kid” in 1988, he’d pass you off as a Stalinist.
Where did this whole story break down? I’m afraid the revanchism is not just on the ruble side, but also on the dollar side: the currency has two faces. Have we forgotten what happened a year or so ago at the Capitol? At the heart of American democracy? What is Trump if not American revanchism? But what is happening in France – the heart of European socialism? With the transformation of EU politics into an ultra-statist technocracy of “experts,” is everything okay? Is the war only wanted by Russia? Even if the blame is manifold, the central fault and responsibility for the war lies with the Putin regime: it started this war, it bears the blame, for which there should be a punishment just as there is a political responsibility of citizens (Jaspers and Arendt explained it).
I have long believed that our revenge will be self-reflective, in order to recover and improve the situation of the East. I argued that we would devour ourselves – hence the idea of cannibalism. Yes, we have been devouring ourselves for some time: ourselves, the country, society. But I admit I didn’t think war was possible – metaphor becomes reality.
The great pain that is increasingly hard to hide – transition – has had too many losers and too few winners. The few winners took it all – the many losers were left wounded, disgruntled, humiliated and with a terrible desire for revenge. What’s more – they are represented by no one and their voice is little heard. When they are heard, they are considered subhuman.
I repeat: but what has happened in the last 30 years to the whole region that has been abandoned, plundered, deindustrialised, de-modernised, deprived of institutions and autonomous education? Just as I reproach the Russians: where is your soft power? Your elite stole, produced oligarchy and rich neighborhoods in London, expensive yachts and so on. So much for the East. Now they propose to Ukraine tank love – imperialist revanchism that proves utter impotence.
Yes – our generation has been totally defeated. We’ve long thought our last war would be about not hiding our defeat, about letting go of hate and revenge and showing all our wounds. Showing that we have been defeated on every level. Acknowledging defeat and catastrophe is a point from which you can begin to hope: a reinvention of hope. To show the festering wounds and the dusty livers. So that those who come after us do not repeat this trail of cheerful cannibalism in which we have lived: the wound as the end point for a new beginning. In war we did not believe. But, as the Eastern poet says, it happened like this:
Blind men cannot look with anger,
The deaf cannot cry out angrily.
The armless cannot hold a gun in their hand,
The legless cannot march forward.
But – the deaf and dumb can look with anger,
But – blind men can shout in anger.
But – the legless can hold weapons in their hands.
But – the armless can march forward.
Vasile Ernu (b. 1971) is a Soviet-born Romanian writer. Born in Odessa, Soviet Union, Ernu studied philosophy at the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iași, graduating in 1996, after which he earned a master’s degree in philosophy at the Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca in 1997. Ernu’s debut book is Născut în URSS (“Born in the USSR”), a self-biographic work in which he recounts his experiences in the Soviet Union, in a mix of melancholia and irony. The book was translated in several languages, including: Russian, Italian, Spanish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Polish and Georgian. Ernu is the author of a trilogy on the people of Bessarabia. His most recent book is The Savage Dingo Children, which also won him awards.