Travelling through Eastern Europe a few years ago, my companion and I took a tour of Nova Huta, the Krakow suburb that had been designed by Stalin as the ideal proletarian city. Our guide was Mike, an excitable 30-year-old in camo pants and a flat-top who had ditched his law career when he realized the old ladies selling potatoes in the market made more than he would.
Mike drove us around Nova Huta in a rickety old Trabant, pointing out various totalitarian sites, then took us to his rented apartment, which he had tricked out with all manner of Soviet-era furnishings, artwork and appliances. It was all very authentic. It was all very crappy.
This was my first experience with Ostalgie, a neologism that is a mash-up of the German words for east and nostalgia, meaning nostalgia for life in the GDR and the other countries of the former Soviet bloc. Ostalgie is a phenomenon driven by the conviction that while socialism was often difficult, life was in many ways better. Fear and suspicion may have been the background radiation of daily life, this view goes, but the old Communist societies were more egalitarian and had a greater sense of solidarity and common purpose.
The flagship document of the Ostalgie movement was the 2003 film Good Bye Lenin!, about a woman who slips into a coma just as the Berlin Wall is coming down, and when she awakens, her children go to great lengths to trick her into believing that the GDR is still intact. Since then there have been any number of Ostalgie-themed movies, television shows and novels, and just last year the Museum of the DDR opened its doors in Berlin.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire was one of the greatest events of the 20th century. But as the years passed and the initial exuberance and optimism have given way to a grim realism, many Eastern Europeans have started to wonder whether they’ve been sold a bill of goods. There’s a gnawing feeling that liberalism and capitalism are not all they are cracked up to be, and at the very least, not worth trading the old statist order for. As the graffiti spied on a wall in Warsaw in 1995 put it: “We wanted democracy, but we ended up with the bond market.”
How seriously should we take this? In some ways, nostalgia for the former GDR seems stronger than ever. In a widely reported Pew Research poll released last month, 50 per cent of East Germans agreed with the statement that the GDR had more good sides than bad—confirmation, if anything, of the human brain’s ability to bury bad memories in a mindshaft of frozen neurons. The same poll reported that only in the Czech Republic and Poland do a majority of citizens believe life is better than or at least as good as it was under Communism, while in almost every country support for the transition to democracy has dropped since 1991.
But what is most remarkable about this nostalgia is how politically impotent it all is. There are no serious back-to-Communism movements, and for all their romanticism about the days of the hammer and sickle, only 10 per cent of East Germans will confess to actually wanting to live back in the GDR. The truth is, a large majority of Germans on both sides of the old divide now believe unification has made their lives better.
Any political momentum Ostalgie might have had a decade or so ago is long since gone. It has been replaced now by something far more powerful: nostalgic consumerism. The kids party in bars built in old bomb shelters, flea markets sell Communist-chic furniture, and Germany’s supermarkets have been flooded recently with tasteless East German brands. There’s even a renewed demand for clunkers like the two-stroke Trabant.
Which means that as much as the Ostalgists might hate this idea, they’re just like us. Today’s Ostalgie has an entirely consumerist agenda, driven by an ironic desire for a shopping experience that harkens back to a simpler, more idyllic time before the arrival of capitalism.
This, of course, is the very essence of Western consumerism, and for decades now we’ve been satisfying our desire for virtue, happiness or rebellion through soap, sneakers and SUVs. The most powerful contemporary version of this is the search for the authentic pre-modern experience in all manner of things local, eco- and organic: we’ve convinced ourselves that stopping off at Whole Foods for green tea on the way back from the yoga studio is a credible way of getting back in touch with our true, pre-civilized self.
There is nothing terribly remarkable about the fact that the citizens of former Communist countries are ambivalent about capitalism. So are we, which is precisely why we feel the need to wrap our consumerist urges in the brandwork of anti-consumerist values.
But Ostalgic behaviour is nothing more than the post-Soviet equivalent of the West’s search for authenticity: both are driven by a desire to return to a place outside of the cash nexus, freed of the jockeying for status and the competitive consumption of the market economy.
There is one difference: at least the Eastern Europeans have an actual social experiment to serve as the imagined object of their nostalgia. That puts them one up on the authenticity-seekers in the West, whose noble-savage aspirations hearken back to a past that never existed, and to which we wouldn’t actually want to return even if we could.