How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed

Slavenka Drakulic (New York: Harper Collins, 1993)

Monday 22 September 2008, by Emrah Sahin

In How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic offers the anecdotal epitomes of what living in socialist Eastern Europe meant for the people. “Growing up in Eastern Europe,” Drakulic writes, “you learn very young that politics is not an abstract concept, but a powerful force influencing people’s everyday lives.”

Drakulic concentrates primarily on women’s lives and the particular burdens that scarcity in Eastern Europe has imposed on women. To her, the ultimate symbol of the failure of Communism is its inability to provide something so basic as feminine hygiene products.

Political analyses follow the myriad anecdotes, often tragic and sometimes amusing Drakulic paints a vivid picture of the compulsive recycling and collecting typical of Eastern European households, dictated not by environmental consciousness but by poverty and fear of shortages. She writes “while leaders were accumulating words about a bright future, people were accumulating flour and sugar, jars, cups, pantyhose, old bread, corks, rope, nails, plastic bags.”

Drakulic’s political perspective comes out when discussing her friend Jolanta’s visit to a Warsaw coffee house. Seeing that the limited menu is based around Coke and coffee, she quips that “Nobody seems to mind the paradox that even though fruit grows throughout Poland, there is no fruit juice yet Coke is everywhere. But here Coke, like everything coming from America, is more of a symbol than a beverage.” Thus the ‘end of communism’ has brought on an almost blind obsession with all things from the West, including Coke.

Drakulic argues that the West mistakenly applies the term ‘the end of communism’ as a generic phrase to explain “the current state of things” in Eastern Europe while in reality, communism still endures in the ways people think and behave. Despite the democratic restructuring of Eastern Europe and free elections in Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest, people continue to live in Soviet-era, drab and overly packed apartments, commuting with unreliable vehicles, doing boring and heavy work, underpaid and undernourished. Life, as it was before, is something “to be endured, not enjoyed.”

Communism continues as “a state of mind,” a social norm, not just a political ideology or system of government. According Drakulic only the men and women of Eastern Europe themselves can change this – and as years of hindsight and a resurgent Russia that longs for its old sphere of influence have shown, it is not likely to come soon. At least we can laugh.

Emrah Sahin is a lecturer at Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University.

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