In 1950, Zdenko F. Daneš cycled to freedom across the Iron Curtain from Czechoslovakia to West Germany. An academic facing persecution under the new Czechoslovak Communist regime, Daneš knew his only chance for independence of thought and expression was an escape from East to West. The harsh punishment he would have faced if caught was a risk worth taking to achieve this life of liberty. 

Nearly four decades later, on 16 June 1989, a young Viktor Orbán stood in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square in front of 250,000 people and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. The young Orbán became a figurehead of resistance to Communist oppression and a darling of the western media. 

Fast forward to 2022, though, and Orbán is busy pivoting Hungary away from the western world which he, Daneš, and countless others in the Eastern Bloc once craved. Last week, Hungary’s controversial “LGBT referendum” was set for 3 April, the same day as the country’s general election. The referendum will see Hungarians vote on the limitation of LGBT-related content in public life, as enforced by a controversial “Child Protection Act” brought in by the Fidesz government last summer. 

LGBT rights are a touchstone for stark cultural divisions between eastern and western Europe which have moved into the spotlight over the last year. Polish President Andrzej Duda has described “LGBT ideology” as being “more destructive to man” than the Communism his parents fought against. In a radio interview last Friday, Orbán mused upon a supposed possible connection between homosexuality and paedophilia.  

What could be behind this dramatic shift away from the West among politicians rooted in eastern Europe’s 20th-century struggle for liberty? Some argue that the preponderance of religion in the region could be responsible. Yet although the Polish government has close ties to the clergy and hard-line Catholic research institutions, the idea that Christianity alone is driving regional anti-LGBT attitudes doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Hungarian opposition leader Péter Márki-Zay is a devout Catholic arguing for societal tolerance of LGBT culture. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, is often described as the most atheist country in the world, but pro-LGBT reforms have stalled there for years. 

The language being used by conservatives suggests that these countries’ concerns about progressivism relate more to politics and sovereignty than to religious dogma or cultural tradition. “Let us not be afraid of what the western media, wrongly convinced of the superiority of their own civilization, think about our countries,” said Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau in a recent interview. “We have not regained our freedom and right to self-determination to now be afraid of their colonial visions.” 

Comparisons of western ideological overreach with 20th century Communism are overblown but commonplace, and such rhetoric reveals how conceptions of the West have changed. Communism was fought and defeated for the sake of a western-style liberalism; but now, leaders like Orbán believe their hard-won national sovereignty and ideological freedom are under threat from the West itself. 

Evidence for this threat is found in the West’s “cancel culture”. Social conservatives in eastern Europe believe a new kind of ideological authoritarianism has taken over the western world and that “LGBT ideology” is its Trojan Horse. In the absence of the West’s high level of multiculturalism, LGBT rights are seen as the western cultural export most likely to take root in eastern Europe, and the backdoor for a feared anti-freedom ideological climate. 

This might seem paranoid, but central and eastern Europe is no stranger to ideological tyranny. It’s no coincidence that opposition to western progressivism is increasingly being framed in terms of national resistance familiar to those who lived through Communism. “Share It Before They Ban It!” screeched the title of former Czech leader Andrej Babiš’s autobiography, released during last autumn’s election campaign. The title was a veiled reference to the pro-EU leanings of Babiš’s domestic political opponents who, the implication went, were sure to import the West’s feared ideological and cultural authoritarianism if they won the vote. 

Meanwhile in Hungary and Poland, the attitude of resistance has already taken hold in the corridors of power. This has led to reforms including Hungary’s move to enshrine marriage in the constitution as “a union of a man and a woman,” the Polish creation of “LGBT-free zones,” and the implementation of Hungary’s Child Protection Act limiting the dissemination of LGBT-related content. These were the first pre-emptive strikes in a new resistance movement viewing western progressivism as a colonising ideological force. 

Most people across eastern Europe wouldn’t seriously liken the West today to their 20th century rulers. But given their history of ideological oppression, it’s no surprise that cancel culture sets off alarm bells throughout the region. The pivot away from the West now being led by Hungary and Poland shows how the “western” freedoms fought for by previous generations are no longer held to be represented by the West of today.