The former east bloc: We look at a life that was, a life that is, and meet some interesting characters along the way.
Orava Castle, north central Slovakia
All photographs copyright © Craig Mackintosh
Contrast and Change
I count it quite a privilege to be one of very few ‘Westerners’ to have been able to visit and observe the transition of former communist-controlled countries – from shortly after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., through successive visits until today. It is now eighteen years since my first visit, and, in some places more than others, much has changed.
Looking back, I remember my initial trip to central Europe back in 1992 (then called the ‘East Bloc’). Entering Czechoslovakia from Germany was, to me, like leaving the earth and landing on the moon – except without the space travel in between to get one accustomed to the idea of where one was heading! The difference between the Europe I was familiar with, and the land I discovered immediately beyond the Czech border control, was like day and night. There was no gradual blending of the two civilisations – it was pure contrast.
Travelling on to the Slovak half of Czechoslovakia (or ‘Slovakia’ as of January 1, 1993, when Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech and Slovak Republics) brought a great deal of interest and discovery for me – it was, to a great extent, like travelling back in time. The vehicles, buildings – even colours – were old, and tired. There were only a few makes of vehicle – Czechoslovakian Skodas, Russian Ladas, and the notorious East German ‘Trabant’, made up the bulk of traffic. For heavy transport there were only the smaller blue (always blue!) Czechoslovakian LIAZ, Praga and Tatra trucks.
The east German trabant. Performance & Specifications: 650kg weight, 594cc
displacement, 2 stroke, 2 cylinders, 25bhp (19kW), 4-speed gearbox, front wheel
drive, 0 – 100kph in [an exhilarating] 21 seconds, top speed 112kph, ‘Duroplast’
body panels (plastic containing resin strengthened by wool or cotton). This blue
smoke spewing car became the poster child of liberation from communism as
thousands of people rushed into western Europe in them when the
wall fell in 1989.
Shops sold a very limited range of goods, often of poor quality, and food items were often out of date. Service was ‘blunt’ to say the least. Because in communism everything is owned by the state, and whether you work hard, or hardly at all, you would benefit little from your effort, there was no incentive to go beyond the call of duty. It was very difficult to lose your job, the customer was definitely not king, and there was certainly no ‘suggestion box’.
Today, these countries are a real mixed bag. I still see contrast, but now the contrast is found within these countries themselves. There has been a lot of change, and, as expected, some good and some not – depending on your perspective.
Paneláks in Slovakia – today these are inhabited by a large percentage of
the country’s middle class
While the socialist politicians in power had always been ardent communists before, now they were quick to denounce the ideology and embrace capitalism as if it had always been their secret love. When communism ended here, there were no guillotines in the streets, no revolution, no violence. The nations’ leaders simply changed hats and continued in their positions, trying to bumble their way forward, awkwardly, into a new world chasing the great American dream.
Rather than develop local infrastructure at a community level, western businesses struck all the right deals and rushed in en masse in a kind of wild west economic, gold rush free-for-all. Collectivisation has continued in a new form. Old communist style apartment buildings (Paneláks) now overlook large, modern Tesco trucks delivering goods to new supermarkets from enormous distribution centres that source goods at great energy expense from all corners of the globe. McDonalds serves their standard fare alongside many other outlets in large western-style food courts. Service is improving in places, particularly from young retailers – who never had to live with the feeling of being controlled, or now unlearn the attitude that gave.
The UK’s Tesco has greatest control over the market in Slovakia today
Young entrepreneurs drive Audis and BMWs out of car lots, and onto new motorways. Previously, even if you could afford a car, you had to put your name on a waiting list, and do exactly that – wait! Now, the western problem of traffic jams and queues has well and truly arrived as more and more people get mobile. In fact, villagers in some areas are so up in arms about the tremendous flow of large new trucks they’re threatening blockades.
The leap from forty-five years of communism to full-blown capitalism is one that takes time – but some of these countries have certainly made headway, and, like in western countries, the move to large centralised stores is coming at great cost. Britain’s Tesco, Austria’s Billa and Germany’s Lidl chains have staked their claim and have become the dominant forces on the big box store landscape. Like the the west, these large supermarkets destroy the small, local ‘butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker’. Many of the smaller stores I used to frequent, co-ops which sourced their goods locally, are today closed, or in a worse state than before communism fell. They cannot compete. The move to low-paid production-line staff with just a few ‘fat cats’ occurred in double-quick fashion, and, in this scenario, the fat cats live in foreign lands, so profits do not return to the nation as a whole, let alone the community.
Some people are “lovin’ it”, and some are left behind. Some are now prosperous, and some penniless. During communism everyone was guaranteed a job, but not opportunity. Now there is enormous potential, but great obstacles – obstacles largely created by the exasperating but all-pervasive belief that anything ‘western’ must be better. At the time of the breakup of communism, there were calls from a few sober-minded souls, from both the ‘East’ and the ‘West’, that these nations would do well to take a moment of pause and consider a ‘third way‘. But these voices, which now seem almost prophetic, were drowned out amid a jubilant party mood, as a weary citizenry sought to reach for the stars. Since then, secretive corporate/political collusion has ensured the powerful their desired economic wedge into this newly accessible territory.
Not yet being as ‘fully developed’ as, say, the US or UK capitalist system, the effects of the 2008/2009 recession arrived late to these areas. But now that it’s here people are feeling the pinch. With growing unemployment, and a migration back home of workers that went abroad, people are increasingly pondering their future and questioning the wisdom of post-communism decisions. Official figures state that 13 percent of Slovakia’s population is living with, to use their diplomatic term, “borderline poverty.” For those who are mathematically challenged – that’s one in every eight people. At the same time, I see western charities seeking donations from these countries barely able to deal with their own problems.
People who had lived healthy, low carbon, sustainable lives in villages scattered all over the country are now dying of old age, their skills dying with them – while their children have vanished to the cities or foreign countries like Germany, the UK or further afield in search of a ‘better life’, plugging into the money economy just in time to see it collapse. Families are, just like in the west, getting more and more fragmented, while large-scale monoculture farming moves into place instead.
An often-asked question in the west is “can capitalism have a conscience?” It is sure that communism didn’t – their disregard for the environment and human rights, for example, is notorious, and although all were meant to be equal, the communist-period joke that “some people are more equal than others” was definitely more than just humour. But, can these societies that have, despite their bleak circumstances, traditionally been made up of tightly knit and supportive extended families, retain their ‘wholesome charm’ while rushing headlong into this new economy?
Kings and Conquerors – Capitalism ‘Triumphs’ Where They Didn’t
It’s fascinating to me that where centuries of kings and conquerors failed, capitalism is making short work of unraveling these localised economies. This region has been inhabited by Slavic peoples for a millennia and a half, some say much longer. These were largely agricultural, peasant folk, working their land, their gardens and husbanding their animals in what was often a peaceful, culture rich existence.
Almost every Slovak valley and village had its own unique design of traditional
dress – often extremely intricate and exquisite (see detail below). Such
time consuming and beautiful, ‘superfluous’, work is evidence that this culture’s
lifestyle went well beyond just menial endeavours. [Note: excuse the happy
face - I am respecting the model's wish not to be published online]
Over these many centuries different invaders have done their worst – including the Romans, the Huns (think Atilla), early Germanic tribes, the Tatars (Turks), the Mongols (Genghis Khan), the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Habsburg monarchy, the Austria-Hungarian dual monarchy, and of course much of these periods were only interruptions of eras of Hungarian control and even forced Magyarisation, where the Slovak language was banned in churches and schools. (In an interesting twist, this linguistic conflict continues today.) Then came the short lived but highly repressive Nazi invasion and the subsequent ‘liberation’ into complete communist control.
Although at times through the centuries the Slavic inhabitants were slaughtered and their homes and lands taken by force, by and large the life of peasant folk continued despite the presence of these oppressors. The sun rose and set over their fields, seeds were sown and crops harvested, wool was spun or made into felt so clothes could be made, lumber grew and was turned into homes – regardless of who claimed ownership over their existence from distant cities.
Villagers work their gardens under the Tatry mountains
These people lived by their own ingenuity and from the resources that surrounded them. There are still plenty of signs of this way of life alive today, a glimpse of which we’ll catch below, but capitalism’s economic subjugation of the people has been effective in a way that armies and swords never were. Money has won over might. Where people before might defend their land and life from invading armies, now they voluntarily, eagerly, give them up. Physical labour and frugal living has now become a life to be shunned and discarded, rather than defended. The poisoned carrot offered by media-led capitalism lures people away from their traditional, community-oriented sustainable existence, towards a dream of leisure and wealth. But, as we’re seeing today, that dream is just that – a dream. The youth are now discovering they’ve left their village to chase a mirage – a journey that has left them wholly vulnerable and dependent on a system over which they have no control.
In the capital, Bratislava, in the southwest of Slovakia, is a small city of Paneláks called Petržalka, where up to 115,000 people live in what is the most densely packed residential district in Central Europe. While a legacy of communism, it is also a fitting example of the kind of ‘western development’ we see elsewhere. As a high rise city, it effectively becomes a large scale work camp, where workers can be tightly packed in close proximity to industry, to service the corporate need for labour. Without land, residents are wholly dependent on the money economy. I fear for regions like this in coming years – when peak oil’s stranglehold on the economy becomes all to real, and the trucks supplying food to the scattered supermarkets fail to show, what will become of these people who’ve painted themselves into a fossil fuel dependent corner?
A Glimpse of Past Resilience
Their names have been changed to protect their true identities – but let me introduce a wonderful couple I met a few years ago. I found them in the north of Slovakia, and they were kind enough to let me photograph them.
Marge & Ted
Ted was 86 at the time, and Marge 80. They live a very simple, self-sufficient life, hidden away from modernity in a tiny village in the hills. Their knowledge of the outside world was somewhat indicated by their questioning how long it would take to drive to New Zealand.
Ted is from a large family – he had eleven siblings – and has been a shepherd and peasant farmer all of his life. Marge’s mother died prematurely, so her family was not so large. Ted and Marge bore three children themselves, one of whom died from cancer a few years ago at the age of forty-nine.
One of their sons is pictured here – he lives with Ted & Marge, along with his wife. They all work together, and appear to be very happy in their work and life.
I was privileged to see some of the activities they perform in their daily work. Amongst these was the manufacture of a smoked cheese they sell. Here you can see Ted removing the two halves of a mould the cheese is formed in:
The cheese is produced from two cows that are housed in a straw-strewn stall underneath their house. The cows are kept inside through the harsh winter and were due to be taken outside within a day of my visit.
It is worth noting that, generally, people on the streets of Slovakia are usually very reluctant to smile or greet you. Wave to a villager as you pass by and more often than not they’ll just stare. Communism bred a certain amount of hesitancy and suspicion amongst the populace. In fact, many lived nervous of being reported to the authorities for offences (whether real or manufactured), and learned to be careful in making acquaintances. But, in contrast to this, when someone in Slovakia opens their home to you, they well and truly make up for their street-side aloofness.
Marge was very ‘animated’, and immensely pleased with my visit. She mentioned other people and activities in the village, and suggested I also visit a man a few houses along. I decided to take her suggestion, and promised to return afterwards.
Meet Stan. Stan was 68 at the time, and, like most villagers, a jack of many trades. He worked in a factory for much of his life, but had many other activities outside of this labour. He is a blacksmith, carpenter, builder, and hunter, amongst others.
He has (again, like most villagers) built his own house and almost everything within it. Stan was eager to show me his Remington single-shot rifle – with which he has shot boar, deer, and much more (antlers, stuffed animals, and the frozen stares from animal heads covered his walls). Hunting was clearly his primary passion – even the bottle and shot glasses he produced for sharing his homemade plum brandy (slivovica) were adorned with pictures of his prey.
More like rocket fuel than a beverage – but one must be polite…
Stan took me out to see a large old loom he had housed in an outbuilding, with which his wife weaves carpets from offcut material sourced from nearby. The loom is over 120 years old, and “never breaks down, nor needs oiling,” he proclaimed.
Back at Marge and Ted’s house, I discover the floors have been swept, benches wiped, and her hair brushed. Hospitality is in full swing, and I find myself needing to be careful what I accept, for fear I may not be able to keep it down! Already at Stan’s I struggled to swallow some of the stringy highly salted cheese that is popular in this region.
Ted offered a hearty cup of “Zincica” (there are accents needed on these letters I cannot provide with this keyboard!). This beverage is the result of boiling the thin milk that remains after producing cheese, until the Zincica (Zin-cheat-sa) floats to the top and is scooped off – ready to enjoy!
I left as Ted, Marge, and her son prepared to plant potatoes that afternoon. Marge’s son readied the plough for this purpose.
Marge gave me the warmest hug as I departed. I felt like I was from another planet entirely – but she made me feel right at home.
I am always humbled and impressed by people that can live apart from the hugely unsustainable society most of us don’t know how to escape. Even many well intentioned, and brave, ‘alternative’ individuals that attempt to live as these people do, find it virtually impossible to do so. Ted, Marge, Stan, and their families – with their fruit trees, their gardens, chickens, food preserving and root cellars – all learned innumerable skills from their parents that are now being discarded by a new generation who do not realise their value. But, as the vulnerabilities of our house-of-cards globalised economic system become obvious, some, even amongst the young, are starting to see value again in the accumulated wisdom of the past. Permaculture certainly has a lot to offer these people in fine tuning their traditional methods for increased efficiency and productivity.
These countries are changing – of that there is no doubt. As someone that’s lived mostly in western societies – I can’t help but wish they could learn from our mistakes, and not be too quick to discard their past completely. It seems with their new freedom there is much to gain, but perhaps also much that could get lost.