“ENDUT! HOCH HECH!”: CONFRONTING STEREOTYPES ABOUT EVERYDAY LIFE IN COMMUNIST EASTERN EUROPE – BY CHRIS PRINCE.
Fans of The Simpsons will instantly recognise the titular quote as the caption at the end of this cartoon: ‘Eastern Europe’s favourite cat and mouse team’: Worker and Parasite. Although a rather novel example, ‘Worker and Parasite’ embodies many popular Western stereotypes about communist Eastern Europe. The booming drums and out of tune piano creates a picture of oppression and backwardness; the identical downtrodden men the duo pass by leave an impression of a poverty-stricken and monotonous existence; and the language used is utter gibberish, attributing a sense of incomprehensibility to communism, which is further compounded onscreen by Krusty the Clown’s comment: ‘What the hell was that?’
However, was life behind the iron curtain as uniformly grey, bleak and oppressive as is commonly thought? The recent rise of ‘ostalgie’, coupled with the regular publication of survey data claiming that many people believe that at least some aspects of their lives were better under communism, suggests not. There has been growing academic interest in documenting, analysing and attempting to understand experiences of everyday life in communist Eastern Europe in recent years. Today, historians have access to a growing collection of memoirs, interviews and personal testimonies, providing us with a range of first-hand accounts, perspectives and insights about life ‘behind the iron curtain’. When read critically and comparatively, these stories can provide us with a more nuanced, comprehensive understanding of the complexities of everyday life in communist Eastern Europe, as well as challenging some aspects of the most popular stereotypes.
One prominent image that comes to mind when thinking about Communist Eastern Europe is that of widespread material deprivation and poverty. Indeed, the available data shows that by 1973 the economy of East Europe was lagging far behind the West, with the GDP of all Eastern states 30 to 66 percent below the US level . This situation had worsened further by the 1980s, as the many photographs of sparsely stocked shelves and long queues of sad-looking customers standing outside state stores attest. Even when state stores did receive a delivery, many customers complained about the lack of choice available. While Communist Party membership provided access to special socio-economic ‘privileges’ for a select few, economic conditions for the majority were relatively poor, and many individuals highlight material deprivation as a dominant theme when remembering their lives under communism. For example, Simona Baciu described how she could not afford to buy her children any toys, so she collected shoe linings and stripped an old dress to make them stuffed elephants. Baciu also detailed how she and her family had to spend the Romanian winters ‘huddled together next to the stove to gain warmth from each other’ (Baciu in Shapiro, 2004, p.37; p.41). Slavenka Drakulic also explained how private ownership of luxury goods, such as a washing machine, was widely viewed as a marker of economic prestige and social status (Drakulic, 1987, p49).
However, while many testimonies acknowledge the material deprivation people endured under communism, they also provide some fascinating insights into the ways in which East Europeans coped with the burdens of life in a shortage economy. For example, while Janine Wedel describes the existence of ‘long queues and line committees’ outside empty state stores, she also provides a detailed account of the mechanisms of the informal economy that developed across Eastern Europe in response to economic scarcity, highlighting the etiquette and courtesies required for the establishment of successful ‘Zalatwic’, a complex system of favour exchange, that provided access to goods in short supply. In Wedel’s case, one personal example involved her wooing a local shopkeeper by agreeing to provide her with expensive American coffee to secure the sale of a high quality leather briefcase that was officially ‘out of stock’. As a result of her own experiences, Wedel came to the conclusion that ‘Contrary to the Western perception that no one in Poland can get anything, almost everyone can get something’ – at least, if they were willing to ‘Zalatwic’ (Wedel, 1986, p36; p45).
Wedel also painted a fairly unflattering picture of employment conditions in communist Eastern Europe, characterised by the existence of a generally ‘lackadaisical’ attitude towards work, with employees lazing on the job, cutting their hours short and regularly calling in sick. The popular attitude towards state employment in Eastern Europe was summed up by a well-known communist-era saying “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”. However, Wedel stresses that such ‘lazy’ attitudes applied only to employment within the ‘official’ or state economy, where the lack of motivation and productivity could be explained due to low wages and under-employment. Her study also revealed the enormous time, effort and energy many individuals put into their ‘secondary jobs’ (moonlighting) because they were ‘working for themselves’ in exchange for additional ‘unofficial’ (illegal) income, which was necessary for most people to make ends meet (Wedel, 1986, pp.63-66).
The kind of passive apathy demonstrated towards the state in the workplace was often manifest more openly in the privacy of the home. While the majority of citizens displayed a reasonable level of public conformity, in the relative safety of the private sphere people generally felt more comfortable expressing their discontent and dissatisfaction. Heda Margolius Kovály explained how: ‘During the day people put in their hours at work and fulfilled their party obligations; then they went home, removed their masks, and began to live for a few hours’ (Kovaly, 1986, p.166). Daniela Draghici detailed how people would gather together in their communal kitchens to ‘talk against the government’ and expressed that this kind of ‘private resistance’ was necessary in order to ‘survive communism’ (Draghici in Molloy, 2008). Drakulic also described how, in the Eastern bloc, ‘we are used to swallowing politics with our meals … at dinner you laugh at the evening news, or get mad at the lies that the Communist Party is trying to sell, in spite of everything’ (Drakulic, 1987, pp.16-17). Similarly, resistance could be demonstrated through ‘harmless’ political jokes aimed at the government, which Ben Lewis claimed helped, in part, to ‘laugh communism out of existence’ (Lewis, 2008).
Another popularly held idea about life in communist Eastern Europe, is the perception of an oppressive and ‘grey’ society. Geoffrey and Nigel Swain have argued that by the 1980s, for many East Europeans communism was characterised by ‘the grey Brezhnev years of cynicism, corruption, shortage and falling living standards’ (Swain and Swain, 1993, p.201). Marius Mates, agrees, remembering the commonality of depression; that ‘everybody was so unhappy’ under communism (Mates in Shapiro, 2004, p.79) . Similarly, Slavenka Drakulic argued that the ‘banality of everyday life’ was one of the central fallings of the communist state (Drakulic, 1987, p.18). However, this negative view is tempered by many other individuals who provide more positive accounts of their experiences of life behind the Iron Curtain. For instance, Paula Kirby, a writer who moved to East Germany during the early 1980s, found herself taken aback by the beauty of the urban landscapes and the ‘mass appeal’ the high arts of theatre and opera had obtained due to its accessibility and affordability – a result of generous state subsidies. Zsuzsanna Clark also described fond memories of her schooldays, praising the standard of education that was freely available in communist Hungary, and enthused over her family’s annual vacations to Lake Balaton, emphasising that luxuries such as holidays were only available to many Hungarians because of Communist Party initiatives which had ‘opened up leisure and holiday opportunities…for all” . Similarly parts of Oliver Fritz’s narrative paint a rather idyllic picture of his childhood in East Germany, as he recounts happy memories of time spent playing with friends, sipping fizzy orange lemonade on allotments; helping old ladies cross the street as a proud pioneer (the East German equivalent of the British scouts) ; as well as pulling pranks in the centre of East Berlin by ‘dressing up and acting as lost Westerners’ (Fritz, 2009, p.33; p.46).
A perpetual housing shortage meant there were long waiting lists for accommodation, so several generations of the same family were often forced to co-habit for extended periods, enduring communism, warts and all, together. This often bought people closer, creating stronger family ties and a stronger sense of community, although for others it was problematic. Drakulic argues that the ‘enforced closeness’ of families ultimately had a detrimental effect, ‘infantilizing’ the younger generation and stifling their will to protest in a ‘geriatric society’ (Drakulic, 1987, pp.88-89). Women’s accounts of their experiences under communism are also notably mixed. Many have praised the increased liberties and the expansion of paid work for women during the communist period. Marie-Luise Seidel, for example, applauded the communist state for the financial support she received as a single mother (Seidel in Molloy, 2008). Nonetheless, as Barbara Einhorn details, despite their increased employment, many did not receive any alleviation from their traditional gender role and therefore endured a ‘dual’ burden in society. For example, Natalia Baranskaya remembers how she endured discrimination at work alongside the burden of caring for her home and family (Einhorn, 1993, pp.46-52) However, many individuals have suggested that the hardships they endured under communism ultimately resulted in the creation of a stronger bond between family and friends, speaking wistfully of the ‘spirit of camaraderie’ that had once prevailed under communism. Similarly, John Feffer has argued that some people now look back on their time during communism, as the “calm life” because: “You generally didn’t have to work hard. You didn’t have to worry about losing your job. Life was simpler. There was only one kind of washing powder. You could count the number of television channels on one hand.”
The process of sharing personal memories is always selective, and we need to bear in mind that individual accounts of life under communism have been influenced by contemporary experiences of post-communism as much as by the ‘reality’ of the past. However, the range of personal experiences and memories highlighted above shows that we need to guard against accepting generalised or over simplified stereotypes about life behind the iron curtain. At times personal testimonies support the conventional image of communist Eastern Europe as grey, depressed, oppressive and poverty stricken. In other ways however, they contrast or even challenge many of these accepted stereotypes, illustrating that sometimes people not only survived communism but benefited from it. Personal narratives attest to the many complexities of navigating life behind the iron curtain, enabling us to gain a deeper understanding of life in communist Eastern Europe, while also reconsidering certain aspects of its more conventional image.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CHRIS PRINCE has recently completed his BA (Hons) in History at Leeds Beckett University, graduating with first class honours in July 2015. During his final year of study, Chris studied Communist Eastern Europe and he researched experiences of everday life in Eastern Europe for one of his assessed essays. Chris is now planning to study for an A+ certification.
‘Krusty Gets Kancelled’ (1993) The Simpsons, Season 4, Twentieth Century Fox.
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