Between “Ostalgie” and Pessimism

Ostalgie –noun

  1. German term describing wistful nostalgia for the Communist era; usually accompanied by varying degrees of historical amnesia and disenchantment with the present.

When we think of the age of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe, less than positive images usually emerge: lines for food, lack of freedom of speech or movement, omnipresent secret police, and Soviet tanks ready to crush any attempt at change. Yet, over 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe, the results of the transition have been mixed. There is today, across many parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, nostalgia for the days of Communism.

This development is alarming for what it says about the state of post-communist society. Ostalgie, in the broader sense, can be a mask for Russian revanchism, imperial tendencies or minimizing of the crimes of the Communist regimes. Indeed, radical left wing German youth continue to this day in explaining that East Germany, without free elections or free speech, was nonetheless a perfectly “democratic” country. Yet, Ostalgie also expresses a legitimate frustration with the failures of both globalized capitalism and the European Union in the post-communist countries.

Nostalgia for Communism has somewhat different sources and expresses itself differently following whether one is in Russia or East Germany, for example. In both cases there is discontent over the unemployment, inequality, homelessness and other economic failures of the transition to capitalism. In Russia, this is tinged with the kind of imperial nostalgia for lost national greatness that is well-known in Britain and France. In Germany, Ostalgie leads to an obsession with Stasi uniforms and the production of classic films like Goodbye Lenin!

It is altogether different when Central and Eastern Europeans, citizens of the European Union, express a similar longing for the past. For most Poles and Czechs, Communism meant nothing more than Soviet tanks and the lack of sufficient toilet paper. And yet, a recent poll has come out showing that Romanians appear to long for the days of Nicolae Ceasescu, long reputed to be the worst dictator of Eastern Europe, with a totalitarian Securitate secret police and truly miserable living standards. In an encouraging sign to the radical left, 61% said that Communism was a “good idea” and some 47% called it “a good idea, but badly applied”. Incredibly, 78% said that neither they nor their families suffered under Communism. The population was split in assessing Ceausescu himself, with a slight edge towards those considering the late dictator positively!

In the media, the findings have been explained with references to the apparently pathological “amnesia” of Romanians. It would indeed have to be this, for unlike those Russians who still glorify Stalin, most Romanians have direct personal memories of what it was like to live under Communism. Given this, Romanian nostalgia cannot be dismissed as national chauvinism or a collective pathology, but rather expresses real disenchantment with the present. In explaining their appreciation of Communism, Romanians in the poll cited rather prosaic concerns including full employment (62%), decent living conditions (26%) and guaranteed housing (19%). All traditional socialist causes that the modern left, in most countries, has all but abandoned…

The catastrophic economic performance of Romania may also account for the poll. The global recession has been particularly cruel in Romania, already the second-poorest member of the European Union, with a 7% contraction and a doubling of the unemployment rate to 8% (the latter figure is more impressive when one considers that 2 million Romanians, almost one in ten of the population, have left the country for work). Recent austerity measures, elaborated in collaboration with the IMF, last May provoked the largest protests in the country since the fall of Communism. Already featuring the least-funded healthcare in the EU, the government intends to reduce this even more. Indeed, on 24 September the participation of 6,000 policemen in the protests (which is illegal) opposing 25% cuts to their wages has already led to the fall of Vasile Blaga, the country’s Interior Minister. Indeed, in a strange parallel, the protests against Ceausescu in 1989 only succeeded in toppling the regime when the armed forces decided to join the opposition.

Romania remains something of an exception. In the rest of Eastern Europe, the longing for Communism exists but is not widespread. However, pessimism about the future and disenchantment with the European Union is common. A prominent Hungarian centre-right editorialist recently opined that “Hungary is finished,” because most “young Hungarians do not see a future assured in their country.” One third of Hungarian youth want to live outside the country, principally because of lack of job opportunities at home. In Romania, the eviction of Roma (gypsies) from France back to the Balkans has made Romanians keenly aware of their “second class status” as European citizens, one which does not entitle them to same freedom of movement, or respect, that the big, wealthy countries enjoy. Indeed, more generally, many blame the EU any number of ills, including economic liberalisation, privatisation, an overpriced euro and the general expensive “parasitic” Soviet-like bureaucracy of “Brussels”.

All this is indeed rather depressing, even alarming, and reflects a lack of confidence in Europe’s future. In addition to voting with their feet, Eastern Europeans are “voting with their placentas” by not having children. The economic consequences of aging, low fertility, youth immigration – all leading to a skewed population pyramid – have already made themselves felt in Hungary and the Baltic States in the form of chronic deficits and insecure pensions.

Solutions are furtive. Free Eastern European access to the Western trade, investment and jobs will help. EU funds to help poorer regions, with Poland this year overtaking Greece as the biggest recipient of European aid, will also attenuate certain problems. Still, the performance of eastern Germany leaves one pessimistic.

The situation in Europe compares extremely unfavourably with the United States of America which, for all its national myths and social pathologies, remains a land where couples have children, where people from around the world come to remake their lives and join a great ambition. And there is no greater vote of confidence in the future of a country than that. In this sense, a change of mentality, a renewed belief in our respective national projects as well as the European project, may be the beginning of an answer.

Note: This article was published in the LSE student newspaper The Beaver which, inexplicably, currently has no functioning website.

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3 Responses to Between “Ostalgie” and Pessimism

  1. marknesop says:

    A similar phenomenon can be seen in the United States, where the Republican party remains deeply unpopular according to persistent polling, yet is poised to make significant gains in the midterm elections.

    There’s nowt so queer as folk, as the English say in all my favourite movies. You’d think it would be impossible for people to forget how bitterly they once were opposed to Communism, but disillusionment is an excellent tincture of memory – under its influence, the past glows rosy. People in former Soviet republics expected the collapse of the Soviet Union to bring overnight prosperity; a chicken in every pot and ponies for all. Surprise gradually registered as it became apparent Europe would not welcome an inrush of poor and largely unskilled labour. What puzzles me is that all that cheap labour could have been employed to advantage, as it was cheap and unskilled labour that made China first a manufacturing powerhouse, then an economic juggernaut that could make inroads on the high-tech market which can now never be closed to her. The beginnings were humble – everyone forgets that.

    Russians remember Communism as a time of law and order, on which scales modern Russia is a poor counterweight with its bribes and lawlessness, its natural disasters and civil emergencies that find the government poorly prepared. Overtures to democracy and liberalism are blamed for the squandering of Communism’s gains, when the true culprits were greedy oligarchs and unscrupulous leaders who conspired to fleece the state of its riches. The average Ivan on the street never got a look-in, of course. And people seem more impatient than ever they were.

    Unfortunately, a return now to Communism would not fix that. The die is cast, and there’s nothing behind us but taillights.

  2. Scowspi says:

    Good summary of a complicated, interesting subject. Some random observations:

    1. Most people, as Mencken observed, prefer security to freedom. Under Communism (or more correctly “actually existing socialism”- AES for short), people got the first but not the second. Now they have the second but not the first. If Mencken is right, the disillusionment is not surprising.

    2. It’s largely been forgotten that in the early stages of AES, there was much enthusiasm for the Communist idea among both intelligentsia and some sectors of the population. The Communists actually won a nationwide free election in Czechoslovakia in 1946 – I believe that’s the only time that ever happened in Europe. Many intellectuals who eventually turned against the system (such as Milosz, Kundera, Djilas, Kolakowski, Seifert) initially supported it. So in introducing radical free-market reforms, the post-Communists were going against strong public sentiments which favored maintaining certain aspects of the old system, as well as against the general social egalitarianism of the population. So not only was the reform process anti-socialist, it was also in some ways anti-democratic, which gave democracy a bad name in the process.

    3. Increasingly, there’s a feeling among the recent EU members that they are not full-scale “members of the club” and possibly never will be. This contributes to the sense of disillusionment.

    4. Though we are accustomed to think of the East European states as a “bloc,” the experience of AES differed greatly among countries. Romania for example had a horrible dictator, but Hungary was fairly relaxed and prosperous. This article expresses a common view:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1221064/Oppressive-grey-No-growing-communism-happiest-time-life.html

  3. Scowspi – I found that a fascinating article. All the more poignant because of the economic/demographic despair that Hungary is facing currently. The fact that the transition to capitalism meant the simultaneous disappearance of the “pioneer” and an explosion of the porn industry, for which Hungary is now renowned throughout the world, has a twisted poetry to it. Don’t know why this was published in the Daily Mail.

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