Of Coke and Communists: memories of the Iron Curtain

March 28th, 2009 - 9:53 am ICT by IANS  

By Ben Nimmo
Prague, March 28 (DPA) Ask a citizen of the former Communist world what they longed for most before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the answer may well surprise you: not “Capitalism” but “Coca-Cola”.

“When I was at school, I owned a Coca-Cola Light can. When visitors dropped by I felt like a king for having something from the West,” said Mirek Malota, a 34-year-old manager from the Czech Republic - once the Communist Czechoslovakia.

Some 72 million current European Union citizens grew up under Communist rule, and their memories, good and bad, of the time when Europe was divided still shape its politics today.

For some - activists and their families - it was a time of fear, when denunciation for listening to Western radio, criticising the regime or even celebrating Christmas could lead to jail or worse.

“Every December 24, we would lock the doors, shutter the windows, light a candle and sit around it singing Christmas carols. I was always afraid the ‘cheka’ (secret police) would hear us and take us away. I’ve hated carols ever since,” Santa, a 33-year-old advertising executive from Riga, said.

For many more, the chief emotion was a desperate desire for Western consumer goods, a symbol of all that was glamorous.

Jelena, 40, an ethnic Russian born in Soviet Latvia, recalls: “Once an American group visited our summer camp. We had to parade in front of them and show how well-behaved we were. At the end they threw us some American chewing gum - and we started fighting over who would get the wrappers, because they were so cool.”

It was a time when the inefficiency of the Communist planned economy meant that the only way to find fashionable clothes was to sew them yourself, or befriend the nearest shop owner.

Across the region, chunky, unglamorous cars such as the Lada, Trabant, Wartburg and Polski Fiat were so much in demand - and took so long to obtain - that a backyard salesman could charge a premium for a second-hand model available immediately, because a new one would require a five-year wait.

But while many citizens of the former Communist world remember having to queue for staples such as clothes, shoes and toilet paper, they also recall that it was a time when job security was guaranteed and the only thing they had to do to earn their salary was to show up.

That is a particularly bitter reflection in 2009, as the world’s economic storm sweeps across the region.

“In those days there was nothing in the shops, but we had plenty of money. Now the shops are full, but we don’t have the money to buy anything,” said 49-year-old farmer Andrzej, from the town of Suwalki in north-eastern Poland.

That feeling of security extended well beyond the workplace. Social problems, such as street crime, drug abuse and racism were seen as a purely Western ill - and the surge in all of them since 1989 has left many former Communists longing for the safety of the past.

In May 2008, a poll in Hungary - the most liberal of the Communist states, with far more access to Western goods than its neighbours - showed that three quarters of those born before 1968 thought that life was happier under Communism, reflecting what analysts saw as a yearning for the old sense of security.

But above all, it was the time when Coca-Cola - with its advertisements full of beautiful, trendy, freedom-loving adolescents - was seen as symbolising everything that was best in the West.

“Those cans were a symbol of freedom,” Malota said.

In 1969 the drink won the unique honour of a mention in a Soviet comedy film, “The Diamond Arm”, in which the bumbling hero, Semyon Gorbunkov, returns to his family after a Mediterranean cruise.

“Did you drink Coca-Cola?” his wife asks him eagerly. “What was it like?”

Gorbunkov, played by Soviet comedy legend Yury Nikulin, grunts disdainfully in reply and falls asleep.

And the change from aggressive Communism to equally aggressive Capitalism is summed up in this deadpan Czech joke, popular both before and after 1989:

“The Soviets beat the Americans to the moon, and start painting it red. By the time the Americans have launched their moon mission, the planet is almost covered. The US astronauts call mission control: ‘Houston, what should we do?’

“Back comes the answer: ‘Wait until they’ve finished, then grab the white paint and write ‘Coca Cola’ on it.’”

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