Eastern Block 91-2

Scenes from the Twilight of Communism

From Sept 1991 until Jan 1992 I travelled through a large part of the Eastern Bloc. The original plan was to reconnect with family and have a break between university and full-time work, so it was only by accident that I stumbled onto the post-Glasnost upheaval. I certainly never dreamed this material would one day become a European-History Primary Source!

Altogether I spent 17 weeks in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the not-quite-ex Soviet Union — experiencing first-hand The Fall Of Communism and deliberately avoiding the gap-year clichés of London, Paris, Rome or any other part of Western Europe.

Needless to say it was a fascinating trip. To paraphrase David Stark, it was a moment when Eastern Europe played Capitalism with Communist pieces and when millions of usually placid Socialists went noisily berserk.

The following images and commentary are an informal photo-diary of the visit. For personal vignettes, cultural references (songs and movies), plus a list of relevant books and articles, see also the Notes tab above.

Image Gallery

magyar

cccp

rumania

polska

cesko

Notes

Personal Vignettes

The following is a random list of unusual things I noticed during my 17 weeks…

Budapest

  • The decommissioned radio tower in Csepel, used during the Cold War to block radio broadcasts from the west.
  • The hundreds of Gypsy street-vendors alongside the Danube, or inside every underpass or Metro entrance, selling amazingly shoddy goods (three banana chillies, broken porcelain dolls, one left shoe etc.)
  • 10cm of show drops in an afternoon and all of Budapest is paralysed. Like it has never snowed in Hungary before.
  • Trying to shake off my (elderly) relatives so I can have more than five minutes alone.
  • Every meal starts with an argument about my wanting to drink plain water: Just water? Yes. Not coffee? No. Tea? No. Coke? No. Fanta? No. Beer? No. Wine? No. Pálinka? No. Er, would you like perhaps a little Málna-surp in your water? No. Just plain water? Yes. Like peasants. Yes.
  • The Post-Com Magyar retail business model: first set up a used-car dealership; then sell fur coats and leather jackets; then TV's and video recorders; then (finally) confectionary and soft-drinks.
  • For weeks on end the only time I see the sun is when the plane rises through the cloud over Ferihegy airport.
  • Every time I re-enter the country (I had a one-year unlimited-entry visa), being asked more and more questions by customs officials until I was finally detained and interrogated at length. Lucky (?) I could speak fluent Hungarian…
  • The Failure Of Contracts: Weeks wasted trying to get IBUSZ to book accommodation in Moscow for December. Eventually had to give up and fly to Warsaw over the weekend to book from there.
  • A ninety minute trip to an outlying suburb to walk forever down a long street to find a US law firm which was not there. Then wandering through the Kafkaesque corridors of the Ministry of Justice and Law Enforcement, then the US Embassy, then the Budapest office of Baker & McKenzie — all to obtain the Moscow B&M office address.
  • BTW taking photos of Marines outside the US Embassy is unbelievably forbidden!
  • Riding through the countryside in a Trabant with a couple of relatives. Who needs excess leg or elbow room? The mighty two-stroke engine sure had a lot of oomph.
  • At the movies: (1) Fritz Lang's Metropolis — increasing anxiety-attacks over having to speed-read silent-movie title cards in Hungarian. (2) A forró porno-film — badly dubbed by voice actors who were obviously bored, shown on a standard TV in a darkened basketball court, seated on fold-up wooden chairs.
  • Whenever I am introduced as a visitor from Sydney, I'm greeted with: Wow! Did you go out to see Fernando?… Instead of the soppy Abba song, it eventually transpired that Fernando was an obscure Hungarian yachtsman who visited Sydney in '91.
  • The Failure Of Contracts: A month after I leave Hungary, IBUSZ apply pressure to my uncle and aunt to get them to pay an additional levy on the rail ticket I bought to travel to Czechoslovakia.

Moscow

  • The Shuttle Traders in the seats behind me on the Aeroflot flight from Singapore to Moscow. They spent the entire trip smoking cigars, drinking (bottles of) Vodka and fussing over stacks of VCR and CD-Player boxes.
  • On just about every street corner in September, small groups of young men nervously gambling on shell-games or three card monte, on cardboard boxes or old suitcases.
  • Opposite every lift entrance, the Бабущка-дежурная knitting or reading on every floor of the Moscow Hotel Belgrad.
  • The huge number of young women wearing bright blue eyeshadow.
  • The '70s era Pepsi vending machines which didn't dispense cans, just the liquid soft-drink. A few machines provided (amazingly soiled) perspex cups secured with a string, for others you had to bring your own cup.
  • Bribing a waiter at the Moscow Hotel Ukraina so I could have lunch during a private WWII reunion. A $US 5 note got me a small table at the side of a dining room, and I spent the entire meal being stared and pointed at by veterans with medals (and pinned-up sleeves or deeply scarred faces). Приятного аппетита
  • Being mobbed by a dozen street-urchins outside the Hotel Ukraina. It started out friendly enough, but a dark-eyed girl reached down my jeans to grab my wallet, while the other kids grabbed my arms to stop me from fighting or running away.
  • The plain-clothes policeman who ran towards us and fired his pistol into the air to make the brats scatter.
  • Security guards outside the Moscow Baker & Mckenzie office, shouting and waving guns until I produce my Australian passport.
  • The smell of diesel-truck fumes when walking alongside the main ring roads.
  • Shop assistants using wooden abacuses to total purchases.
  • The ice-cream vendors along the Prospekt Kalinina in the dead of winter. Any flavour you like so long as it was vanilla.
  • The Бомж with a long matted beard silently begging a piece of pizza out of my hands.
  • Muscovites always seeking me out for guidance when travelling on the Metro. As if I knew where we were, or where to go, or what the hell they were saying!
  • December '91: some hotels run out of food, making you pay black-market prices until EU aid trucks arrive. For a week the city also runs out of foreign exchange. This closes banks to foreigners, so traveller's cheques become useless and you have to change dollars via shady doormen, taxi drivers or miscellaneous Крыша in leather jackets.
  • The realisation that a man alone with a Nikon is also a bulls-eye for prostitutes.
  • The young bloke who followed me around one morning and kept insisting on buying my wristwatch/ camera/ boots.
  • The famous State Tretyakov Gallery. I was hoping to see Kandinsky's, 1920's agitprop and Stalinist socialist realist works… but instead found two rooms of (boring) icons and not much else. It transpired that the rest of the museum was closed for extensive renovations, for an entire year
  • At the movies: a spy-caper dubbed in Russian; the КИНО half-empty, teenagers walking around during the film, socialising and yelling at each other.
  • The kindly taxi driver who dodged on-coming traffic and reversed 500m up a one-way road, at full speed, to get me to Sheremetyevo airport on time (!)
  • Bribing a Custom's Guard $US 5 so he would stamp my passport with his red CCCP exit stamp.

Warsaw

  • The roads torn to shreds due to the never-ending Metro construction.
  • The congress of nocturnal prostitutes 100m from the Hotel Marriott.
  • As evening falls, hopping onto a bus to get around town, then being driven out to an empty field and left there.
  • The "friend of a friend" lady GP who did a house-call and treated me for Bronchitis, with a level of competence and friendliness unheard of in Australian white-coats!
  • Every leather-jacketed male you pass on the street is a money-changer. They walk towards you, rub their fingers and quietly say Change money, Change money…
  • The Failure Of Contracts: The Budzynska's endless arguments with their builders about the agreed cost and completion date to refurbish their new restaurant.
  • The Failure Of Contracts: Buying an airline-ticket from a friend of a friend travel-agent. When back in Sydney, my credit card statement shows unauthorised forex transactions, so the airline has to issue a full refund. By then the Warsaw agent has moved on to other business opportunities, so the flight ends up being free.

Bucharest

  • Train carriage interiors unlit due to an electricity shortage — plunging you into terrifying darkness between underground Metro stations.
  • The supermarket in a housing estate with completely empty shelves.
  • Old men and women outside cinemas selling small bags of sunflower seeds.
  • In the University district just about every woman you pass on the street is drop-dead I-don't-believe-it gorgeous!
  • While leaving the Metro, M&M stop to buy me a packet of cigarettes. I thank them, but tell them there is no need as I don't smoke. Am greeted with dumfounded astonishment: But… But here all men smoke!!
  • Gate-crashing a funeral at an Orthodox church in a housing estate. Stayed for the entire thing. Who was that guy who came to uncle Gheorghe's funeral?…
  • At the movies: A double bill of (i) a "mockumentary" of Ceausescu footage dubbed with animal and fart noises — completely ignored by the audience who talked loudly among themselves. (ii) the feature — some kind of "extended family goes on sunny holidays and eats themselves silly" farce. This time everyone watches in rapt attention.
  • All the abandoned tower cranes in the city, making the place resemble an oversized graveyard with giant rusting crucifixes.

Brno

Songs

The following pop tunes, in no particular order, were all over MTV Europe in 1991/2. Because radio was still under State control, Satellite-TV was the only (free) option if you wanted to listen to contemporary music.

BTW Depeche Mode were also hugely popular, despite being ignored by MTV. It was impossible to walk through a housing estate and not see "DM" graffiti everywhere, or hear their music blaring from an 8th floor teenager's window.

Popular Songs, 1991–2
Artist Title Links
Metallica Enter Sandman Video Lyrics Info
Rozalla Everybody's Free to Feel Good Video Lyrics Info
Scorpions Wind of Change Video Lyrics Info
Nirvana Smells like Teen Spirit Video Lyrics Info
Michael Jackson Black or White Video Lyrics Info
Prince Cream Video Lyrics Info
Prince Diamonds and Pearls Video Lyrics Info
Jesus Jones Right Here, Right Now Video Lyrics Info
Guns N Roses You Could Be Mine Video Lyrics Info
EMF Unbelievable Video Lyrics Info
Londonbeat I've Been Thinking About You Video Lyrics Info
U2 Mysterious ways Video Lyrics Info
The KLF (+ Tammy Wynette) Justified and Ancient Video Lyrics Info
R.E.M. Losing My Religion Video Lyrics Info
Pearl Jam Alive Video Lyrics Info
Simply Red Stars Video Lyrics Info
Paula Abdul The Promise of a new day Video Lyrics Info
Bryan Adams I Do It for You Video Lyrics Info
Salt-N-Pepa Let's Talk about Sex Video Lyrics Info

Movies

The following depict the locations and capture the mood of the times rather well:

Trzy kolory: Baily (1994)
The second of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three-Colours trilogy. Features currency speculators; peasant land-millionaires; the endlessly delayed Warsaw Metro; black market smuggling and Julie Delpy (sigh) in a love-gone-bad plot. These days, you can buy anything. Filmed in Warsaw during the '93 winter, it brilliantly captures the go-go/ get-rich-quick atmosphere of the time.
Das Leben der Anderen (2006)
A moody and serious film about the paranoia of the GDR before the Berlin Wall came down. The filmmakers made a serious effort to avoid anachronisms, so the architecture, fashions and cars are straight out of 1984.
The Russia House (1990)
Okay it's fluff and Michelle Pfeiffer is totally unbelievable as "Московская Женщина" — but it was filmed extensively on location in Moscow and Leningrad in 1989 and features a beautiful film-score by Jerry Goldsmith, with soprano saxophone by Branford Marsalis.
Good Bye Lenin! (2003)
Despite the wild anachronism of one its characters wearing a Matrix t-shirt (!), it's an affectionate satire on the After-The-Wall transition in East Berlin. Also features news and documentary footage of the era.
Das Wunder von Berlin (2008)
An okay film about the last days of the GDR regime, from the POV of a (reluctant) Border Guard. What makes the film notable is dramatised footage of the night the Berlin Wall fell.
The Rise And Fall Of The Russian Oligarchs (2005)
Part One of this Canadian TVO/ Human Edge documentary focuses on the economic chaos in Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It also features a lot of contemporary (1991-4) news footage and interviews with the main political players.
Luna Park (1992)
A French-Russian co-production with skinheads, anti-semitism and criminal hijinks in Moscow during the Yeltsin Era.
Sunshine (1999)
A moody period-piece by István Szabó, shot in art-deco and communist portions of Budapest.
Ulysses' Gaze (1995)
176 minutes of ironically pretentious visual poetry about the chaos in the Balkans after the collapse of Communism. The sequence showing the concrete Lenin statue barging down the river is memorable, the rest of the film is not. Neo-scholasticistic cineastes however strongly disagree.
The Inner Circle (1991)
The other film Tom Hulce made. The first foreign production to shoot inside the administrative parts of the Kremlin and Lubyanka. Also features a few other scenes from Moscow (the Metro etc.)
Welcome to Sarajevo (1997)
Like its stable-mate Harrison's Flowers (2000), it deals with the darker side of the Eastern Bloc transition: the civil collapse and insanely vicious war in former Yugoslavia. BTW the savagery is explored even further in Savior (1998).
Entre chiens et loups (2002)
A trashy, poorly lip-synched French crime-caper, filmed extensively in Bucharest. The rusting tower cranes might be gone, but it's weirdly fascinating (and depressing) to see how little things have changed since '91.

Books and Articles

Travelogs

Leaving Poland, Summer, 1989: A Letter Written To Friends
by Danusha V. Goska PhD
The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain
by Brian Rose
(2004) Princeton Architectural Press
ISBN: 1568984936
Notes: A book and website featuring photographs of the old border between East and West 1985-1990, including the "before" and "after" Berlin Wall.
Red Square Blues: A Beginner's Guide to the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union
by Kim Traill
(2009) HarperCollins Australia
ISBN: 9780732285661
Notes: The Soviet and post-Soviet travels of a feminist / vegetarian / music-student / backpacker / reality-show contestant / free-lance ABC & SBS journalist / yummy-mummy & terrace-renovating trendie. As you can imagine most of the time it's clueless and glib, but to be fair she also presents a lot of interesting material from her visits to Russia between 1990 and 2007. (See also the Sept 2009 podcast at the ABC website).
Report on a trip to Moscow to attend the International Meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists
by Richard I. Gibson
July 1992
The Tokyo to London Project
by Walter Colebatch and James Mudie
July-November 1994
Notes: A website detailing Colebatch and Mudie's motorcycle ride across China, Siberia and Russia.
Memento Park, Budapest
by architect Ákos Eleöd
1989-90
Notes: The website for the famous park in Budapest where Communist era statues and symbols are displayed.
Across the red unknown: a journey through the new Russia
by George Negus, photographs by Peter Solness
(1992) Weldon Publishing, Willoughby Australia
ISBN: 1 86302 188 4
Notes: A coffee-table book of a film crew's drive from Vladivostok to Moscow in July-August 1991. Most of the photos are pretty Siberian landscapes or posed set-ups of peasants, but there are a few interesting shots of the late Soviet era, especially of run-down infrastructure or improvised street barricades near the "White House" (parliament) in Moscow at the time of the attempted coup.

Journalism

The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall
by Michael Meyer
(2009) Simon & Schuster, London
ISBN: 978-1-84737-430-1
Notes: Succinctly tells the story of how & why 1989 came about. What is particularly pleasing is that Meyer spends a lot of time analysing the role of Hungary in triggering the collapse, alongside the usual suspects of Polish Solidarity, Vaclav Havel and — of course — Mikhail Gorbachev. Also includes a number of first-hand accounts (by the author) of the night Checkpoint Charlie opened, or the ten (or so) days of the Velvet Revolution in Prague. Even has an account of an interview with Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu a few months before the "Christmas Festivities" (see RFE/RL PDF). BTW you can also read some of Meyer's 1990-91 Newsweek articles on the N/W website.
The Cause of the Fall
by Andrew Blast
(2009) Newsweek Magazine, New York
Notes: Review and analysis of three books which discuss the 1989 Eastbloc revolutions: Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (Pantheon Books) by Sebestyen; The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Simon & Schuster) by Meyer; Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (Modern Library) by Kotkin.
Russia's oligarchs: Their risky routes to riches
Hugh Fraser - BBC World Service
July 2004
Ten years since the wall fell
The Economist magazine
Nov 4th 1999, p.22
The Fall of Stalinism: Ten Years On
by Anthony Arnove
International Socialist Review
Issue 10, Winter 2000
Ceausescu.org
Website
2005
Online archive of Romania's Ceausescu and his era

Time Magazine Archive

The End Of the U.S.S.R.
by George J. Church
TIME December 23, 1991
Just Why Did Communism Fail?
by Michael Kinsley
TIME November 4, 1991
Into The Void
by George J. Church
TIME September 9, 1991
Post-mortem Anatomy of A Coup
by George J. Church
TIME September 2, 1991
Europe The Bills Come Due
by John Borrell
TIME December 3, 1990
Freedom! The Wall crumbles overnight…
by George J. Church
TIME November 20, 1989
Eastern Europe: Chips off the Old Bloc
by Christopher Ogden
TIME March 27, 1989

National Geographic Magazine

When the Wall fell — Berlin's Ode to Joy
by Priit J. Vesilind, photographs by David Alan Harvey and Anthony Suau
NGM April 1990, pp.105-132
Yugoslavia: A House Much Divided
by Kenneth C. Danforth, photographs by Steve McCurry
NGM August 1990, pp.92-124
The Baltic Nations
by Priit J. Vesilind, photographs by Larry C. Price
NGM November 1990, pp.2-38
Mother Russia on a New Course
by Mike Edwards, photographs by Steve Raymer
NGM February 1991, pp.2-39
Dispatches from Eastern Europe
by Tod Szulc, photographs by Tomasz Tomaszewski
NGM March 1991, pp.2-34
East Europe's Dark Dawn
by Jon Thompson, photographs by James Nachtwey
NGM June 1991, pp.36-70
The Morning After: Germany Reunited
by William Ellis, photographs by Gerd Ludwig
NGM September 1991, pp.2-41
Albania Opens the Door
by Dusko Doder, photographs by Nicole Bengiveno
NGM July 1992, pp.66-93
The Bolshevik Revolution: Experiment That Failed
by Dusko Doder, photographs by Peter Essick
NGM October 1992, pp.110-130
A Broken Empire: Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine
by Mike Edwards, photographs by Gerd Ludwig
NGM March 1993, pp.2-54
Czechoslovakia: The Velvet Divorce
by Thomas Abercrombie, photographs by James Stanfield
NGM September 1993, pp.2-37
Soviet Pollution
by Mike Edwards, photographs by Gerd Ludwig
NGM August 1994, pp.70-100
Crimea: Pearl of a Fallen Empire
by Peter T. White, photographs by Ed Kashi
NGM September 1994, pp.96-120
Romania's New Day: A Nation Savors Freedom
by Ed Vulliamy, photographs by Alexandra Avakian
NGM September 1998, pp.34-59

What's next / corrections…

From time to time a few more notes and links are added, but I don't plan on adding any more images as the current selection tells the story well enough.

BTW if you spot any serious errors or omissions, don't hesitate to drop me a note via the Feedback Form on the Home Page.