When enough years have passed since the end of a dictatorship, some people will become nostalgic. They will talk up the positive aspects of the dictatorship, forgetting about the labor camps, the political prisoners, the censorship. They will promote their favorite dictator by saying that he was better than much worse dictators, as if that was the relevant standard. Often, they will mix up a longing for the time when they were young and energetic with a longing for the “good old times,” not realizing that they would have been at least equally young and energetic if they had grown up in a democracy.
One thing I learnt however, in countries from Iran to successor states of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, is that people are really cross if they didn’t need a visa to travel to other places in the past, but now do. In part, this is due to former Easter European countries having joined Schengen, sometimes due to a general tightening of visa rules, like in the US, and sometimes it’s a natural effect of the disintegration of empires.
Like one man in Transnistria told me: “When we had the Soviet Union, I could travel freely. I could go to Latvia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, everywhere. Now I need a visa for everywhere.” Despite the political, economic and personal freedom gained, the loss of a certain aspect of freedom of travel weighs more. And this overlooks that the real problem was often that the dictatorial governments didn’t let their own citizens go.
Whenever I see this kind of nostalgia for dictatorships or oppressive regimes, I wonder how those who survived persecution, the gulag or political imprisonment feel about it.
And, if Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union were really so great, why did they collapse?
(The photos were taken in Cetinje, Montenegro.)
Great article! I know that a lot of people look back fondly on Yugo because it was a peacful time, and Tito was considered by many as a good leader. Nationalism was forbiden, which in a region where Nationalism starts wars, is a big deal. I hear contradicting opinions on this, but it also seems that Yugoslavia (while in a lot of debt) had a pretty steady economy all around. Especially in regions that didn’t have a chance to use tourism as a source of monetary gain.
I bet YOU don’t want to be stuck in Transnistria for the rest of you life either. :)
Well, you can always go to Moldova. :-)
Of course, I fully understand that, but I found it an interesting new perspective because as a Western European, the fall of the Iron Curtain meant more possibilities to travel (although I still need a visa for Russia and Belarus) and I really never considered that the changes between 1989 and 1991 had the opposite effect on many people.
Actually, I am pretty sure that, on average, traveling got much easier for the people living in the former Soviet Union countries, at least for recognized countries like Russia and Ukraine, as opposed to unrecognized ones like Transnistria or South Ossetia. Because in USSR, while you could travel within the country without a visa, you could rarely go to another Soviet bloc country, and much less outside of it, without being sent on official business (conference, diplomatic/military mission, concert tours). There were possibilities of going on actual vacation tours to Eastern Europe, but these were rarely available and weren’t available to everyone – you had to be working in a place that had access to these tickets and be deemed worthy (or know the right people).
Just getting a local visa and buying a plane ticket to Paris, Tokyo or even Warsaw was impossible, because USSR security wouldn’t let you out anyway. Nowadays, people in former USSR just need a passport to do visit dozens of countries without a visa, which probably includes several former USSR countries, and with a visa (often easily obtainable), they can pretty much travel anywhere, including most or all of the former USSR.
What makes the “we could travel easier” explanation even more ridiculous, is that in USSR, if you went anywhere out of your city, you were still required to carry your passport, and people there probably didn’t do much traveling anyway – probably less than 5% of USSR citizens visited more than a handful of USSR’s 15 republics.
That’s what is happening here in the Philippines. People who are dissatisfied with the current government romanticizing Marcos and martial law, being very vocal about it on social media. Ironic that the same right they are exercising to express their opinions is the very same right the anti-dictatorship movement fought — sometimes to the death — to restore.
Excellent point that you eloquently raise!
And thank you for providing another example. I might add the (small) movement in Brazil which wants to restore some kind of military dictatorship. But more about that once I get to Brazil.
I comprehend Yugostalgia, since it is not because but although Yuguslavia was a dictatorship, and the point of comparison is not something like the Federal Republic of Germany but the Ex-Yugoslavia afterwards, including the Warring States period some 20-something years ago, when authoritarian Socialism was replaced by violent Nationalism which is by no means better, just replacing labour camps by rape camps). And, of course, if you are poor, have (and must have) several jobs just to survive and your employer can shorten or even cancel your wages arbitrarily because your only alternative is starving, you will not regard yourself as free.
And, of course, Mafia is also another dictatorship, just with many small dictators in place of a big one.
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I would recommend actually trying to understand the history of an area before engaging in patronizing Western liberal comments that fetishize democracy.
First of all, to look at democracy as a historical absolute and a measuring standard is simply bad history. For all Eastern European countries (meaning post-communist in this context) with the exception of Czechoslovakia, communism was a step forward from backwards semi-feudal dictatorships they had previously lived in. Additionally, Czechoslovakia was the only one of those in which communists actually came to power in a free democratic election (Albania, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union had revolutions and enjoyed actual mass support among the population, but never had free elections). In order to understand that, you need to understand both the appeal and the successes of communism – most importantly, that the need for economic security comes before the need for political freedom (which also explains why political dissent became possible only when the Soviet Union developed an urban middle class in the post-Stalin era). For more on the topic, I recommend the excellent book “The Rise and Fall of Communism” by Archie Brown. I believe this should answer both its success and its collapse (I hope that your last sentence was not a mere rhetorical question).
Second, you are assuming, in the present context, that people should again put political freedom before economic security. With the exception of places like Poland and the Czech Republic, the per capita GDP has either stagnated or rose only marginally compared to pre-1989 (in many places, like former Yugoslavia and former USSR apart from the Baltic states, it is actually much, much lower). Furthermore, many of these places do not have much of a political freedom to begin with – Serbia, Hungary, Russia, Belarus all have some bizarre post-modern semi-dictatorships, Bosnia is in an infinite political deadlock, and all the others are generally reduced to being puppet states of whoever happens to have the most money. In Hungary or Russia, this might be something they’ve had since the Romanov/Habsburg Empires, but in former Yugoslavia, it is a clear step back compared to the relative freedom enjoyed under communism. Not to mention that that system had a much better functioning economy and state institutions.
Like one man in the Czech Republic told me: “Who cares that I now have freedom of travel when I can’t afford to travel anyway? At least under communism I had a job and a decent salary.” This does not mean that “the loss of a certain aspect of freedom of travel weighs more”, but rather that this person actually understand his own socioeconomic and political position.
Likewise, looking at the comments, List_of_X appears to travel without money, given that s/he believes that “Nowadays, people in former USSR just need a passport to do visit dozens of countries without a visa, which probably includes several former USSR countries, and with a visa (often easily obtainable), they can pretty much travel anywhere.”
I have to also point out that communist Yugoslavia did not “just replace labour camps by rape camps”, as Dante states in the comments. There were no labor camps (or any other camps for political prisoners) in Yugoslavia between mid-1950s and the country’s collapse. It had internment camps for ethnic Germans (who were Yugoslavia’s largest non-Slavic minority and who were punished according to collective guilt – a forgotten crime against humanity similar to the “ethnic cleansings” of the 90s), which operated between 1945 and 1948, and labor camps for Stalinists in the wake of the Tito-Stalin split in 1948. The most infamous one, Goli Otok, was closed down in 1956 and used as a regular prison. On the other hand, the Wars of the 90s saw all sorts of camps opened.
I would like to finish off with a quote by Anatol Lieven from The Guardian:
“The system which in the 50s showed itself to be superior to communism was not the “turbo-charged” free market capitalism of the Washington Consensus that led us into the crash of 2008. It was free-market democratic capitalism, yes, but it was also social-market capitalism, above all in West Germany, the frontline of cold war competition. It was to join this kind of system that millions of East Germans fled to West Germany and not the other way round. Once they became aware of social-market capitalism’s benefits, millions of Russians also eventually decided to end communist rule.
The problem is that in the 90s Russians did not get this kind of social market system, but something much closer to the feral capitalism of communist propaganda, with pseudo-democracy as a veil for the looting of the state by the new elites. The contrast between communist dreams and capitalist reality in western and central Europe explains the failure of communism. The contrast between democratic dreams and capitalist reality in Russia explains Vladimir Putin.”
Just because someone has a different value system doesn’t mean he “doesn’t understand the history”.
I also never doubted that socialism looked like a great idea as opposed to a monarchy and it may have looked like a good alternative to fascism (although Stalin was already around at the time when that distinction was made). As I have sometimes said elsewhere, I probably would have been a Socialist myself in 1917 Russia or in 1919 Germany. But that doesn’t explain the nostalgia with hindsight.
I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of value systems. The nostalgia with hindsight is also a matter of history (albeit more recent), and I have tried to explain it in the third and fourth paragraph, as well as with Lieven’s quote. It is a phenomenon much more complex than naive and irrational Eastern Europeans worshiping dead dictators, and it is both a matter of history and of the current state of Eastern European societies. Even the Czech Republic, who I already mentioned as an example of historical regression under communism, and whose citizens objectively and subjectively live better than they did 30 years ago, has a Communist Party which regularly gets 13-15% of the popular vote. I highly doubt it’s merely thanks to a nostalgia for Gustáv Husák or any other of the incompetent Moscow puppets they were stuck with post-1968.
I actually don’t think that votes for socialist or communist parties have much to do with nostalgia, otherwise it would hardly explain how they get votes from people who are so young that they don’t remember the communist dictatorships. These are left-wing parties like “Die Linke” in Germany and as far as I can see, none of them wants to re-introduce one-party rule or curtail political liberties, so they really don’t have that much in common with the pre-1990 communist parties.
I disagree. Nostalgia does not require that you can remember what you desire – this could been be an obstacle of it. One who cannot remember also cannot remember the ugly side of the dictatorship but can see the beautiful pied propaganda images and movies of that time.
Moreover, badness is something quite relative. Tito times seem a golden age compared to later times. Under Tito, there was no bloody civil war, there were no rape camps and so on which occurred during the early post-communist era, and there also was not unemployment and lack of prospective as there is today, at least for many post-Yougoslavians, including the Roma who’s conditions seem to have deteriorated. But these are all rather rational motives for Yougostalgia.