1989 And All That

The future will be in glorious, widescreen Technicolor

The future will be in glorious, widescreen Technicolor

It’s twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the remarkable Baltic Way and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and there is no shortage of coverage. But it seems the appetite for retrospectives charting the transition from oppressive communism to freedom and democracy is rather stronger in the west than in the east.

Most of the crowing about how great it all was when the walls came tumblin’ down seems to be coming from outside Baltic borders, as if the countries in the west are trying to slap themselves on the back and claim full responsibility for defeating the Evil Empire.

But here behind the former iron curtain, people take a more nuanced view. They value the freedoms that they won and the new opportunities available to many but regret the fact that crime has increased, that litter is everywhere and that oligarchs have stolen much of the wealth.

This is really about two different sorts of history. First there’s the broad-brushed, sweeping generalisations beloved of news reports, governments and academics, basing their statements on second-hand evidence.

But that evidence is really just a tidied-up amalgam of millions of individual histories which are untidy, unplanned and improvised: everyday lives.

A certain frustration at the locals’ lack of “thank you for saving us” is detectable in many western media outlets. This in turn leads to an assumption that if people aren’t overwhelmingly enthusing about the joys of democratic deliverance, they must be hankering after a return to Communism.

But that’s not true either, and I have almost lost count of the number of times I have had to tell editors and overseas journalists that there really is only a tiny minority of people who think of the Soviet era as “the good old days.”

That’s not what the editors want to hear, so they pursue interviewees with leading questions (“So, would you say that in some ways you were better off under Communism?”) until they get what they want.

Maybe next time I am in the UK I’ll find someone who agrees some aspects of British life were better in the 1950s, then write it up as “Brits demand return of hanging” or “Blacks ruined our country, Brits believe.”

Amazingly, even under a Communist regime people occasionally laughed, had parties, formed friendships and liked being alive. They may even have “loved their children too” in the words of latter-day philosopher, rainforest botherer, tantric sex enthusiast and clunky thespian, Sting.

But no, let’s stick to a nice clean split between the bad old days when nothing was good and the good new era when nothing is bad.

Amazingly, that seems to be the message behind the staggeringly patronising images currently adorning the EU’s representative office in Riga. Two bright colour images of the present are juxtaposed with two black and white images of the past. Communism was in monochrome, after all.

The first image is of an airBaltic plane lifting off, destination unknown. It soars past two abandoned MiGs in the aviation museum at Riga airport, their tail fins adorned with is-it-obvious-enough-for-you red stars.

Below, a miserable-looking woman fills up her Lada at a petrol station.

The next colour image is of a smiling family raising the Latvian flag at their beautiful country home.

Below, a miserable-looking woman waits in a shop with is-it-obvious-enough-for-you empty shelves.

It’s disappointing that the EU has chosen such hackneyed images of good and bad, past and present. The clear implication that material items (holidays, supermarkets, nice cars, lovely real estate) are the main benefits of EU post-Communism is ironic given the causes of Latvia’s current economic meltdown.

Any time-travelling Communist might like to juxtapose images of today’s queues of jobless people outside a soup kitchen with the orderly ranks of workers on their way to the factory gates. He could perhaps make use of an image of Riga’s beggars, pawn shops, the abandoned farms of Latgale, a leery group of tourists staggering out of a sex club or doctors and teachers demonstrating against being sacked. But that would just be crude propaganda.

Before the EU gets too carried away with glad-handing itself let’s not forget that the Baltics weren’t actually allowed to join the club until 2004.

It’s a shame we cannot wean ourselves away from the idea that history is a big bold thing based on cause and effect. Our daily lives rarely work out like that, so why should be expect the aggregate of those lives to be simpler rather than infinitely more complex, contradictory and confusing.

It’s possible to say some things were and are good and some bad without having to draw any kind of moral equivalence.

To say you were less afraid of being mugged in the 1970s is not the same as wanting to return to the 1970s and cheer the politburo, but it seems hard for many in the west to accept – which probably speaks more about the limits of freedom there than it does about attitudes here.


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