It is rather ironic that objects that were spurned during the communist era are now prized. I had an economist friend who was an expert on Soviet agriculture. On a trip to the Czech republic during the communist era he marvelled at the manner in which young people prized western clothing. As far as he could see locally made jeans were a bargain and cheap but no one wanted them. Everyone wanted very expensive Nikes and Levi's. None of the Czech farmers could believe that Canadian prairie farmers with a section of land could actually go broke. They thought that his lecture on the problems of Canadian farmers and costs of production exceeding income at times were pure communist propoganda!
From the issue dated June 15, 2007
Objects of Disaffection
In Eastern Europe, scholars examine nostalgia for Communist-era culture
By COLIN WOODARD
The Tisza-brand shoe store in the WestEnd shopping mall is clad in
tempered glass and features polished hardwood and soothing halogen
lights, a retail space as contemporary as a Gap or Starbucks. But the
shoes on display are pure Communist chic.
Under Communism, Tiszas were cheap, poorly made sneakers for the
They were the Hungarian Communist Party's answer to Adidas, Nike, and
other athletics shoes made on the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain
but coveted by Hungarian youth of the 70s and 80s, along with Levi
and Marlboro cigarettes. The company collapsed with the Berlin Wall,
Tiszas appeared destined for the dustbin of history.
Now the boldly colored sneakers are not only back in production,
become the shoe of choice for Hungary's trendy youth, who eschew global
brands for a homegrown icon of the economic and political system many
them remember barely, if at all.
"Ninety percent of our customers are 14 to 30 years old," says a sales
associate, Gabor Schlekmann, as a couple in their 20s choose between
lime-green and burnt-orange models. "The young like the retro look of
the shoes, the older ones say, Look, I remember these from my
The Tisza craze is not an isolated phenomenon. In recent years,
of the old Eastern-bloc countries have acquired (or reacquired) a taste
for the brands, rock 'n' roll bands, and television programs of the
Communist period. Even homegrown soft drinks are now presenting serious
challenges to Coke and Pepsi, a few decades later than the region's
Communist apparatchiks hoped they would. The trend has not gone
unnoticed by increasing numbers of scholars, museums, and art
many of which are examining Eastern Europeans' changing relationship
with their material past.
The phenomenon, which started in eastern Germany in the late 1990s and
has since spread to Hungary, Poland, and the former Czechoslovakia, is
often referred to by the German term Ostalgie, or "nostalgia for the
East." And while many Eastern Europeans, particularly the elderly, pine
for the economic security of the old system, scholars who study
say it is a cultural and sociological phenomenon that has nothing to do
with party politics.
"It's a mixture of pop culture and social critique, a sort of language
people use to express their disadvantages compared with the West," says
Andreas Ludwig, a historian and director of the Documentation Center of
Everyday Life in the German Democratic Republic in Eisenhüttenstadt,
southeast of Berlin. "In eastern Germany they are saying, Look, we're a
minority, we're poor with a different history and we don't speak high
German, and we're not part of the majority way, the West German way."
"It's not about the past," he adds, "it's very now."
Rising in the East
East Germans were the first to rediscover their recent past because the
collapse of the Berlin Wall didn't just liberate their country, it
caused it to vanish altogether, says Paul Betts, an instructor in
German history at the University of Sussex, in England.
"The radical disappearance of their state and culture and way of life
meant that they would cling to what was still there: oddball objects,
things that didn't even work, as symbols of their oddball national
identity," he says.
With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, East Germans joyously discarded
many of their possessions, many of them drab, shoddily made, and mocked
by West Germans.
"In the heady days of 1989 or 1990, the sidewalks were filled with old
East German stuff because people thought they would be replacing
everything with top-line Western goods," says Mr. Betts. "People had
waited eight or 12 years for a Trabant" — the now-iconic
plastic-bodied East German automobile — "which was in a sense their
prestigious consumer object, and then they crossed the Brandenburg Gate
and the car was mocked as slow and polluting. The world had completely
turned upside down."
Only later, once the Erika manual typewriters and cheap LAVA toasters
had been carried off to the dump, did it become clear that the
transition to Western standards of living would take many years and
replacing those consumer items would prove prohibitively expensive.
That's when nostalgia began settling in, says Robert Parnica, of the
Open Society Archives at Central European University, in Budapest.
"Fifteen years ago the market opened and people wanted to try
from the West," says Mr. Parnica, who organized a popular exhibition of
Communist-era consumer objects at the university's gallery in 2003.
"Only after all this sampling was exhausted did people realize there
were things they were accustomed to, and that they associate with a
East German filmmakers began expressing — and spreading — Ostalgie
their work in the late 1990s, says Sean Allan, associate professor of
German studies at the University of Warwick, in England. The milestone,
he says, was Sonnenallee (1999), a Leander Haussmann film about young
East Germans living on a border-facing Berlin street in East Berlin in
"It was the first film that represented East Germans as something other
than victims," he says. "It broke all the taboos by introducing an
ironic slant, by making fun of East Germans, and it paved the road for
Good Bye Lenin!"
Good Bye Lenin! (2003) changed everything, propelling Ostalgie into
mainstream popular culture. The plot: A young man's mother wakes up
a coma, and doctors caution him that he must spare her the shock of
learning that their country — the GDR — has ceased to exist while
lay unconscious; the son tries to recreate the GDR for her in her flat,
leading to all sorts of humorous complications.
The film, directed by Wolfgang Becker, was a hit in both eastern and
western Germany, and won a German Academy Award. "It sparked the
Ostalgie wave: Suddenly every German channel had a GDR show, and West
Germans wanted to know what people's childhoods were like in the East,"
Mr. Allan says. "Everybody has a past, and everybody wants to look back
at it with fondness; you can't just block it off and never go there."
Ordinary GDR-era objects — plastic kitchenware, for example —
collectors' items, and plans for a GDR Museum got under way in Berlin.
Old brands and products saw revivals in sales, while others were
relaunched by companies hoping to cash in on the GDR mania. A movement
started to save the distinctive East German pedestrian-crosswalk
signals, which the government intended to replace with the standard
design from the West.
Ostalgie has since spread to Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, and
Hungary. Fashions from the Polish People's Republic have made a
comeback, along with the handful of Communist-era cafeterias and snack
bars that were not destroyed or remodeled during the transition.
It is no coincidence that Ostalgie spread eastward in tandem with the
expansion of the European Union, argues Charity Scribner, assistant
professor of European studies at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. "People under 30 have seen this tendency to become part of
mono-European culture," says Ms. Scribner, whose work focuses on
literature and culture. "A lot of good things are coming of this, but
one of the effects is the celebration of local identity because in this
drive to homogeneity, it's the Western European cultural standards that
are prevailing and the East European ones are getting overshadowed."
Ostalgie has an element of political philosophy, she says, but at its
core "it is more of a critique of Western European homogeneity than it
is a critique of capitalism."
Kofola cola, the Czechoslovak Communist Party's answer to Western
has nudged Pepsi out of the No. 2 slot in the Czech Republic and is No.
1 in Slovakia, edging out Coke, while Traubisoda, a Hungarian grape
drink, is No. 2 in Hungary. In Budapest affluent professionals flock to
Menza, a restaurant modeled after a Communist-era worker's cafeteria,
but with upscale prices.
Slovakia's influential newspaper, SME, plays host to a popular and
extensive online library of images from socialist Czechoslovakia.
"Ostalgie is quite a fashionable topic nowadays," explains Balazs
executive director of Anthropolis, a Budapest-based association of
independent cultural anthropologists, which is holding a seminar on the
phenomenon this spring in a former Communist youth camp.
"Some people are tired of the conformity of wearing Nike and other
multinational brands and want something distinctive and maybe
homegrown," says Central European University's Mr. Parnica, who plans
assemble a digital database of mass-produced Communist-era objects.
But while Ostalgie has spread beyond Germany, it has taken a less
intense form, in part because the standard of living in other Warsaw
Pact countries was never as high as that in the GDR. "It's hard to be
nostalgic for Communist-era commodities in Poland because they weren't
so good," notes David Crowley, who teaches the history of design at the
Royal College of Art, in London, and has studied the Polish phenomenon.
"When you talk to people, there's not the same level of pervasive
Indeed, in the late 1980s, Poles stood in long lines for basic goods
were forced to hoard toilet paper, which was in short supply. Even
today, Communist-era cities like Nowa Huta, a planned workers' city
outside Kraków, have changed surprisingly little. The statues of Lenin
have vanished, and squares have been renamed for Ronald Reagan and the
Solidarity trade union, but otherwise the city appears much as it did
1989, leaving less to be nostalgic about. "The trauma of the German
experience is about the disappearance of objects, whereas Poles and
others can claim a certain continuity," says Mr. Crowley.
That has made Ostalgie a much more youth-oriented phenomenon in places
like Hungary and Poland, where the collapse of the Soviet empire
liberated rather than liquidated the nation. "For older people, this
topic is very politicized, and when they look back they can only see
Communist Party and the spies and agents and the fight for democracy,"
says Mr. Frida, who is 32. "Younger people are interested in everyday
life and sentiments, and the new generation — the ones who are 18 now
have absolutely no memories of it but find the posters and designs and
furnishings from the Communist period very funny and interesting."
"For younger Hungarian scholars," he adds, "this is quite new and
Mr. Parnica noticed the generation gap in the way people responded to
his exhibit of ordinary Communist-era objects, which was held at
European University in conjunction with the Documentation Center of
Everyday Life in the German Democratic Republic. Putting everyday
objects like bottle openers, plastic slippers, and radios under glass
provoked people to see them differently, he says. "Young people simply
didn't know what life under Communism was like, and started to think
about it for the first time. Older people felt the nostalgia of it:
is passing, and things that happened 20 or 30 years ago seem better
what is happening now because then they were younger, stronger, and
preoccupied with the burdens of adult life. The objects opened a whole
conversation for people."
Permanent exhibits now show in the GDR Museum, which opened last year
Berlin, and the Documentation Center, in Eisenhüttenstadt. This winter
Warsaw's Kordegarda Gallery showed artworks responding to the
controversial destruction of the Supersam, a Communist-era supermarket
that had been a showcase project of the old regime and a prominent
feature of the city's skyline.
"I think it's been an interesting lesson for historians in general,"
says Mr. Betts, of the University of Sussex. "We don't usually take
physical objects seriously, and I think Ostalgie has forced a lot of
mainstream historians to extend their remit and think more broadly
what is a historical source."