Friday, September 28, 2007


The June 15th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education included an article on an odd phenomenon known as "Ostalgie" - nostalgia for the symbols and commodities of the defunct Eastern Bloc. In Eastern Europe, Ostalgie generally manifests itself as a demand for replicas of the old, badly-made consumer goods of the Communist era, like Trabant cars in the former East Germany, Tisza sneakers in Hungary, and Kofola Cola in the former Czechoslovakia. It can also take the form of nostalgia for the rhetoric and professed ideals of the old regime, as in Wolfgang Becker's 2003 movie Goodbye Lenin! Eastern European Ostalgie is most likely the product of middle-aged Hungarians' and Germans' nostalgia for the kitsch of their youth - similar to the wave of '70s nostalgia that washed through American movies and TV shows in the 1990s. It may also be an expression of residual nationalism in countries that are otherwise integrating themselves as quickly as possible into the European Union.

I suspect that few Eastern Europeans pine for a return to the actual conditions of Communist rule - secret police, travel restrictions, and food shortages. We were recently reminded of those conditions by an unusual story out of Poland: the emergence of Jan Grzebski, a former railway worker, from a 19-year-long coma on June 2nd, 2007. Grzebski's last memories were of the final year of Communist rule in Poland, and he was anything but nostalgic: "When I went into a coma," he told a Polish TV station, "there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere." Economic conditions had, he said, improved drastically in the intervening two decades - though, like most 65-year-olds, he found at least one thing to complain about in the new Poland (namely, people who complained about how rotten life was).

Ostalgie has taken a somewhat darker form in the former Soviet Union, where many Russians now remember the Soviet era as one of order and strength, and the 1990s as a "time of troubles" filled with strife, poverty, and national humiliation. The Putin regime is encouraging this revisionist view in the new history standards it recently issued to Russian high school teachers, reported in the New York Times last August. The new standards are particularly kind to Joseph Stalin, whom they compare to Peter the Great and Chancellor Bismarck. Under his rule, "victory in one of the greatest wars was won, industrialization of the economy and cultural revolution were carried out successfully...The U.S.S.R. joined the leading countries in the field of science; unemployment was practically defeated." (Andrew Kramer, "Yes, a Lot of People Died, but..." New York Times, 12 Aug. 2007) Sure, there was a certain amount of suffering, but it was in a good cause. Even Stalin's purges had a good effect: the creation of "a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortage...loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline."

A corollary to this longing for the Days of Uncle Joe is the belief that the Soviet Union fell not because of its own internal weaknesses, but because it was "stabbed in the back" by internal enemies - more specifically, meddling liberal reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev. Yegor Gaidar, the former economic minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin (1991-94), observed in a paper given to the American Enterprise Institute last November that "at least 80 percent of Russians" now believe that "the Soviet Union was a dynamically developing world superpower until usurpers initiated disastrous reforms." To this Weimarian view of the fall of Communist Russia, Gaidar opposes his own thesis, which he calls "Grain and Oil." Essentially, Stalin's decision to collectivize agriculture in the late 1920s led to a severe shortfall of grain in the U.S.S.R. by the early 1960s. Soviet Russia could only feed its people by importing grain, and the only Russian commodities anyone would buy in exchange were oil and natural gas. High oil prices in the 1970s allowed the Soviet government to continue feeding its populace, but when Saudi Arabia dropped the floor out of the oil market in 1985, the Politburo could only continue to buy grain by borrowing money from the West. By 1989, private banks were no longer willing to loan money to the Soviets, and Western governments agreed to do so only on condition that the Red Army withdrew from Eastern Europe. Which it did. Sic transit the Russian Communist Empire.

Gaidar’s paper deserves to be read in full: it is elegant, well-illustrated with charts and historical evidence, and even witty. (He summarizes the intellectual quality of Brezhnev-era Soviet leadership with this quote from Politburo minutes: "Mr. Zasiadko has stopped binge drinking. Resolution: nominate Mr. Zasiadko as a minister to Ukraine.") He does tend to gloss over the other weaknesses of the Soviet economy, such as the total stagnation of its industrial sector - by the 1980s, Soviet citizens viewed consumer goods like the Trabants mentioned above as evidence of Eastern Europe's wealth and sophistication. An American historian might also note that the Reagan administration took an active role in undermining the Soviet oil and gas export industry in the 1980s, first by allowing Soviet spies to steal bugged computer software for their gas pipelines that later caused immense explosions, then by pressuring Saudi Arabia to drop oil prices in the mid-'80s. But his essential point, taken in conjunction with Mr. Grzebski's recollections, is sound: repressive governments can only survive as long as there is food in the shops. If there is no bread, all the military glory and shoddy sneakers in the world won't be enough to save your regime. Trite, perhaps, but easy enough for autocrats to forget.

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