“Was it really that bad?”
Last year, one of my housemates was from Rostock, Germany, and had lived under the socialist regime until he was ten. His stories were a window into the daily life of communism, something my history books could never provide me. His mother used to deposit him in queues without actually knowing what he was waiting for, under the assumption that if there was a line, someone from her family should be in it. One family vacation to the coast was abruptly aborted when his father decided to seize an opportunity to wait three days to receive two tires. Although the tires did not constitute a complete set (and weren’t even a fit for his car), my housemate recalled how his father would not stop talking about what a success their trip had been, since he could trade those two tires for all manner of consumer goods. One of his Oxford friends – a Romanian of the same age – had similar memories that mixed the tragic with the absurd. Once, he saw swiss cheese on television; all he could think about afterward was the hope that it would appear on screen again. Actually getting a chance to eat swiss cheese, of course, was beyond what he could imagine.
My visit to Berlin – where I met up with my old housemate – finally gave me a chance to see the place behind some of these stories. Central Berlin has been redeveloped with a massive infusion of West German money. Even twenty years after the wall came down, though, the far eastern part of the city still betrays vestiges of socialism, in its many guises. The wall itself—and the guard towers and kill zone that surrounded it—show socialism at its most insidious and repressive. Yet the system’s aspirations, too, are still visible. On Karl Marx Boulevard, we biked past concrete apartment buildings that—my host assured me—are cookie-cutter replicas of similar buildings in Kiev, Riga, and Warsaw, but which, rising from the ruins of post-war Berlin, may really have seemed like the worker’s palaces they were billed as.
Deep in East Berlin, we turned away from the austere ultra-modernist architecture and crossed into Russian territory. Much like an embassy, the land of Berlin’s Treptower Park is still formally owned by the Russian government. In an almost comical throwback, the marble entrance to the massive monument to the Red Army was framed by two hammer-and-sickle engraves. Inside, a 10-meter-tall bronze Russian soldier stomped on a broken swastika. Although the marble reliefs below ostensibly celebrated the Soviet soldiers who won the wars, all the quotes engraved on them were from Joseph Stalin. My friend, translating, told me that they spoke of the glorious Soviet liberation of Eastern Europe—carried out in the name of freedom and equality, of course.
Ours wasn’t the only trip that ended at the memorial. At one point, another guide came by, speaking to a group of English-speaking tourists. East Germany, he said, was undoubtedly awful. Yet, he admonished his listeners, if you ask an East German, they will inevitably give you a more complicated picture. Having stayed last week in Dresden with an East German family—who had prospered because communism gave them a chance to get off the farm and become engineers and doctors—I could understand what he meant. The leaders of East Germany, said the guide, really did have a vision of a better society, even if that vision was usually obscured by their own obsession with power.
His short soliloquy was a perfect summation of why I have always been fascinated by Eastern Europe and Soviet socialism. The fashion on the left is to disown the Soviet system entirely: my friends from the Socialist Worker’s Party in Oxford, for example, insist that by the time Stalin came around, Russia wasn’t socialist at all. They still speak of Lenin and Trotsky with reverence, yet claim that their legacy can be fully severed from the Soviet empire that insisted it was inspired by their ideas.
I don’t think that a neat separation is quite so easy. The USSR – and, of course, its satellite states like East Germany – was an abomination, but, as leftists, we have to acknowledge that it was our abomination. The Soviet monstrosity, for all its evils, did all sorts of things to which progressive governments everywhere aspire: it increased access to education, worked towards some forms of gender equality, and offered universal(ly crappy) healthcare. Its legacy hangs over anyone who believes in massive projects to improve the human condition—anyone who, like me, wants something more substantive than the feeble efforts of the Democrats in the U.S., Labour in the U.K., or even the SPD in Germany.
“Was it really that bad?”, for me, is a question of more than just historical relevance. Its answer has disturbing implications for a much bigger query: is another world really possible? Seeing Europe—both the ruins of socialism and the decline of social democracy—makes me wonder.