“You! You bastard, you destroyed the greatest system in the world!” I was taking my English class to our room at the Institute for Physical Chemistry in Warsaw when I heard this slightly mad Russian voice bellowing at me.
“No, I didn’t. You did that all by yourself and you can’t have Alaska back,” I replied.
That’s how I met—let’s call him Oleg, the only Russian communist I ever met. I’d met a fair number of Russians. I even had a couple of Russian chemists as private students, and of course I’d heard of people who were said to be nostalgic about the old system but I’d never actually met an Eastern European communist. All the communists I’d ever known were in American universities.
Over the semester I got to know Oleg. He was, as I had thought at first, slightly mad. He had all kinds of stories about how the Mossad was out to kill him and was fond of raving wildly. “You see my eyes? My grandmother was raped by a Tartar!” Like my Russian students, he was working in Poland on a research contract. He was an oncologist doing research involving juvenile cancers, had worked in America, and spoke excellent English.
Oleg used to go on about what a wonderful life he’d had under communism. He’d had foreign travel and a prestigious job. When I met him he was working in Poland for a Polish salary and glad to get it, even considering the humiliation of working for Poles. The last time I saw him his contract had run out and he was looking for work. “Oh, Steve,” he said, “it was so great under communism.” “Well, Oleg, for you I’m sure it was.”
I felt so bad for the poor slob that I bought him breakfast and gave him two zloty to play the horses at Wyscigi racetrack. Of course I also felt pretty good as I watched him rush off to make his fortune on his sure thing. I thought to myself with glee, “Hey, dude! We won and you lost. Feels pretty good to me.”
I have taught university students, top ministry officials, and the children of secret police officers in Poland, Bulgaria, and Serbia, and in ten years I have yet to find any Eastern European with a good word to say about communism.
This is not to contend they aren’t there. Older people left behind by the changes, living on pitifully inadequate pensions eaten away by the inflation of the first few years following the changes, tend to get nostalgic about their former lives, especially when they see the young people starting businesses, beginning careers in fields that didn’t even exist here before, and enjoying a lifestyle far beyond what any nomenklatura could have enjoyed in their heyday. I just don’t have much to do with the older people. My students and colleagues are learning English and taking their fate into their own hands.
I have, on the other hand, met a fair number of Western expats who had some sympathy for socialism in one form or other. The expat fellow travelers tend to be British or Irish. One old Irishman told me quietly (because such sentiments are inclined to offend Polish customers), “You know them communists, they really took care of their people.” I glanced up at the picture he proudly displayed of him and Gerry Adams with their arms around each other and wondered how much his sentiments were shared by his buds back home.
In Sofia one night at a party with a group of participants in the cognitive science summer seminar at the New Bulgarian University, one English psychologist remarked, “You know, there were a lot of good things about communism.” I noticed that all of the people around the table who were thoughtfully nodding were Brits and Scandinavians. The rest maintained a polite silence except for one Slovenian girl who said that while communism had failed, socialism was still a good idea. She had (surprise, surprise) been educated in Canada.
Looking for Advancement
A female friend in Bulgaria told me that her mother was one of the people who thought things had been better under communism. She and her late husband had been Party members. My friend, a libertarian and fan of Hayek, said that she would have joined the Party if it had still been in power, for the same reasons everybody else did and the same reason people join country clubs: advancement in the professions.
Another Bulgarian girl in one of my classes put it in perspective for me. I had asked my students if they had any friends or relatives whom they loved and respected who believed passionately in something that is absolute nonsense (I mentioned relatives in EST). One young lady said, “Well, I have this friend who I’ve known since we were kids, and he’s . . . well, he’s a communist.” This was followed by shocked gasps and indignant replies, “Here! In this country? How could anyone live here and think that way?” “Well you know, he says it wasn’t given a fair try and the Western powers destroyed it from outside.” In fact, in Bulgaria I met several royalists but no communists.
So what were those good things about communism? I put this to my wife here in Poland recently. She started enumerating the “good things about communism” that she remembered before the changes. Since the old regime collapsed when she was quite young, the memories must be rather vivid:
- Going with your mother to collect bottles in vacant lots to turn in for the deposit so you can buy milk.
- Brushing your teeth for one week out of every three months because toothpaste is unavailable or too expensive. (But that’s not too bad since there isn’t any sugar either.)
- Having to be extra careful about how much toilet paper you use because it’s hard to get.
- Listening to your parents cry in the kitchen because they don’t know how they can buy food for you.
- Having your broken leg set (at age ten) by a drunken doctor who doesn’t lay down gauze under the plaster, so that when it has to be taken off and reset, it takes the skin with it. It is taken off with a screwdriver that gouges to the bone.
These were not poor people: her father was a high-ranking officer in the Army Secret Chancellery, her mother a bank manager.
She summed up her feelings toward Westerners who still defend communism and espouse some form of socialism thusly, “These people offend me by existing.”
Stephen Browne is an English teacher, freelance writer, and editor based in Warsaw. He has lived and worked in Eastern Europe and the Middle East since 1991 and is the founder of the English for Liberty summer camp held annually in Lithuania.