Behind the Iron Curtain part 31 – Freedom of Speech

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give a perfect and objective evaluation of anything but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty-eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

If you have read enough of my writings and comments, you know that I am no free speech absolutists. I do think that there should be legal limits to what, where and how is discussed because unregulated free speech is actually not free at all – it allows toxic ideas to spread at the detriment of sensible ones. The old paradox about tolerating intolerance does definitively apply.

However I do on occasion wonder how much of this attitude is due to my growing up in an environment where freedom of speech was de-facto nonexistent. Oh, people were allowed to say anything they want about whatever they want – as long as it did not contradict the official party opinion on the matter. Criticizing USSR or the Communist Party was not allowed and the punishments for transgressions were not trivial either.

During my life, the regime has mellowed a lot already, so people did not just disappear overnight for saying something wrong, but they still could get into trouble if they said something critical of the regime and it got to the wrong ears. And it could be enough if one of your kids babbled in the school about how one of their relatives was criticizing the communist party.

I have found myself in this situation as a kid. One of my uncles was a fervent follower of the party in the 60s, then he got shortly out into West Germany in the 70s and after seeing the standard of living there in comparison to our “socialist paradise”, he made a U-turn in opinion. The only reasons he and his wife got back were their two sons, who were still small and whom they did not have with them – and whom they might not get back if they emigrated illegally.

Ever since that he did not have a kind word for the Communist Party and he vented often in front of the TV during the evening news. I was present a few times for that and it caused me great discomfort to hear what he said. It was in direct contradiction with the “truth” that was told in school, with the “truth” printed in Pravda, and with the “truth” on TV. He was critical of all those amazing and all-knowing party officials! At the time I had no way of discerning on whose side the actual truth lies, but luckily I did not go to our teacher for answers, but first to my parents. Who have told me that I should try not to think about this and to never tell anyone what my uncle was saying because he could go to jail.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, this was summed up in a saying “One of the most difficult things in parenting was to convince your kids to tell the truth at home, and not to tell it in public”.

Finding the right balance between unregulated speech and an iron grip on what people are allowed to say is not an easy task and I do not have the answer where the exact line lies. I have seen both extremes in action in real life and on the internet and both extremes do not work in the long run. Too much regulation and you end up with an isolated bubble, an echo chamber (and I do not mean state regulation only). But too lax or absent regulations lead to toxic environments overrun with those who shout the loudest and who have no squabbles to spout lies faster than they can be reasonably debunked. So I can only say the balance is worth seeking.


  1. Ice Swimmer says

    Here in Finland, one could say that there was more censorship due to sexual and violent content than due to political reasons, but films could be banned if they contained content that was could endanger Finnish foreign relation towards friendly countries. For example in the 1980s an American style action film (the director and the scriptwriter were Finnish, but the film was English-language with US actors, the main star being the son of Chuck Norris) was first banned and then allowed after the most offensive part were cut. This was done because the Soviet Embassy made a secret request.

    However, as there wasn’t suitable legistlation for computer games, the game Raid Over Moscow wasn’t censored even though Soviets demanded it and a Finnish People’s Democratic League (SKDL)* parliamentarian made a parliamentary query about the game.

    Saying anti-Soviet things could be a hindrance for high-level political or public service career in Finland when Kekkonen** was the president, probably to the extent that saying anti-Israel things is in the US.
    * = The front organization for Finnish Communist Party (SKP). SKP never contested elections under their own name while Soviet Union was there.
    ** = Urho Kekkonen, a centrist politician who got along very well with Soviets. Kekkonen was able to gain huge personal power because the Finnish constitution*** at the time gave the president extensive powers (calling for a new parliamentary election, appointing, the cabinet, officials and judges) and there were no term limits. Finland in that era is sometimes called Kekkoslovakia.
    *** = A compromise between the monarchist and republican parties, the monarchists got a powerful head of state elected by an electoral college and the republicans got a republic.

Leave a Reply