A survey conducted in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution found that most Czechs (68%) and Slovaks (53%) thought that capitalist democracy had given them more than the “real-existing socialism” they enjoyed before 1989.
But remnants of the old ways are still to be found everywhere. Czechs and Slovaks continue to nibble on Horalky wafers and wash dishes with JAR detergent. Why? In some cases, simply because they are used to them.
Other communist-era products have reinvented themselves with shiny labels and catchy slogans. A few have even become chic enough to appeal to youngsters with little or no memory of their previous incarnations. Kofola, once a socialist substitute for Coca-Cola and Pepsi, is a star among Czech brands on Facebook. It beats Pilsner Urquell, the showcase Czech beer, by some 80,000 supporters.
Also sought after are “jarmilky”: ballerina-style gym shoes. Since the 1960s, girls and women have worn them to sports events, including the mass athletic meets known as “spartakiady”. These days, scores of websites offer varities of jarmilky, for about €8. For some young women, of an " emo" bent, they have acquired a certain cachet.
Altogether weirder is the revival of the collective package holiday. In the pre-'89 days the Communist Revolutionary Trade Union Movement (ROH) used to offer workers a break as a reward for a year’s toil in offices, factories or mines. Today, in return for a modest sum, Czechs and Slovaks wishing to rekindle those memories can stay at the gloomy Hotel Morava in the High Tatra mountains, featuring a bust of Stalin in the lobby. There they will be able to enjoy such attractions as a 7am open-air exercise workout to revolutionary songs or a mock May Day parade. This year the hotel will accept four groups of holidaying masochists throughout the summer months.
The phenomenon of Ostalgie is something I've touched on when I've blogged here about East Germany, as many East Germans feel belittled and disenfranchised by the scale of the West German's takeover of what's now a peripheralized area. In my posts about the former Yugoslavia I've sometimes mentioned ”Yugo-nostalgia”, the nostalgia for a relatively successful and pluralistic and globalized Yugoslavia now manifested in the idea of a "Yugosphere" that groups together the various Yugoslav successor states in as tight (and loose) a cultural and economic and geographic zoning as they liked. So, perhaps, why not a nostalgia for a Czechoslovakia that was as relatively high-achieving as, well, East German and Yugoslavian neighbours which were each as accomplished in their own ways?
It's mostly a protest nostalgia.
Analysts insist that this is nostalgia for youth rather than for communism. But Oľga Gyárfášová, a sociologist at IVO, a Slovak think-tank, describes the phenomenon as "retroactive optimism", suggesting that some selective memory may be at play. The fear is that reducing four decades of dictatorship to a bunch of retro fads risks distracting the younger generation from the darker aspects of life under a system of which they have few or no direct memories.
In 2009 Václav Havel, the hero of liberation in 1989 and the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, said that it might take decades for central and east European societies to come to terms with the trauma of their communist pasts.
Prague and Bratislava seem to be aware of that. “Strictly Confidential”, Slovakia's first comprehensive exhibition on the methods of the secret police, has just opened in the Slovak National Museum. The government has also been contemplating a new museum of communism. The Czechs have taken the path of education through entertainment: last year “ID Card”, a film that mapped the adolescence of four boys in the 1970s era of "normalisation", achieved stunning box-office success in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The specific factors relating to East German and Yugoslav nostalgia for the Communist past don't operate in Czechoslovakia's successors as much, since Communism ended in Czechoslovakia without the successor states being taken over by larger neighbours or wrecked by warfare, instead making comparatively uneventful transitions to normality as successful high-income European democracies.
As much, mind: the poll quoted above shows that very large proportions of Czechs and Slovaks--a near-majority of the latter--felt they lost from the transitions from Communism.