Monday, October 17, 2011

The Varieties of Communist Experience

"Look! A beautiful bourgeois apartment filled with ugly things produced during Communism."

Slavenka Drakulic's exploration of Eastern European communism, entitled A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, A Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, & a Raven, examines the varieties of post-war Communism through the lens of fiction. Although Draukulic's analysis of Eastern European Communism isn't strikingly original, her fictive device of using animals to narrate important facets of each country's unique national experiences is highly original.

From the mouse, the readers gets a tour of the Czech Museum of Communism. The mouse jokingly suggests that the museum ought to display household items such as diapers, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper, since these things were often extraordinarily difficult to locate in Communist countries. The Parrot, a personal pet of the Yugoslavian dictator, Tito, tells the readers something about Tito's international celebrity and charisma. According to the pet, Tito possessed thirty-two residences and put thousands of his citizens into political prisons, and yet still deserves some recognition for founding the global nonaligned movement and steering his country away from unmitigated Stalinism.

The bear, part of a Roma circus act, is Bulgarian, and tells about more about Bulgaria's first secretary of its Communist Party, Todor Zhivkov. On the whole, Zhivkov's thirty-three year rule was a period of economic stagnation. The dictator was wise enough to allow his charismatic daughter, Lyudmila, to disguise this impoverishment of material conditions with bread and circuses.

In many ways Lydumila reminds one of Imelda Marcos. Like Imelda, Lydumila held many official governmental posts. Like Imelda, Lydumila strongly believed that symbolic and even spiritual remedies could serve as effective antidotes to poverty. If you view a recent documentary about Imelda Marcos, you see that her thousand-plus pairs of shoes were not exactly spontaneous purchases. Instead, Marcos has created a full ideological defense of aestheticism. Believing that the last thing her miserable people needed was a reflection of their poverty, Imelda Marcos went out of her way to project an image of beauty. On a personal level, Marcos always made a concerted effort to live up to her reputation for glamour. And at the level of state policy, Marcos tried to create large public projects related to culture that could deflect the public from focusing--too narrowly in her view--on bread and butter issues. No matter that one palace of culture actually collapsed, killing more than a few of Filipino citizens, in her haste to impress the world. Lydumila adopted a similar approach to politics with her "national program for aesthetic education." Beauty mixed with nationalism could surely prevent the counter-revolution.

Drakulic's other animals have similar tales to tell. The cat describes Poland's difficult path to freedom, and subsequent attempts to come to terms with a legacy of collaboration in the face of Soviet intimidation. The mole points to the absurdity of the Berlin Wall, which humans, strange organisms that they are, often tried to surmount or breech by way of air balloon, tunnel, secret car compartment, or other ingenious devices. The escapes, or attempted escapes, continued right up until the wall came down in 1989. Before that, East Germany employed some 189,000 "informal employees" to ensure the regime's continued existence in the face of its unpopularity and economic backwardness.

The pig discussed Hungary's "goulash" Communism, which was essentially a reversal of traditional Communism ideology. Whereas the Bolsheviks always claimed that "whoever was not with us, was against us," the Hungarian dictator rather generously decided that "whoever is not against us, is with us." In these circumstances, the Hungarian Communist Party could overlook individual opinion and indeed private enterprise, just so long as the state's monopoly of public power was preserved in tact. The Romanian situation is explained by a dog, one of many thousands who roamed the streets of Bucharest as a result of the dictator's brutal decision to raise the homes of their owners. As the dog explains, having made the decision to treat his citizens like dogs, Ceausescu and his wife couldn't quite stomach the idea of inflaming domestic or foreign opinion by killing off this enormous and quite rapid dog population. Such was the absurdity of Romanian Communism, which of course ended with the savage death of the married tyrants.

The book concludes the story of a raven in tiny Albania. The raven witnesses the murder of one of Albania's leading politicians at the hands of his more powerful rival, the first secretary of the Communist Party. According to Drakulic's bird, the man, who was murdered for no other reason than that his son had decided to marry an Albanian with relatives who lived in the suspect West, left the following note, which might serve as an epitaph for any Eastern European victimized by Communism: "Oh, you ravens devouring me, don't touch my black eyes."

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