Anyone strolling the streets of Bucharest, Warsaw, Sofia, Budapest or Prague now will be astonished by the numbers of beautiful women and handsome men, dressed fashionably, clustered around tables at open-air cafes, talking on their cell phones without caring who hears them. What is more remarkable than their apparent looks is the air of relaxed confidence and straightforwardness in their posture. They face the world and each other with a daring that is nothing short of miraculous to anyone who remembers the fear and furtiveness of life under communism. Back then, people huddled, bent over unto themselves, fearful of agents listening for political incorrectness, or just fearful for all the miserable reasons that ideology instills in people. Women back then had it worst of all. Fashion was seen as a sign of "capitalist decadence," beauty was ideologically suspect, and a gaze that was too direct often branded a woman as a whore.
Today's young people have shed both the bodies and the attitudes of those days like a bad dream. Most of their parents and grandparents did not make the transition. Still fearful, they dress in gray, drab colors, and move quietly, hoping to attract no attention. The regimes' institutions may be externally gone, but they continue a ghostly existence inside them. For some of the elders, the ghosts are merely inhibiting, while others feel a violent nostalgia that feeds not-quite-exorcised demons.
To oppose this ruined world, the young use a potent weapon: their bodies, redrawn by liberty. They have created their new bodies thanks to European fashion magazines, American movies, rock music and MTV. They have discovered freedom of movement, laughing out loud, talking without fear, and generally trying to live as if they were free.
The "as if" is important because, even though their countries have pledged themselves more or less to democracy, the old habits of bureaucracies, the secret languages of prudence and flattery, are still operating, and the elders are both suspicious and, well, old. The bodies and freedom of the young scare them. But scared or not, they have to acknowledge that the body of liberty is the future. There is no return to monochromatic uniforms after the colors have spilled out.