Feature: East Europe's communist nostalgia

By GARETH HARDING, Chief European Correspondent  |  Aug. 11, 2004 at 1:03 PM
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BRUSSELS, Aug. 11 (UPI) -- The Berlin Wall may have been toppled 15 years ago and most of the countries that languished behind it are now fully-fledged members of NATO and the European Union, but this has done little to stem the rising tide of nostalgia for communist times in Central and Eastern Europe.

Only a handful of diehard Stalinists would prefer to trade in their Trabants for their Volkswagens and swap their hard-fought freedom for one-party rule, but from Estonia on the shores of the Baltic Sea to Slovenia on the Adriatic coast, there is a renewed interest in the region's communist past that ranges from ironic mockery to wistful regret.

Almost every capital city in the former eastern bloc has a monument honoring the victims of communist tyranny, and most have museums keeping the reality of Marxist rule alive. Prague has a Museum of Communism above a McDonald's restaurant and next door to a casino, Latvia's capital Riga has an Occupation Museum cataloging the barbarities inflicted on the Baltic country by Nazi and Soviet invaders, and Lithuania has a Museum of Genocide Victims housed in a former KGB barracks.

Visits to these memorials are serious, sobering affairs. The Occupation Museum, a black, bunker-like building in central Riga, recounts how Latvia lost 550,000 people -- a third of its population -- during the half-century of Nazi and Soviet rule. An inscription above the door reads: "In order to learn from history, we must know and understand it. Only then can there be hope that past evil will not be repeated."

However, some of the more recent communist "theme-parks" take a more light-hearted and hands-on approach to the half-century of one-party rule. In a small village in northern Serbia, local Blasko Gabric has created "Yugoland," an exact replica of the former Yugoslavia replete with statues of former president Tito and loudspeakers belting out cheery Soviet folk songs.

In southern Lithuania, 75 statues of Lenin, Stalin, Marx and Engels loom over passersby, guards stare down from watchtowers, and barbed wire fences prevent visitors from leaving. In the restaurant, waitresses dressed as Pioneers (communist scouts) serve cabbage soup "nostalgia" and pork chops "goodbye youth," while the Grutas Museum's souvenir shop sells vodka glasses emblazoned with mug shots of Marx and Lenin.

Viliumas Malinauskas, the founder of the popular tourist attraction, says: "This is not a theme park -- it is a deadly serious memorial for the victims of communism." But not everyone is happy with the park dubbed "Stalinworld" by its detractors. "The Grutas Museum is the peak of cynicism, a mockery of the thousands of totally innocent civilians who were murdered, tortured and deported to the gulags of Siberia," says Ona Voveriene, chairperson of the Lithuanian Women's League.

A similar battle about how to remember communism has been raging in the eastern half of Germany since last year's cinema hit "Goodbye Lenin," which tells the story of a young man whose communist apparatchik mother falls into a coma shortly before the reunification of the country. To prevent his sick mum from discovering communism's demise, Alex recreates the drab world of East Germany in her flat, going as far as to empty Dutch pickles into jars with local labels.

The highly successful film was followed by a popular series about life in the former German Democratic Republic hosted by Katarina Witt, an East German figure skater and twice Olympic champion. Cashing in on the trend for "Ostalgie" -- nostalgia for life in the former East Germany -- there are now plans to build a giant theme park celebrating communist days in a Berlin suburb.

Many people who suffered under totalitarianism are uncomfortable about what they see as the glorification of communist rule. "We really need to be careful that the GDR does not achieve cult status," said Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit last year. He need not fear for the former eastern bloc's younger generation, who tend to view communism as an outdated ideology from a bygone age. But many of the region's older people take a more nuanced view of the four decades of communist rule.

"There are still a lot of people who long for the communist days, when everything was clear, black was black and white was white," says Oldrich Cerny, a Czech political analyst. "You kept your mouth shut, and the communist regime supplied you with shelter and bread."

Since the revolutions of 1989, communist parties have been voted back into power in most central and eastern European countries and regularly bag 10-20 percent of the vote in polls.

"Nobody is nostalgic for the Stalinist era," internationally acclaimed Czech novelist Ivan Klima told United Press International, "but many old people are nostalgic for their youth. They miss the security of communist times when they knew they would get a pension they could live off, prices were stable and they couldn't lose their flats or their jobs."

If politicians from the former Soviet bloc countries want to make sure the current fashion for communist nostalgia does not morph from tongue-in-cheek TV shows and theme parks into votes for far-left parties at the ballot box, they need to ensure stability, security and prosperity in addition to guaranteeing freedom and democracy.

This is not just the view of communism's opponents, but its supporters. In "Café Europa," a book of essays by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic, the author stumbles across an improvised celebration of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's birthday in a Bucharest graveyard. Amidst the pensioners in their "thin, worn-out coats, rubber boots and fur hats," Drakulic spots Ceausescu's brother Flora and asks him about the gathering. "If the economy was better, there would be no need to revive him," he says, ever faithful to Marxist economic orthodoxy. "But the worse it gets, the more people will want to revive my brother."

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