Not amused

Culture, European culture(s), International Politics, Politics
Sweatshirt I bought @ Target, writes Flickr user Eshm (photo used under CC license)

"Sweatshirt I bought @ Target," Flickr user Eshm (photo used under CC license)

Living in the Netherlands, ca. 1998, meant increasingly being confronted, not just with that ubiquitous icon of wannabe rebel teenager identity, the drearily mass produced Che tee, but training jackets and the like saying DDR, or CCCP. Not because there was any suddenly resurging affinity for the former Eastern Bloc regimes, but because those were the thing to have for any self-respecting ironic hipster.

It went with, say, nodding your head to the latest abstract beats, or dancing to the soundtrack of a soft lesbo porn movie from the seventies with a knowing smile. Aren’t we being cool!

I never got it. Stunned at the baffling lack of … awareness, I suppose. Even if I knew that no disrespect was intended toward, say, the victims of communism — all was tongue-in-cheek, after all! The postmodern game being played out transformed me, instantly, into an old crank. It did so right at the moment that I refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of that irony; the moment I failed to think, “oh that’s OK then”.

I mean, these guys were my age! Were they not in high school nine years earlier, when the Velvet Revolution succeeded, the wall was torn down? Or when the tanks rolled into Moscow in August 1991? I was twenty, and on holiday in Slovakia – and the sense of impending doom that day was real enough to dent any consciousness, I’d have thought.

Prague 1989 (Image by Flickr user by antaldaniel used under CC license)

Prague 1989 (Image used under CC license from Flickr user antaldaniel)

In December 1989 I walked through Prague, days before Havel was elected President, and everywhere were the flags, the posters, the handpainted signs and banners from the month before, full of a heady mix of bravery and witticism. Even if some of these kids were only 14 at the time, did they not feel it?

Did none of them read the chilling newspaper reports about the Lithuanians who, thanks to Perestroika, found the Siberian graves of their compatriots, the peers of their parents? How can you wear a CCCP shirt now, just twenty years after these regimes came down?

My humorless baffledness, I suppose, effectively marked my place on the wrong side of the generation divide. It was right there, on my left, a line of mocking chalk. I was suddenly the bimillennial equivalent of those stern old men who, in the 1960s, shook their heads disapprovingly at the revolting students waving the hammer and sickle flag, and lectured them about the red menace, quoting Radio Free Europe. And me a leftie in heart and soul.

But you know what? I’m unrepentant. Living in Hungary in 2008, I find it even more distasteful to see one of those guys strolling down Andrassy Boulevard, every once in a while, a tourist from France or England or Spain. They must be producing those CCCP sweatshirts in some factory now, in postmortal births. Maybe even in Romania, where workers are cheap – there’s your irony. Seriously, what are these guys (somehow always guys) thinking? I’m going on holidays to Budapest, let’s see if my Soviet Union shirt gets all the Hungarian girls? Did they really never stop to remember, just for a second, that the Soviet Union was an occupying force here, lived through by the parents of said same girls?

Image used under CC licence from Flickr user I See Modern Britain

USSR as logo; image used under CC licence from Flickr user "I See Modern Britain"

Looming in the background, is that a failure of the education system, or of public discourse, which never approached the Stalinist horrors quite like the Nazi ones? The fact that communism limped on in totalitarian, but less genocidal fashion for three decades after Stalin blurs the comparison of course, but come on – even if Hitler had been succeeded by fascist dictators of a more pedestrian Pinochet-type calibre for 35 years, would that have made the swastika any less a taboo?

I admit to a double standard of my own, though. Maybe it’s the “only Jews can make Jewish jokes” rule. Only black people can say “nigger”.

Some ten years ago, the Hungarian house act From-> did a techno remix of an old communist song, Polyushka. It stormed the charts. So did the album of old communist songs it accompanied, “Best of Communism“, produced by the manager of the Statue Park, Ákos Réthly. I can easily see why. Same with the rampant Ostalgie that swept the former East-Germany over this past decade.

People’s relationships with their pasts are complicated. We all have memories of childhood, of our coming of age – fun games, loving parents, first loves, first jobs. And their backdrops. Hell, when I was ten, fifteen, inner cities were pockmarked with empty plots and boarded up buildings – after all, unemployment was high, the metropolitan building boom that would devour cities in the nineties was still to come. Now, when I see an empty plot in the middle of downtown, some overgrown debris in a corner, I feel nostalgic and sigh about how everything’s changed – damn all that shiny new glass and steel.



No different here, and more so. Nostalgia appears like it would anywhere – except it’s reinforced by just how much the world has changed, how much more drastically still here than in the West. Not to mention the complicated mechanisms of rejection and defence, accounting and justifying, at work in the memories of jobs and positions past. Of choices and relationships. Who was what, and to what extent responsible for which?

People were robbed of their past, if you will, or at least of their understanding of the past and past self-understandings, as competing discourses tumbled over each other. Most of all in the GDR, where much of the finger-pointing was unidirectional, from West to East, and the reckoning with the criminal past bled over into an attempted eradication of all artifacts of the past, traffic light figures and all.

Add in the dynamics of how the confrontation with the cruelties and betrayals of the totalitarian past uneasily matched up with the sudden struggle for survival in the rubbled economies of the 1990s. The chasm in experience between the bright new, European, free market future celebrated by the elites, and the massive drop in living standards that regular people suffered, compared to the last decade of communism. No wonder a more innocent version of the past, as offered in bittersweet retro-musicals like Sonnenallee or Csinibaba, was gratefully embraced.

USSR, Che and the IDF: Photo titled Irony, used under CC license from Flickr user xamesm

USSR, Che and the IDF: Photo titled "Irony", used under CC license from Flickr user xamesm

But no, that doesn’t excuse the West-European brats who blithely don their retro-gear, least of all those who bring it here. While you find some native nostalgia in recycling past symbologies here too (there’s a long-standing communist-themed cafe in Buda called Marxim, for example), it’s by necessity shot through with ambiguity. Cycling through Western Hungary, a colleague last year off-handedly noted that the prison camp her grandfather had been held in by the communists had been nearby – and recounted how he’d never been the same on return. History is recent. So those lads from the West bringing their red starred t-shirts are just insensitive buffoons far as I’m concerned – even if they mean it, but especially if they don’t. I just can’t bolster the patience to analyse the sociological why and how come of it.

Which is why it’s good to come across a paragraph like this. It’s from a TNR review of – or should that be: broadside against – Slavoj Zizek’s new book. I haven’t read Zizek, and have no opinion on him. But the review happens to include this one paragraph, which has more deep thought on the phenomenon than I had the patience to summon in any of the above:

Zizek is a believer in the Revolution at a time when almost nobody, not even on the left, thinks that such a cataclysm is any longer possible or even desirable. This is his big problem, and also his big opportunity. While “socialism” remains a favorite hate-word for the Republican right, the prospect of communism overthrowing capitalism is now so remote, so fantastic, that nobody feels strongly moved to oppose it, as conservatives and liberal anticommunists opposed it in the 1930s, the 1950s, and even the 1980s. When Zizek turns up speaking the classical language of Marxism-Leninism, he profits from the assumption that the return of ideas that were once the cause of tragedy can now occur only in the form of farce. In the visual arts, the denaturing of what were once passionate and dangerous icons has become commonplace, so that emblems of evil are transformed into perverse fun, harmless but very profitable statements of post-ideological camp; and there is a kind of intellectual equivalent of this development in Zizek’s work. The cover of his book The Parallax View reproduces a Socialist Realist portrait of “Lenin at the Smolny Institute,” in the ironically unironic fashion made familiar by the pseudo-iconoclastic work of Komar and Melamid, Cai Guo-Jiang, and other post-Soviet, post-Mao artists. He, too, expects you to be in on the joke. But there is a difference between Zizek and the other jokesters. It is that he is not really joking.



  1. Jo  •  Dec 2, 2008 @12:01 pm

    Interesting – good article.

  2. sozobe  •  Dec 2, 2008 @6:15 pm

    Oh, the comments are on the side now. Cool. (Something’s weird when you type though… disappears off the side.)

    Very interesting.

    I’ve had the same reaction to the Che t-shirts — excellent points about other varieties of the same thing.

    There is some sort of vintage/ nostalgia aspect — I’m old enough to remember when CCCP was something you saw (newspapers, TV, whatever), something that was a little ominous. You never see it any more. So there is this little initial “hey!” reaction, that seems to be divorced from context somewhat. (For example, I recently had a discussion about those little flashcubes that were used on
    cameras in the 70’s — it was an item in a book and people who hadn’t thought of them in years were having fun talking about them.)

    But yeah, that little “hey” reaction isn’t (or shouldn’t) be enough for people to actually, what, condone that which is being portrayed.

1 Trackback