I clearly remember the first time I was having a (meaningful) conversation about communism in Central Europe. I was 17 years old. My partners in that chat were Stephen Turner, an english artist, and his hippie friend. The hippie friend had a ponytail, 173 cm height and approximately 56 years. We was debating about the past, how communism worked (or mostly not), how people lived under the regime, how the transition went trough, etcetera. Those guys were totally okay, I mean, they knew what happened here and they were asking me questions like I if was a living artifact of that system. In some sense I am, but in a completely other way they were thinking.
I was curious. What was that system? It was so big, so grey and something so distant in my mind.
I started to ask questions.
At first parents, then my grandparents, then everybody else. It’s easy here, because everybody a generation older than you was living in that regime.
For instance my bitter favourite is about my great-grandfather. He was living in Chicago during the twenties working for General Electric. After several years spent in the States he came back as a wealthy man with a Ford T-model and became the mayor of the village where he was living. He bought lands and started to make money out of it. Back then the system was someway capitalistic here spiced with a little democracy (remember it’s Czechoslovakia now), so the context was given. The time went on, he made money, people loved him. He even succsefully avoided being a soldier in the WWII. But after this came the worst what could. Communism.
Communists are fond of everything what is “mutual” and this was the case also with lands. They thought that’s more efficient if agricultural business is planned by a state authority all over the country and of course that lovely authority needed to own all the lands in Czechoslovakia. So my great-grandfather lost everything he worked for in his whole life. On the other it’s easily understandable why he couldn’t keep his position as a mayor in the new system. He was labelled as a “kulak” which means somebody who’s the enemy of the great idea of dictatorship of the proletariat. Of course this was just beginning. The story went on. One of his children was ill and of course there was a scarcity of the needed drug in the country. So he sent a telegram to his friends in the U.S. to send him penicillin. They sent several pills. The customs officers’ opinion differed a bit. He wanted to know what are those pills, why my great-grandfather is getting mails from the United States, etcetera. And basically he’s a kulak, there are no rights for kulaks in those days. So as the, Franz Kafka inspired, process went on one of his children was dying and the time wasn’t on their side. I think needless to say what the end of the story is. Unfortunately and in everyones opinion purposedly the officer gave him the pills with a huge delay and as a result of this one of my relatives died.
To conclude this story, not just the ruling regime but the whole system, with all those officers and “soldiers” of the party was highly unnatural and cruel. Not suitable for a human being living in it.
Of course that’s not the only story of this kind from my family and be sure that everyone has these in his/her own family here. This was the standard.
Later I started to think about not just the microsocial but the broader effects of communism on the society.
It lasted from 1945 to 1989 the worst years were between ‘46 and ‘53 (when Stalin died). After that the system started to ease up a bit. This easing peaked in 1956, a revolution in Hungary broke out. It was bloody and short, but showed that there is an enormous tension in the system and people are not afraid in some cases to show their discontent. The next thing to happen was in Czechoslovakia called the Prague Spring in 1968. It wasn’t so bloody but it was equally unsuccessful in reforming the communistic regime. Then history went on, and the system got weaker and weaker. The result of this weakening is that in 1980 the Polish trade union Solidarity (Solidarność) came into life.
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbatchev (the man with map on his head) became the first secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and launched the glasnost and the perestroika, which were basically reform programs. All of this eventually lead to the events in 1989, which meant the end of communism in the region. Formally.
What I was always curious about, after my conversation with Mr. Turner and his hippie friend is that okay that it’s formally ended in 1989, but what happened in peoples’ mind? What effect that 44 year unnatural existence had on the common thought? What is still felt? Which effects are concerning me and my generation?