Communism was (and continues to be) weird. I make no apologies for that title. But the thing about weird things is that they get me totally intrigued and I just have to keep knowing more. I grew up in the 1980s when it was accepted that Europe was divided into two, and when my family took our trip around Europe there was no expectation or even the vaguest thought given to the idea of visiting any part of the eastern bloc.
Yet I still clearly remember as a young teenager seeing images on the TV of the Berlin Wall coming down. I'd developed an interest in Germany by then, both through learning German at school and having a German family friend, but it wasn't just that - I think it was the idea that things we really thought would last forever don't have to, sometimes these things can change.
|Reunification in Berlin|
When I went to live in Bratislava, Slovakia in 2003, I got another perspective on communism - or, as several of my students pointed out to me - socialism, because the goal was communism but they never reached it. For a start, I was living in a typical Cold War era apartment block, and they really were not pretty. Nor particularly fancy. The one selling point for me was that I'd come from Japan, and in comparison, the apartments were certainly roomier and cheaper. I was lucky to live on the hilly part so at least I had some views; friends across the Danube in Petržalka were definitely not so lucky. Yes, this photo makes it look bleaker than necessary, but this is how I felt about those apartment blocks.
|Petržalka, Bratislava by asebest|
What surprised me, regularly, was that I met lots of Slovaks who said that in some (and sometimes in many) ways, their lives had been better before the fall of the wall. Yes, they'd say, we were missing a lot of freedoms, but we all had a job to go to and a place to live. People were a little more equal. Not quite equal, of course, because as plenty of them told me, if you were friends with someone "high up", then you were "a little bit more equal" and could get a better apartment or a better job, and skip the queues for bread or meat. But I think what their feeling often seemed to boil down to was that life had been simpler. Their expectations were lower, so they weren't too disappointed with their lot. And I'm talking about people around my age and up to twenty years or so older, who'd basically grown up in a socialist system without knowing much different.
Anyway ... and hasn't it taken me a long time to get to the "Anyway"?! ... what sparked all this thought was a documentary being shown on TV here at the moment, produced by the BBC, called The Lost World of Communism. It's really a show with ups and downs. One minute they'll be showing the abhorrent execution of innocent people who simply voiced their opinions (which didn't happen to agree with communist ideology) and the next, they'll be showing people who felt they led perfectly normal lives in those times, and look back on them with some sentimental nostalgia.
And all these ups and downs, and in the end, the failure of the communist ideology to survive in Europe, all of that is weird. But the weirdest part for me is that this happened in places that are really very similar to the rest of Europe. When I hear of different governmental regimes in China or Africa I can imagine that the people are different to me (of course, they're not really, but because the cultures are more significantly different, my brain lets me trick myself into believing that). But the eastern half of Germany? It was no different to the western half. The people I met in Slovakia? They were just like me. They just didn't get to wear Levis when they were growing up.
As a result of the communist era we have statue parks across eastern Europe where busts of Lenin and Stalin have gone to rust. We have horrible architecture spoiling many views in eastern European cities, architecture that will take a long time to deal with because everyone still needs to live somewhere. We have countries that are cheaper to travel through than western Europe, although that's rapidly changing. And I could go on and on and on about the legacies of the communist era in Europe. But I think you've probably got the point. And what I always remember when I think about this stuff is that although in all likelihood this won't happen to me and where I live, you really never know what can happen, what world events can create changes like this. And sometimes that's a slightly daunting thought.