Iron Laughs


“This is what the October Revolution has given to the working and peasant women.”

From Eurozine:

I did survive communism and even laughed. But I’ve stopped laughing many times since. First of all, of course, because in the former Yugoslavia, the collapse of the old system brought wars. What used to be our advantage over the countries in the Soviet block, a kind of “soft totalitarianism”, turned out to be a disadvantage. It meant that there was no democratic political opposition, except nationalists, ready to take over after the collapse of communism.

Elsewhere in eastern Europe, many people stopped laughing simply because post-communism turned out to be something other than what they had dreamed. It depends on the country, of course – Poland can’t be compared to Albania – but many people in eastern Europe have found themselves in a situation of growing poverty and insecurity. While poverty was nothing new, the growing gap between rich and poor was. Our world today might look like a supermarket full of goodies, but most of us are left looking through the shop window. A character from my book A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism, a mole from East Berlin, describes consumerism and its new churches thus:

This is how it works, and it has not changed, from 9 November 1989, to this day: every Shopping Mall (as well as even the tiniest Supermarket) is supervised by slot machines called cash registers. These machines are positioned not at the entrances but at the very exit of the church. When a believer approaches the machine with a basket full of desired goods to quench his or her thirst for possessions, the machine scrutinizes the person in question. I imagine that the reason is to perform some sort of test of faith; it lets you pass and get out only if you are a true believer. That you have to demonstrate by either pushing a plastic card into the slot or by giving symbolic paper or metal tokens to the person, usually a female, sitting behind the cash register. Men who fail the test have to give back all the fabulous goodies they collected, and then they get very, very sad.

Before I return to my attempts back then to find out how we survived communism, let me first quote György Konrad, whose letter “To cave explorers from the West”, from 1988, will give you an idea of how we felt westerners saw us:

We are the needy relatives, we are the aborigines, we are the ones left behind – the backward, the stunted, the misshapen, the down-and-out, the moochers, parasites, con-men, suckers. Sentimental, old fashioned, childish, uninformed, troubled, melodramatic, devious, unpredictable, negligent. The ones who don’t answer letters, the ones who miss the great opportunity, the hard drinkers, the babblers, the porch-sitters, the deadline-missers, the promise-breakers, the braggarts, the immature, the monstrous, the undisciplined, the easily offended, the ones who insult each other to death but cannot break off relations. We are the maladjusted, the complainers intoxicated by failure.

We are irritating, excessive, depressing, somehow unlucky. People are accustomed to slight us. We are cheap labour; merchandise may be had from us at a lower price; people bring us their old newspapers as a gift. Letters from us come sloppily typed, unnecessarily detailed. People smile at us, pityingly, as long as we do not suddenly become unpleasant.

As long as we do not say anything strange, sharp; as long as we do not stare at our nails and bare our teeth; as long as we do not become wild and cynical.”

But my gaze from behind the “Iron Curtain” was a different one. In 1990, right after the collapse of communism, I travelled around eastern Europe for Ms., a feminist magazine from the United States. I went to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania – and, of course, drew on my own experience of communism in the former Yugoslavia, to describe the life of women in my part of the world.

If Konrad’s was a bird’s eye view, mine was the view from below, a frog’s view if you want. I was interested in the relationship between politics and everyday life. And above all, life experienced by women, who, down at the bottom, carried the biggest burden, taking care of children and the elderly and the whole household – all while working in full-time jobs. Each and every woman I spoke to, whether in Bulgaria or Poland, in Czechoslovakia or Hungary, could point out where communism had failed them: from shortages of food and disposable diapers to a scarcity of apartments and toilet paper. It was these banal, everyday things that defeated communism, long before 1989, and not, I am sorry to say, people’s desire for freedom, human rights and democracy.

Emancipation from above – as I call it – was the main difference between the lives of women under communism and those of women in western democracies. Emancipatory law was built into the communist legal system, guaranteeing to women all the basic rights – from voting to property ownership, from education to divorce, from equal pay for equal work to the right to control their bodies.

But, as Ulf Brunnbauer writes in his 2000 essay “From equality without democracy to democracy without equality?”: “Proclamations of gender equality never corresponded to social reality. Patriarchal values and structures were not eradicated, but the ‘family patriarch’ was replaced by the authoritarian state – emancipation was not an end in itself, but an instrument for wider political goals, as defined by the party.”

The formal equality of women in the communist world was observed mostly in public life and in institutions. The private sphere, on the other hand, was dominated by male chauvinism. This meant a lot of unreported domestic violence, for example. It also meant that men usually had no obligations at home, which left women with less time for themselves. It was not only the lack of freedom – and time – that prevented women fighting for changes but, more importantly, a lack of belief that change was necessary. Someone else up there was in charge of thinking about that for you. And because change came from the powers that be, women were made to believe there was no need for change or room for improvement.

If, however, there were any minor problems resulting from women’s specific needs, then there were women’s organizations that were supposed to take care of them. However, these were only instruments of communist party power and were concerned less with women and their needs than with ideology. Feminist consciousness didn’t exist. Since women were emancipated, there was no need for a discussion about women’s rights, so the argument went. It was as if women lived in an ideal world, but were not fully aware of it, or failed to appreciate the fact. And those who tried to enlighten them about the real situation were seen as “suspicious elements”. Women who attempted to publicly discuss feminism in Yugoslavia in the 1980s were accused by the authorities of “importing foreign, bourgeois ideas”.

“How women survived post-communism (and didn’t laugh)”, Slavenka Drakulic, Eurozine