‘You haven’t had 50 years of communism to wipe out all your humanity’

We’re in a Liddle store.

That’s my wife’s answer when I ask her why everyone around us is being so aggressive.

I’ve just seen a middle aged woman ram -yes, literally ram – an old lady’s cart out of the way with her own cart. As though we are filming a modern remake of Ben Hur. The old lady had looked a little confused about where to go, but the middle aged lady made up her mind for her.

When we are looking at some products, our own cart is swept away without a word by some annoyed looking overweight dude in his forties. He parks it somewhere else, without asking anything, without looking at us.

When you get out of a tram it’s not uncommon for people to start yelling at each other. Over here cars do not stop for pedestrians. You have to risk your life by taking a deep breath and simply crossing, forcing them to slow down or stop. In Austria you only have to point at the road and cars will come to a full stop. Austria is only about 30 kms away, but it is a different world.

I honestly can’t remember this sort of mute aggressive behavior in Belgian supermarkets. The pace of the shoppers is less frantic, people are less annoyed, they smile more often and there are more examples of courteous behavior.

But is communism to blame for all this?

I’m not saying that, but people around here seem to think so.

‘Imagine standing in line for hours for a product that may never come or when it does come there’s not enough of it for everyone’s needs. Of course people are impatient and pushy in our shops, it’s in our history, it’s in our blood’, says my wife.

The Belgian communists – claim the only problem around here was the lack of certain consumer goods, other than that people around here didn’t realize they were in paradise…

The local opinions are a bit less enthusiastic.

When I talk to people who have actual first hand experience they are mostly negative:

– there were not enough products, you had to wait for ages to get something

– services were abysmal because there was no profit incentive to serve clients decently

– you had to have the right contacts to study what you wanted

– almost everyone had jobs, but you didn’t have much freedom to choose what kind of job you wanted to do

– people could steal at work, with impunity. You can hear stories about people renovating their houses with all sorts of material stolen at their work place

– you had to become a member of the party if you wanted to pursue phd research for example

– people had money, but there wasn’t much to buy, so you were forced to save money

– you couldn’t travel, and when you did have the chance to travel you were treated as though you might be planning never to return

– there were shops with better, fancier products, but you needed some kind of stamps to be allowed to shop there. If you had a lot of foreign currency you could exchange it for those stamps. If you were well-connected you could also get the fancier products

– there wasn’t much of a club scene, but rumor has it, there were underground clubs where the kids of the elite could go and shake their booty

– the communists are held responsible for ugly city planning and appartments with a very unpractical use of space (tiny kitchens for examples, perhaps because the serving of hot meals was supposed to be organized collectively)

– after the fall of communism, lots of former communists made a lot of money selling state owned companies to foreign investors, people with money also bought up lots of real estate and flourished that way

– it’s said that this country is not used to democracy and the art of making compromises, and that this leads to lots of corruption. Yesterday there was a rather huge anti-corruption rally against corruption in the middle of Bratislava. More than 10,000 people showed up.

– one of the biggest thorns in the eyes of people was the hypocrite communication of the party, there were never any problems, and everyone was equal, which was blatantly untrue

Especially older people point to some of the positive aspects:

– teachers were more respected than they are now and had a decent salary

– the Church was obstructed and repressed and if you were open about being religious you risked being subtly sanctioned by the Party

– you didn’t have to do much if you didn’t want to. You could easily ‘skulk’ and enjoy a nice, quiet life

– there was never a lack of alcohol

– human ties were closer, there was more camaraderie, less individualism

– healthcare was cheaper and better (here opinions are very different, some say yes, some say no)

– traveling was relatively cheap (but possible destinations were very limited). They usually say: ‘Back then we had the money and the time to travel, but we weren’t allowed to, now we are allowed to travel anywhere we want, but we don’t have the time nor the money’

– there was something of a community spirit that’s fading now

– there was -obviously- less consumerism and less materialism

– the gap between rich and poor was smaller (critics say: we were all equally poor)

This was a question asked on Quora.

Below you see a poster for the Museum of communism, in the Czech Republic, note the irony: it’s above McDonald’s

This is not a scientific article, but purely based on my own observations, lots of talks with the locals, here and in other ex communist countries, my experience working as a propagandist for a very real Belgian communist (secretely stalinist) party, the PVDA, (be careful their wikipedia page is of course heavily edited by PVDA members) files in the archive of the Dutch embassy here in Bratislava, some subjects about communism we had at university, research for a play I wrote back in 2014 and quite a bit of reading. I welcome any remarks and suggestions, as always)