LAKE BALATON AND PRAGUE | Laszlo Takacs sweats over a bubbling fryer, deftly wielding his tongs to pull out another Frisbee-shaped langos. One swimsuit-clad customer after another requests Takacs’ deep-fried dough disks, especially the classic: slathered with sour cream, sprinkled with grated Trappist cheese, and drizzled with garlic sauce for good measure.
“Hungarians have always loved langos, and they always will,” Takacs says. “It’s a national specialty, like goulash.”
This was Hungary’s communist-era version of fast food – oily, cheap, tasty, and reliably belly-filling. Today it’s a relative rarity, overwhelmed by Western staples like pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, even shwarma and Chinese food. Continue reading …
Slovak-born sociologist, publisher, and writer, 1945–
Slovak among Czechs, federalist vainly trying to stop the “velvet divorce,” Jewish intellectual who helped start a phenomenally successful private TV station – Fedor Gal’s life in the past 20 years has been a study in contrasts.
Gal was born in 1945 in Terezin, the Jewish ghetto in northern Bohemia where his pregnant mother had been transported from Slovakia in the last stages of World War II. His father died a month later in Germany during a forced march of concentration camp inmates, a journey Gal retraced for the 2009 documentary Krátka dlouhá cesta (Short Long Journey).
Gal (right) with fellow Public Against Violence leaders Milan Knazko and Jan Budaj in 1990.
Gal went on to study chemical engineering and economics at universities in Bratislava and Prague. According to his website, in the mid-1980s he became one of the first scientific researchers to break loose from the rigid academic system and work on a freelance basis.
The quick fall of Czechoslovakia’s communist government and the rush to fill the resulting power vacuum made Gal a leading figure in Slovak politics, and by his own account a target for much vitriol and bigotry.
Along with figures such as actor Milan Knazko, lawyer Vladimir Meciar, and dissident activist Jan Budaj, Gal helped transform the main Slovak dissident group, Public Against Violence (VPN), from a free-floating anti-regime coalition into a broad-based political movement that easily won the first democratic vote in June 1990. Recently, on his own website, Gal recalled the welter of emotion and released tensions that accompanied the Velvet Revolution: “So many illusions, so much euphoric enthusiasm, naivety, amateurism, and at the same time human hyena-ism, collected frustrations, egoism broke through in the course of days and weeks to the surface of our daily lives.”
But the euphoria for Gal was short-lived. As splits began to appear in the VPN between the nationalist wing around Meciar and a more federalist-inclined faction, he found himself at the receiving end of grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures published in hard-line communist and nationalist newspapers. Disgusted, he decided to leave Slovakia and has lived on the Czech side of the former federation ever since.
Established in Prague, he returned to his academic career for a time, but more significantly, became part of the group that won the first license for a private television station in the former Czechoslovakia. Nova launched in Prague in 1994 with a diet of foreign shows, sensationalist news, and late-night porn, becoming by far the most-watched Czech station for many years and earning Gal enough money to devote his days to publishing (through the G plus G publishing house he started with his son Robert) and writing. He has published a string of books on travel, spirituality, and popular science, as well as collections of essays.
This year Gal jumped headlong into the pool of revolutionary retrospection, co-producing a series of online video documentaries on the events of 1989 and ‘90 for the Slovak magazine Tyzden. His own view of the legacy of the past 20 years was expressed in an April discussion at the Catholic University of Ruzomberok, Slovakia. “Democracy is not freedom,” Gal said, “only an environment where it is better to fly than during communism.”
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: photographer Jaroslav Kucera.
I was living in a little flat near Narodni trida with my partner, Marketa. On 17 November and we were walking nearby when we saw a big demonstration. My partner wanted to go over, but I said, “No, I’ve seen all of this before, I know what it’s like.”
In 1969 I was at a demonstration on the one-year anniversary of the Soviet occupation when I was arrested by the secret police. First they took us to the police station, and then to Pankrac prison. The guards lined both sides of a passage with truncheons, and we were made to run through while they clubbed us. They repeated it five times, and many of the other prisoners broke down mentally or physically. Then they tried to make us name names. Continue reading …
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: author, commentator, and Catholic priest Tomas Halik.
We started preparing for the canonization of St. Agnes of Prague in 1987, but there was a delay, and so the canonization was in November ’89. When we left Prague for Rome there was already something in the air.
One evening in Rome, I was out walking, although the weather was terrible. Down a little street I ran into [Archbishop of Paris] Cardinal Lustiger, whom I had met once before in Prague. He said, “Try to contact the Holy Father,” so I wrote a letter. I went to dinner with John Paul II on the day before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had been on the news that day saying, “There will be an end to communism. You will be free.” I said, “Holy Father, I don’t believe it. I think that in five or 10 years, maybe it might happen.” But he insisted that it would come soon. Continue reading …
ulius Michnik speaks of two great loves in his life. One is his wife, Frantiska, with whom he’s spent the past 55 years. The other is the Bata shoe company, with whom he’s spent the last 66.
As a 15-year-old apprentice, Michnik recalls, he marveled at the rigorous quality control Czech shoe baron Tomas Bata’s disciples imposed in the Slovak town that bloomed around the company. This standard propelled “unbeatable, eternal Bata” upward in Czechoslovakia both before and during the communist period. At its peak the Partizanske plant employed nearly 16,000 people and turned out more than 30 million pairs of shoes a year, according to a history of the town published in 2000.
Today, that’s a distant memory. Most of the mile-long complex is a rusting hulk, with only a few signs of life on its vast grounds.
“I was very proud, and I’m still very proud, to have worked there,” says Michnik, president of the Bata “School of Work” Alumni Association. “But this would never have happened if Bata himself were here today. Or he would have shot himself.”
Twenty years after the collapse of communism, Partizanske is a microcosm of how classic one-company towns in Slovakia, and Eastern Europe itself, were devastated by the free-market transition. Blasted by Asian competitors, the city labors to recover and compete.
“Here was ‘Strong Bata’ and ‘Strong Socialism.’ Families didn’t have to struggle for anything, because the boss provided for all their needs,” Mayor Jan Podmanicky says “How do you teach people to be independent and take responsibility for themselves? People from the outside can give you advice, but you have to change yourself.”
AN OASIS FOR WORKERS
Batovany, as the town was originally named, sprouted like an oasis from a barren spot in the Danubian hills, as the shoe company branched out in 1938 and ’39 from its Czech base of Zlin. Wooden shacks were built for the first workers.
Julius Michnik landed in Batovany in 1943, a country boy fending for himself during wartime. Jobs were scarce and precious, and anyone who claimed one got a shot of prestige. Michnik enrolled in the four-year apprentice program. He rose early for mandatory exercise in the town square, donned his uniform and cap, and was taught each phase of the shoe-making process.
“The teaching discipline, the upbringing at work – I can’t describe it,” he says. “If you worked hard, you made enough money. Even enough to save some.”
He was rewarded with a bed in Batovany’s first brick dormitory. This was no ordinary workers’ housing. As some in the West bemoaned the toll industrialization had taken on labor, a clutch of left-leaning urban planners designed the “ideal industrial city” that would “underpin undisturbed rest after work,” according to BataStory.net. Inspired by Zlin, Batovany – and other “Batavilles” built around company plants as far away as India – became a prime example of architectural social engineering.
The Bata factory and rail lines sat on the northern edge of town. A buffer of green space separated them from a belt of communal buildings – town hall, cultural center, cinema, department store, church. Then came the housing, with central heating and indoor plumbing, then a rarity for Slovaks.
The Michniks – who met and fell in love at the factory – recall those days fondly.
“Man was made to work for eight hours, to have recreation for eight hours, and to sleep for eight hours,” says Frantiska, echoing a popular communist-era refrain.
Many of the red-brick buildings, especially the charming family homes, still stand today. Yet it’s the town’s unique spatial arrangement that has become the subject of significant scholarship, a remnant of a unique chapter in architectural history.
“The purpose of this ‘utopian’ project was to better prepare living conditions for the working class in a modern industrial city – and it functioned quite well,” says Henrieta Moravcikova, a senior researcher with the Institute of Construction and Architecture in Bratislava. “On the other hand, people realized that their lives were organized a little too much. Only a small part of their private life was left to themselves.”
The history of Batovany as such was short-lived. In 1949, the newly installed communist regime commemorated the legions of company men who had joined the Slovak partisans to fight the Nazis and their Slovak collaborators. They renamed the town Partizanske; the factory was reinvented as the 29 August Works (known by the Slovak acronym ZDA), denoting the day the anti-Nazi uprising began in 1944.Under the communists, Michnik says he brushed aside railings against the capitalist “enslaver” Bata, remaining loyal to the chief who’d instilled a work ethic. At the same time, Michnik was ambitious. To climb the ladder, he allied himself with new rulers.
“If you want to move up, they told me, you have to join the party,” he says. “I was a communist. You can write that. To be a director, you had to be. Every technical worker was. … But I’m not ashamed. I never did anything bad to anybody.”
By the time he retired from ZDA in 1990, Michnik had 1,500 employees working under him. His departure coincided with the decline of the Partizanske works. Robbed of the command economy’s protectionist wall, the plant couldn’t compete with cheaper labor in Asia.
Post-Velvet Revolution privatization saw ZDA broken into several smaller pieces, including Rialto, a moderately large Italian-owned shoe manufacturer that exports primarily to Western Europe, North America, and Japan, and several smaller Slovak companies. Whereas ZDA once employed 10,000 people in Partizanske, only about 3,000 people work in the town’s shoe trade now, according to the mayor’s office. One building at the works that once buzzed with 1,000 employees is now used by only 100; several others on the campus are dormant.
Foreign investment is scant, and unemployment in the Partizanske district, which has a population of about 47,000, reached 22 percent 10 years ago. Today it’s down to 12 percent, according to Podmanicky, eased by the departure of some 2,000 local youth who have headed West in search of work.
One Partizanske 18-year-old, Peter Zavodny, says his parents both worked at the shoe factory, and he likely would have done the same. Instead he works as a car mechanic, but only part-time – they call him when they need him.
“Back 20 years ago, there were fewer things to buy, but at least I would have had a job,” says Zavodny, walking with his girlfriend. “It’s pretty frustrating to be able to work only when they tell you.”
Partizanske is but one Slovak example of a “town or region that, due to its structure of economy, has suffered – or still is suffering – a more difficult transition,” says Lubos Vagac, chairman of the Center for Economic Development in Bratislava. “This refers not only to the one-company makeup, but also to the insufficient adaptation of other sectors, including the local education system; poor cooperation between social partners and schools; failure to identify the future labor and skills demands; and the insufficient capacity of the local or regional administration.”
While Podmanicky and his staff try to lure foreign investors to Partizanske, he says they also encourage local entrepreneurs to take a risk. Andrej Svoboda, a native son, left at 18 in search of work – going first to Bratislava, then to England. He returned two years ago with a business partner from the Slovak capital to set up their own company, Art in Games, which produces visuals for computer games.
Simply coming home was a big part of the decision, says Svoboda, now 27, but he also found conditions in the town ripe for a start-up.
“If you are thinking a bit further, it is a place with good potential,” he says in an e-mail interview. “As everything here is cheaper [than] in Bratislava you can offer more bonuses to your employees.” As Art in Games grows, he adds, the firm has provided amenities like an exercise room, swimming pool, billiards table, and even a small cinema for staff, “as thanks because they work for us. We wouldn’t be able to do that anywhere else.”
While Art in Games carries on the Bata tradition of tending to employees’ non-work needs, entrepreneurs in Bata’s own field have had a harder time. One businessman started a small-scale shoe operation with a crew of 50 in the town, Podmanicky says; it thrived early on but was upended by the recent economic crisis.
“This is the hardest thing to learn about the new system. Things rise, things vanish,” says the mayor, who, like Michnik, unabashedly admits his past party membership. “This town was built on security. But today there is no Bata, there is no socialism. But we’re still here, so we have to try hard every day.”
Still, the laid-off workers populating Partizanske’s pubs are a daily reminder of what was lost.
“Work, it’s the most important thing,” Michnik says. “I see all the unemployed here, spending their last cents in the bar around the corner. When there’s no work, no money, there’s no happy life.”
David Hlynsky’s introduction to communist Europe was “a gut-level impression of a change of color.” It was 1986, and the U.S.-born, Canada-based photographer was en route to Krakow, where he’d been invited to exhibit his work. Freshly over the West German border, driving through the Czech city of Plzen, “suddenly I had this feeling of a cinnamon brown and ocher cityscape, which was very unusual.”
“It seems like a minor thing, but it was quite a horrible thing at the time,” Hlynsky recalls 23 years later. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that what I was actually experiencing was a lack of highly saturated primary colors … that were part of Western advertising.”
From this earth-toned first impression grew, indirectly and at times without the artist even being fully aware of it, a fascination with the commercial culture of the communist world. On that trip and three more to the Eastern bloc in its last throes, Hlynsky increasingly focused on shop windows and storefront signs, a deceptively simple urban landscape he recalls now as a “museum of a different kind of materialism.”
The results, which have been the subject of shows in Prague, Berlin, and New York, are a remarkable record of the period just before the wave of consumerism broke over Central and Eastern Europe. Ranging in style and tone from spartan to sweetly decorative, the windows in Hlynsky’s lens both reinforce and belie Cold War-era tropes of grim eastern deprivation, and bring into sharp relief the difference between labeling a product for sale and branding it for mass consumption.
The 62-year-old photographer says the shop-windows series is perhaps the closest to his heart of nearly 40 years of published and exhibited work, and he is shopping a book-length collection. He talked to Transitions Online about the genesis and development of the project by telephone from his home in Toronto.
TOL: What led you to begin traveling to communist Europe in the late 1980s?
David Hlynsky: I’ve been an artist in Toronto. I immigrated to Toronto in 1971 from the U.S., and a Polish immigrant to Canada was organizing an exhibition in Poland and she asked me to be part of it in 1986. So I basically took it as an opportunity to travel to Poland and to exhibit my work.
I grew up in the U.S. during the Cold War, and during that time, anybody with Eastern European heritage was considered kind of a backwoods bumpkin. There were anti-Polack jokes, and the Russians were cheap thugs, and, you know, all of my own ethnic heritage was kind of put into a category of being less sophisticated than most of Western Europe. All of my relatives were from Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and kept on talking about the “old country.” When I had the opportunity to go to Poland, I thought, here was a perfect time to go see what the old country really was. The first trip was about a two-week trip, and it really opened my eyes.
How and why did you begin photographing shop windows, and what drew you to them as a subject?
When I was invited to this exhibition, I took a Hasselblad camera with me, thinking I was going to shoot portraits. This camera is really a studio camera, a portrait camera; it’s not the kind of camera you would use on the street at all. But as soon as I got into this landscape, I realized that it was an unusual landscape, and it was the camera that I had, and I started taking photographs of the street. I didn’t know how far I could tempt the system, but my instinct was that the business of the landscape, the business that the people were carrying on, was so banal that if I presented myself as part of that banal landscape, I wouldn’t be in trouble.
My impulse first is to photograph what I thought was representative of people on the street. My technique was to find somebody interesting, move ahead of them, find the background, and then wait for them to enter it. Well, the backgrounds were store windows. And there is a picture, it’s in a folder on my photo website, of a woman walking down the street [in Krakow] with a Marlboro bag. If you look in the background of that picture, it’s a shoe store, and there’s almost nothing in the shoe store. When I got back to Toronto and I started looking at these pictures, I started seeing them in much greater detail. I saw that the woman was dressed a certain way, there was a Marlboro bag in her hand, I wondered where that came from. I saw that she was right in front of a shoe store. I saw that the store was empty. I saw that there was a lottery sign in the window. All of these things start to become like clues to a bigger mystery, and the picture gets more and more interesting and more and more mysterious as you study it. At that point I said, “Wow, that’s an interesting store window.” So the next time I went back, two years later, I said, “Well, I want to shoot a few more store windows.” By the time I made my third trip, the secondary theme was a much stronger theme.
It doesn’t sound like you started out with a documentary intent, to go capture what shop windows are like or what advertising is like in the communist world.
No, I didn’t start out with that intent at all. It became intentional after I started noticing the backgrounds in my street portraits. It wasn’t, philosophically, until later, after I had finished the shoot, that I started to be able to articulate for myself what was interesting about these images. What I had come to realize was that the Cold War was about this vague kind of word, “freedom.” It was kind of tossed around, especially in American media and especially through the American government. Well, you know, the McCarthy era wasn’t very free in the U.S., and the Vietnam era wasn’t very free in the U.S. I saw my friends being clubbed in the streets for protesting the war. So “freedom” was this expression that didn’t really seem like it gelled with this idea of freedom, although I’ve come to realize over the years that we did have considerably more freedom of expression than people in the Eastern bloc. But there were artists over there [whose] artistic expression was quite critical of the government, but it was couched in all kinds of interesting symbols. So freedom of expression was kind of an odd one to wrap your head around. What was this freedom that we were trying to get hold of? What were we protecting?
And then I gradually came to realize that there were all kinds of freedoms – freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and all that – but there was another freedom, and that was free enterprise. That seemed to me more the root of the Cold War than much of what the propaganda was trying to say. At least, it seemed like kind of a hidden agenda. And the Cold War then became for me not only about liberating poor, oppressed people, but also liberating a marketplace. Then I started looking at the store windows, and it was a very interesting kind of museum of a different kind of materialism, and this museum contained all kinds of things. It contained artifacts of a culture. It contained the necessities for daily life. It contained design strategies of the shop owners. It contained advertising strategies of the state-run factories and corporations. And all of these were things that were parallel to what I was seeing in the West.
That’s what became interesting to me. I started to realize one of the differences in the aspects of those two cultures was that in the West, because of free enterprise, capitalist enterprise, all of our products were branded, they were labeled, they had a certain logo, the logo had a certain mystique, they were surrounded by images of sexuality and pleasure. These illusions were part of Western branding. The fundamental difference, I found, was that in the West we branded things, in the East things were labeled. The mystique was removed when a product was displayed. And what that did was it, oddly, made that landscape much more relaxed to me. As I walked down the street, I felt myself exhaling, taking in a deep breath, because I wasn’t being seduced. I was like, “OK, I’m walking down the street and if I need a carrot, there it is. If I need a pedicure, there it is.”
For years or generations, Western eyes were trained to look at that as confirming the stereotypes about this sort of drab world of deprivation behind the Iron Curtain. Was this something you had that got leeched away by immersion, or as an artist were you able to look at it in a very different way than someone who is used to this notion [that] a butcher shop that just has a picture of meat out front is something naïve, or gray and deprived?
I didn’t see it as gray and deprived. Probably before I went there, I became disillusioned with the advertising world. I had a lot of experiences photographing advertising photographs with people who were blatantly dishonest and wanted me to participate in that, so I didn’t see this, when I got there, as a deprived environment. I was already skeptical about Western advertising and what it meant. I saw it as a fascinating environment because the graphic display and the presentation of products was so different.
On my very first trip, on the second day I was in the East bloc, I was in Krakow, and I was introduced to a Polish photographer there who became a good friend. The outside of the building was shabby and rundown and covered in soot. I went inside of his apartment and he had a grand piano in there, and he had a full library, he had this beautiful, beautiful meal laid out that his wife made, and his young son was quite articulate in English and acted as a translator. We talked all night long. He took a book off the shelf, there were books of Western literature, and we talked about it. And I thought, this guy isn’t deprived, he’s clearly quite sophisticated, much more sophisticated than I was led to believe. It didn’t gel with the propaganda pictures of the Cold War of this guy with locked chains wrapped around his head.
Once you finished these pictures and started exhibiting them, were you concerned they would reinforce these notions? This sort of equivalence in people’s minds of communist material culture with bread lines and shortages, and that a visual image of a butcher shop or a bakery with a single piece of meat or a single loaf of bread in the window was going to reinforce that notion?
I think what reinforced that notion more are the words you just spoke. The verbal description of it is a lot more damning than a visual picture. The visual picture is a sort of inadvertent, mundane detail, and we get caught up in that. I look at the hunk of meat and I think, that’s an interesting depiction of meat, isn’t that an interesting curtain in the background, isn’t that interesting to see the fluorescent lights back there? The narrative becomes richer when you look at the photograph.
In any post-communist city, you see how purely utilitarian a lot of the communist-era architecture was. Some of the shop displays seem to be examples of that same kind of utilitarian thinking … this idea that nothing but what is absolutely required to be communicated should be communicated, and communicating anything more is unnecessary and bourgeois.
I kind of wondered too about that, but you do see little snippets of folk art coming through.
You do. You’re certainly struck by these really playful touches. There was a picture of a zipper store in Bulgaria that really showed that.
There was a little fish in the picture. Yeah, I mean, this is the art. The literal descriptions we have of that are quite severe, but in actual fact the borderline of what was [decorative and] what was not was probably a little more blurred.
What kind of response have you gotten in the countries of the former Eastern bloc when you’ve exhibited these photos?
What I’m discovering now is that there is a generation that grew up before the wall came down, and there’s a generation that was born after. I’d put these pictures up at a show that I had in Prague [in 2005], and a mixed age group comes in. The teenagers are looking at these pictures and giggling, like, “What stupid, silly landscape is this?” You know, how naïve, how backward. The older people are looking at it with tears in their eyes and thinking, no, it was a lot more complicated than that. These images are full of representations of our daily lives, and this is how we negotiated material culture, this is how we got around the shortages. I remember where that thing was, I remember that street. Isn’t it bittersweet that it’s gone? Some people were quite vehement about saying that what’s replaced it is vulgar and fast, they can’t keep up with it and all that. These pictures, I think they’ve got very complex readings, because the arguments are so complex.
I think it might have something to do with how you ended up capturing these images on a portrait camera. They really have this quality of “portrait,” the still, stately capturing of something. It’s not like a street scene from Prague in 1986 or 1988. It’s got the quality of a daguerreotype, like when you look at a picture from the 1880s and you see it’s almost formally composed in a way that’s lost, not just the image itself is lost.
I think the camera did do that, and there’s a kind of formality to it. I think the camera slowed me down. It made me frame things in very non-dramatic ways. But that fit entirely into, ultimately, what my agenda was, which was to create a view that wasn’t cloak-and-dagger, that wasn’t McCarthy-ist, that wasn’t sensationalist. It was just totally ordinary. I do believe, and not only in this but in other work, that the real value of photography is not in sensationalism, but the real value is in banality, where a photograph identifies us with a time and place that somehow is real because of the ordinary things in it. And that’s what I wanted.
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with history teachers is the second in the series that resulted. Continue reading …
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with artists is the first in the series that resulted.
Part 1: What does an artist, accustomed to using metaphor and subterfuge under communism, do when the lid comes off? Continue reading …
Why the reality of post-Communist Europe has not measured up to the expectations of 1989.
By Jiri Pehe
“Now we have a democracy,” Tomas G. Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, said of his new country upon its founding 90 years ago. “What we also need are democrats.”
These words could be applied as aptly to the post-communist countries of contemporary East-Central Europe. The problem of “democracies without democrats” is as real today as it was when Masaryk’s new state rose from the ashes of World War I. Continue reading …