A world upended and the freedom organ

Spring is here. And it’s probably the weirdest experience for many of us. Spring is often associated with freedom, and now we have to watch all the blooming from the bedroom window. (We ventured out for a brief walk today, observing the strictest social distancing, 3-4 meters minimum – it wasn’t difficult, we’re lucky to live in a green part of the city.)

Today I’m reminded of a few conversations and a scary encounter. Some of these happened roughly 35 years ago, others earlier this week.

Sometime in early 1985 or late 1984, my dad and I were walking in the snowy woods. Back then we went for a hike in the nearby hills almost every week-end. He used one of these winter walks as a setting to tell me how Hungary was under Soviet occupation back then, and how the Soviet forces were no friends at all. (This may be the cliché of clichés – but seeing all the generalization out here, I need to point out that this was about the forces, not the people. I greatly enjoyed my two trips to Russia later, and some among my Russian acquaintance are the kindest people I know.)

I think that was the turning point that created a sense of “freedom” in me that went beyond choosing to be late from school or not.

A few weeks later, I was on a late evening train, returning from my extra English class. I was reading 1984, which was banned in Hungary at the time. My copy was a samizdat*, a typewritten bunch of pages, bound in a blank black cover. I got it from my aunt, who was, among other things, a history teacher.

While I was immersed in my gloomy reading (outside it was pitch dark and I think it was raining even), a group of Soviet officers walked through the compartment, very slowly, taking a good long look at everyone. You could tell they were Soviets from the red stripe on their uniform caps. Looking back, it wasn’t such a big deal, but I was really frightened that they would ask what I was reading, or ask to see the book because it very much looked like a samizdat. I don’t think I would’ve been so aware of this had it not been for the conversation my father and I had earlier.

Fast forward thirty-five years, to this week to be precise, there were two more conversations to remember. A friend told me how he believed that there was no return to the pre-corona world, and how it was a strange feeling to know next to nothing about how it will play out – how much and what kind of damage the crisis will cause.

Another conversation was with my father again – he said he was afraid that we would never regain the freedom we had surrendered in return for a relative safety from the virus. Actually, I have seen many comments from friends around or over 70, expressing the same fear. And, to be honest, I became more than slightly anxious that they may be right about this. I attribute my anxiety to this sensitivity to the ideal of freedom.

I believe many of us have this ‘freedom organ’, which causes us to respond emotionally when we lose some or all of our freedom, even if we don’t physically feel the loss. We have surrendered many liberties (not just the freedom to walk around) in order to stay safe and healthy, and only time will tell if we surrendered them to the right people and if our freedom was worth surrendering.

For now, let’s stay home, and do what we are told – and whatever else we can – to stay healthy and to protect others. But when this is over, we have a task: to retain or regain as much of this freedom as possible, and fight for it if necessary.

* samizdat (‘published by one themselves’) is Russian for an illegal undercover publication of a book or a journal.

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