CHARLIE CONNELLY on an important new book that concentrates on the societies – not the states – that have emerged from communism.
In 1996 Britain was, well, a bit full of itself. Nothing new there of course, but this time there was a tangible positivity about a new and vigorous assertion of Britishness. It felt as if something was being reclaimed: Euro ’96 helped English people to wrest the St George’s flag from the far right and Britpop was arguably the popular culture phenomenon of the decade.
This was a new brand of patriotism that didn’t seem comparative or competitive; it was an inclusive celebration of something, rather an anger-fuelled desperation to prove some kind of innate exceptionalism. Pride was triumphing over superiority, a revolutionary confidence flooding Britain and in its constituent parts.
Even the Stone of Scone being returned from Westminster to Edinburgh after 700 years spoke of this nation of nations growing ever more comfortable in its own skin. From Irvine Welsh to Goodness Gracious Me, living in Britain in 1996 felt refreshingly progressive. Even the fledgling Eurostar, connecting London and Paris in the space of a couple of hours on trains that seemed almost impossibly glamorous, felt like a beacon of something positive, a sign of an even greater inclusivity that extended beyond our borders.
In all the excitement it was easy to forget that a large swathe of Europe was still trying to find its own sense of national identity after the dramatic collapse of the communist states earlier in the decade. Some were relishing their newly acquired self-determination. A Germany reunified in name yet still a little bewildered by sudden mutual absorption celebrated winning Euro 96, while the Balkan states were barely starting to process the fallout from the vicious wars that had followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the ink still wet on the Dayton Accords.
The year also saw the publication of Croatian journalist and novelist Slavenka Drakulić’s book Café Europa: Life After Communism, arguably the most successful early examination of the state of our continent in the wake of the political and social upheavals of the early 1990s.
A mixture of memoir, place-writing and political essay, Café Europa was a clear-eyed and beautifully written portrait of a continent in flux that for those of us who still kept one eye on the rest of Europe while Britain celebrated itself, remains a title as evocative of that year as Infinite Jest or The Beach.
Indeed Café Europa felt like an important part of that optimism of inclusivity, of nations asserting forward-looking identities. Reading it felt like as much an act of faith in the future of Britain and the future of Europe as watching the new national teams of Croatia and the Czech Republic playing competitive matches in the stadiums of England.
It was a portrait of social and political shifts, a continent on the move but towards a destination unknown. It was also a sobering read among the cheery assertiveness of Oasis at Knebworth and Nelson Mandela addressing the Houses of Parliament, because Café Europa was a dispatch from a traumatised region still getting to grips with a post-communist world not dictated by vast, all-encompassing bureaucracy.
“It is a paradox that what people today miss the most is the security they have lost with the fall of communism: jobs, pensions, social and medical security, maternity leave, sick leave,” wrote Drakulić. “As a result, you don’t invest, build or save in the name of the future. You just grab what there is today, because it might not be there tomorrow.”
She wrote about the attempted purchase of a new vacuum cleaner and how it became an existential descent into a Kafkaesque labyrinth of Croatian bureaucracy, of how after spending time in the US the first thing she noticed on returning home was the terrible state of people’s teeth. It was as if, she thought, people had become so institutionalised under communism that while bad teeth were the product of bad food and bad dentistry, they also demonstrated a reluctance of people to regard themselves as individuals.
“What we need here is a revolution of self-perception,” she wrote. “Not only will that not come automatically with the new political changes, but I am afraid that it will also take longer than any political or economic developments. We need to accept our responsibilities toward both others and ourselves.”
Twenty five years on Drakulić has just published Café Europa Revisited: How To Survive Post-Communism, revisiting her 1996 work to see whether the people and governments of the east have accepted those mooted responsibilities toward others and themselves. It makes for fascinating, if often dispiriting reading.
The café of the title represents Eastern Europe distilled into that distinctly Mitteleuropean establishment the kavana, in previous eras shabby and smoke-filled but where the people “had loud voices and smiling faces, the glasses clanged and you could tell there was a party going on”. Today that café has cleaned itself up, has new furniture and an espresso machine and the clientele is better dressed and less raucous these days. But, as Drakulić notes, the punters now “complain about the corrupt elites, unfulfilled promises, loss of national identity and loss of job security – as well as the stripping away of illusions”.
She cites the naivete that engulfed Eastern Europe in 1989, the belief that the raising of the Iron Curtain would bring prosperity and equal opportunity for all, a Europe-wide levelling up, a new era of freedom and fairness, “the hope that the fall of communism would be, in some way, a guarantee that we would live happily ever after”. Instead, she finds a number of invisible barriers replacing the physical border between east and west.
Eastern Europe is still blighted by a lack of opportunities for the young, prompting them to leave in large numbers. Some 14,000 qualified physicians have left Romania in the last ten years alone, for example, that’s nearly four a day, every day, for ten years. In 2019, 550,000 Bulgarians were living and working outside Bulgaria, 30% of them with university degrees, from a nation of seven million people.
“In all these countries people respond the same way if you refer to the situation: give us jobs and decent salaries, they say, the opportunity to work in a profession, to have mortgage, an apartment, a child,” she writes. “We are tired of politics permeating every single aspect of our lives, invading our privacy; we are tired of having our future taken away from us by corruption, lies and incompetence.”
Even when there are opportunities corruption is a major presence. Drakulić introduces us to the Croatian word uhljeb, a recent coinage roughly translating as a person given a job thanks to personal connections despite not possessing even the most tangential of qualifications or experience for the role. All of which sounds, from zero hours contracts to being handed multi-million pound paydays by a pal who’s a minister, strikingly familiar.
Exacerbating the problem is perhaps the largest issue facing Eastern Europe today, she writes, the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016 that continues to fuel right wing populism in the region and beyond.
She traces the seeds of this to the Balkan wars that distilled national identities into religion: Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims. Today a new range of migrants has emerged, from different countries but again reduced to a collective religious group – Muslims.
“Defining identity as something fluid, multi-layered and non-monolithic is out – for all of us, but above all for the migrants,” writes Drakulić.
We’re entering the fourth decade since the fall of communism and there are generations now living in Eastern Europe now with no memory of living under authoritarian rule. Drakulić detects a post-traumatic legacy everywhere, however, most dramatically in the rise of the far right.
“Once-timid discussions about national identity are now becoming full-fledged nationalism,” she writes. “These sorts of ideas used to travel from west to east; now they are moving in the opposite direction.”
The emerging extremism in Eastern Europe isn’t helped by people there feeling like second class citizens on their own continent. One glaring example comes in what Drakulić calls “European food apartheid”. Well-known brands originating in western Europe are using fewer and cheaper ingredients in their products sold in the east of the continent.
In 2017 a Slovak consumers’ association found that Iglo fish fingers contained considerably less fish in Slovak supermarkets than in neighbouring Austria. A Hungarian investigation confirmed similar findings, including Nutella selling a version of its product to Hungarians of inferior quality than it did to Austrians despite the branding being exactly the same.
Other high profile brands were also accused of placing poorer quality goods into Eastern European stores and Drakulić’s hairdresser in Croatia tells her that she drives to Italy to buy detergent – she has to wash a lot of towels and the ‘same’ product for sale in Croatia is nowhere near as good as the same brand there, she says.
In the final chapter, “My Brexit”, Drakulić pays tribute to the influence of British popular culture on the Yugoslavs of her generation. At school in the mid-1960s she recalled how the coolest boy in her class had a bitlsica, a Beatle haircut. Not being part of the Soviet bloc Yugoslavs were freer to travel abroad than most and on visits to London Drakulić fell in love with first the clothes and then the wallpaper of Laura Ashley she found there.
In the spring of 1991, she writes, “I decided to bring the wallpaper home to Zagreb and redesign my bedroom. That was all fine and well, except it was the wrong moment. I wanted to change the wallpaper when the whole country was about to fall apart”.
Baffled by our decision to leave the European Union – “as islanders they have their strange ways and habits, a kernel of madness, I think” – Drakulić nevertheless ends on a positive note. Twenty five years on from those heady days of 1996 Britain is almost unrecognisable from that more vibrant, self-assured, outward-looking version of our nation, but for Drakulić it was an important part of her youth, and that will never change.
“The British and their culture are so much a part of European identity that even when they sailed away, we had the best of them and will continue to do so,” she concludes. “No politicians in the world can pull out their threads from the colourful woven fabric of European culture. It is just not possible.”
‘Café Europa Revisited: How To Survive Post-Communism’ by Slavenka Drakulić is published by Penguin, price £12.99.
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