The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Mail on Sunday can still surprise

The Daily Mail and its weekend stablemate the Mail on Sunday have, let us say, a generally conservative stance. It's not the sort of paper in which you'd expect to find this:
When people ask me what it was like growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary in the Seventies and Eighties, most expect to hear tales of secret police, bread queues and other nasty manifestations of life in a one-party state.

They are invariably disappointed when I explain that the reality was quite different, and communist Hungary, far from being hell on earth, was in fact, rather a fun place to live.

The communists provided everyone with guaranteed employment, good education and free healthcare. Violent crime was virtually non-existent.

But perhaps the best thing of all was the overriding sense of camaraderie, a spirit lacking in my adopted Britain and, indeed, whenever I go back to Hungary today. People trusted one another, and what we had we shared.

[... lots of detail about a happy working-class childhood...]

When communism in Hungary ended in 1989, I was not only surprised, but saddened, as were many others. Yes, there were people marching against the government, but the majority of ordinary people - me and my family included - did not take part in the protests.

Our voice - the voice of those whose lives were improved by communism - is seldom heard when it comes to discussions of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.

Instead, the accounts we hear in the West are nearly always from the perspectives of wealthy emigrés or anti-communist dissidents with an axe to grind.

Communism in Hungary had its downside. While trips to other socialist countries were unrestricted, travel to the West was problematic and allowed only every second year. Few Hungarians (myself included) enjoyed the compulsory Russian lessons.

There were petty restrictions and needless layers of bureaucracy and freedom to criticise the government was limited. Yet despite this, I believe that, taken as a whole, the positives outweighed the negatives.

Twenty years on, most of these positive achievements have been destroyed.

People no longer have job security. Poverty and crime is on the increase. Working-class people can no longer afford to go to the opera or theatre. As in Britain, TV has dumbed down to a worrying degree - ironically, we never had Big Brother under communism, but we have it today.

Elsewhere, the Mail on Sunday (like the Guardian last week) casts an intriguing light on Mussolini's early career. Next time someone tells you 'Mussolini was a socialist, you know!' you can always say, 'Yes, but at least he was on the Decent Left!'

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Hi Ken, I've heard similar or at least related things from several Russians who either left before the Fall or who stayed and spoke with me. All said, for starters, that all the Western literary classics were usually available at low prices (I bought some GDR books at low prices as well). This contradicts the regnant notions then and now propagated by the Dutch media. Also, the best scientific and technical Western works were available, although many were provided with Marxist-Leninist introductions the writers of which almost never took seriously. Lip service. Finally, courses on the great Lomonosov State University (Moscow) were usually forums for free discussion as well as learning. And I know from my (often ex) Russian friends that the education programs were on a level high enough to put almost all Western universities to shame. One of the students is a good friend of mine. I trust what he says. Finally, I read recently (in some British online rag) that the BBC often did its best to avoid broadcasting propaganda. All very interesting stuff.

Well, as someone who lived in a country "between the courtains", I can say this all rings very true... We had the "softest" version of socialism, so even travel abroad was no problem (people rutinely went shopping in Italy to keep up with the latest fashions, frex). Unfortunately, a lot of the people who did want change wanted it because they thought that they would become, simply put, rich. With predictable results...

In Germany earlier this year I met a woman who told me she'd had a very happy childhood in a village in Rumania. Since Rumania was (to reverse a common quip about Hungary) perhaps the least happy barracks in the socialist camp, I found this a little surprising. She was particularly warm about her school-teacher's kindness and devotion to the pupils and friendship with every family in the village.

Over here we got so much relentlessly negative stuff about E. Europe that finding normal life there could be startling. It certainly startled me, on my one and only visit.

I'm not totally surprised that the Daily Mail is printing this. After all, in their universe, the past is always better than the present. People were kinder, life was safer, there were bobbies on bicycles, warm beer, old maids giong to church...

Pippa - I owe a blog review of Mat Coward's SF crime novel Acts of Destruction, which is about men and women who are very like the mythical good old British bobbies on bicycles, except they're working for a near-future post-Peak-Oil democratic socialist Commonwealth of Britain against anti-social elements ...

Not too long ago I went to a theatre club meeting run by Swedish enthusiasts of Russian culture (I love the music and films). The group showed the recent Russian film, "The Vanished Empire," a story of everyday life in Moscow. The characters were mostly students at some unnamed Institute, aged about 21. They really were not at all concerned about being Gulaged away or anything like that. Just Soviet variants of problems we were familiar with as youngsters. E.g. where can we drink booze (here: vodka) without our parents knowing about it? I saw it with Darko and Nena Suvin, who surely could judge the film's verisimilitude, coming as they do from "between the curtains"( vala, Milena) . Ten seconds after the film ended, Darko said to Nena and me, very solemly, "An honest film." That says a lot. (As for myself, I was perplexed by all the propaganda during the cold war, and did not know what to think until I met the people I've written about here and above.) BTW, the film ends 30 years later, when two of the crew meet by chance at a Moscow airport. They reminisce. One of them, a successful Helsinki businessman but no Oligarch, says "something is evil here," or words to that effect. We all agreed.

I'm plagued by hypertrophic accuratism. the film takes place in Moscow during Brezhnev's time.

Have you seen "Kontroll"[movie set on the Budapest metro, it's fun but grim up East]?

I'm not sure I'd ever want to go to the opera. The only musical I've ever really liked was South Park.

"decent left"

Nice quip ;-)

Interesting that this fascinating piece appeared in a conservative paper; it could never appear in a liberal paper, I suspect: liberals really, really hate Deviation from the One Truth, on any matter!

- Mat C

Thanks for posting the piece. I would have been very unlikely to run across it otherwise (and particularly interesting for someone who grew up in Miami).

The matter of liberal/conservative papers aside (and I'd be interested to know what anyone else here thinks about that), it strikes me as even less likely to run in a major American newspaper of any view than a British one.

Hallo Nader--I was born in America and left for Europe, right before I reached 30. I now live in Sweden, which provides the best example of what I think you mean. Since the 60s I read articles (one in TIME stands out) about how horrid the Nordic countries were, especially Sweden. And that country was particularly bad (it was claimed) because of its "Socialised Medicine." This only got me interested. I turned out that the reality was much different. The UK with its NHS too. I have benefitted from both systems, but some "acquaintances" in the USA do not believe me to this day. One called me a traitor 3 nights ago, online! They aren't dome, just kept needlessly in the dark. As for the article posted here, you will probably never find anything like it in the Washington Post or the New York Times. They won't admit their mistakes, or their having followed "suggestions" from the superrich and the US govt. concerning the rag's content. I was glad to read that the BBC did its best to resist pressure to broadcast propaganda, although I don't know the full story. BTW, for critical news mostly about America, I suggest you look at That bunch takes articles from all over the place and gets them onto one convenient page every day. They also provide op-eds written either on request by others or by their staff. I've learned a lot from it.

Peter Hitchens will get NKVD on their ass.

Sounds exceptionally suitable to the Daily Mail, actually.

"Things were better in the past, before we started worrying so much about things like 'human rights'. It was only ever a tiny minority of malcontents and do-gooders who protested anyway, and most of them were in it to make money. Back then you could walk the streets in safety, and there was a real sense of community spirit. You don't get that today; now it's all about money, money, money, and the TV is terrible."

What was the deal with Solidarity and all those tanks then? So the Polish experience should be seen as a continuation of the nationalist conflict between Poland and Russia, not oppression of the individual by Marxist ideologues. Screw it. Even if I accept the relevancy of the above post/comments, the right side still won.

Hi Privateltron
My comments--I cannot vouch for anyone else--are solely intended to point out that a lot of what I heard about the Soviet Union was false, intentional, false, propaganda.

Huh, that's quite a jab against the prevailing delusion of the Hungarians being the most ardent anti-communists, rivaled only by the Poles.

Born in 1984, I belong to the last Soviet generation. I remember just enough to nod in agreement while reading through most of the article. That said, life for an average Soviet citizen was somewhat less rosy compared to that of the inhabitants of the Soviet satellites, let alone Yugoslavia. Traveling abroad was quite difficult - even to the socialist states - and nearly impossible for a non-member of the Party. Among my immediate family, only my grandfather had the privilege to travel (to East Germany). Unsurprisingly, he was also the only Party member. On the other hand, with unrestricted and affordable access to one sixths of the planet's inhabited land, one probably didn't feel too deprived.

What was a real cause of disgruntlement for many people was the way quotas and rations functioned - with ensuing deficits and massive queues even for the most basic of supplies. Sadly, this part of the Soviet life is not a product of the Western propaganda. Most disconcertingly, these quotas functioned very differently from place to place. People of the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) were not really familiar with the whole concept of deficit; the Caucasian
republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) were likewise well supplied. If you lived in the Russian interior, somewhere in Siberia, say, in the city called Omsk - things looked quite differently. For example, my parents had to drive to nearby Kazakhstan just to buy certain clothes, furniture, etc.

But these were relatively minor things to pay given the level of education, health care and culture we all enjoyed. Most importantly, people were not afraid of what tomorrow may bring.

Yes, the Soviet system was struggling by the end of the 1980s, but these problems were not insurmountable - and they seem minor compared to what's happening to the country 20 years later. Russia today is a quasi-theocratic oligarchy, where the ruling elite has nothing, but disdain for the common citizens. It lost its leading edge in science, its culture is abysmal to non-existent. Its social programmes exist in name only. And worst of all, most people are mired in apathy, fully consigning themselves to oblivion.

Backward to the 19th century for Russia then?

What was the deal with Solidarity and all those tanks then? So the Polish experience should be seen as a continuation of the nationalist conflict between Poland and Russia, not oppression of the individual by Marxist ideologues. Screw it. Even if I accept the relevancy of the above post/comments, _the right side still won._

PrivateIron is right here. You can make neither moral nor political sense out of the 20th century if you cannot accept that the Stalinist regimes spawned by the post-WW1 counter-revolution were economically, socially and politically bankrupt. The mass bloodletting of 2 world wars and intervening decades of counter revolutionary terror and fascist reaction cut swathes across the former Soviet bloc; and only the holocaust outdid the Stalnist regimes' penchant for disposing of their populations in droves.

Zsuzsanna Clark's particular strain of childhood reminiscence finds its echo in the Torygraph's John-Bull jingoes' ever more wistful nostalgia for the 'good old days of the Cold War'. It's whistling in the dark, in other words. ;)

Not even, Fellow Traveller. At least back then culture was flourishing and the new ideas were brewing, along with discontent with the status quo.

For similarly stereotype-challenging views of China, see Da Sijie's novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress or Zhang Yimou's film To Live - in rather different ways, the Cultural Revolution as fun.

There's also the film Shanghai Dreams, set in the early years of the Chinese economic reforms, which has the same sense of a teenage world the adults don't understand as Gregory's Girl.

One friend mentioned above is a man of very broad culture. From highly technical scientific work to literature, history, and philosophy. He attributes this to his education at Moscow's Lomonosov State University. A few years ago he returned as a visiting teacher and became immensely disappointed. When he studied there many students had the same breadth of learning and thirs for knowledge however abstract. Today, he told me, it was mostly Pollyanna New Age crap, IT, business, or some mix of these.

'the Soviet system was struggling by the end of the 1980s, but these problems were not insurmountable'
From anecdata I got the impression that the system peaked in the early 70's and went into terminal decline after that. The problems were not surmounted. And the undemocratic nature of the system was quite important for the way things played out. Most people may have been unhappy with what happened, but the system was never designed to let most people have any say in policymaking.

It seems to me that we's need lots of detailed historical and economical data and analysis to justify those anecdotal claims. One should never be fully satisfied with such "data."

An anniversary joke:

A woman sits bolt upright in the middle of the night. She jumps out of bed and rushes to the bathroom to look in the medicine cabinet. Then, she runs into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. Finally, she dashes to the window and looks out into the street. Relieved, she returns to the bedroom. Her husband asks, "What's wrong with you?" "I had a terrible nightmare", she says, "I dreamed we could still afford to buy medicine, that the refrigerator was absolutely full, and that the streets were safe and clean. I also dreamed that you had a job, that we could afford to pay our gas and electricity bills and the Hungarian national football team was one of the best in the world.

"How is that a nightmare?" asks her husband. The woman shakes her head, "I thought the communists were back in power."


- Mat C

This is pretty much what I would expect from a Stalinist son-of-a-btch l;ike you, McLeod. Why libertarians play footsie with you is something I'll never figure out, unless it's your incredible prestige as a Big Time Sci-Fi Guy.

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