That Which Remains

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The Two Lions is the first building that caught my eye during my long walks around Bratislava. Even now, almost two years later, I stare at it when I pass by. Built before the Communist era, it was the headquarters, for a short time, of the secret police. It is said that interrogations took place within. If you entered the Two Lions, it was not sure that you would be seen again.

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The building is notoriously difficult to photograph. It’s on a busy street and obstructed by a tram stop. I took these photos on one of the national holidays, when the streets were relatively still. I later discovered that the holiday was the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

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The buildings of the outer neighborhoods of Bratislava tend to be uniform and unremarkable. Any decoration or originality stands out immediately. There is always a story behind it.

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This building, way out in Rača, is where the secret police moved after the Two Lions. Here, the images are distinctly Communist – a celebration of the worker and the Good Citizen. The boy with the guard dog chills my blood.

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Other relics of that era are scattered about the city. The Slovak Public Radio building rises above the back streets of the Old City.

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Communist era architecture somehow manages to look both Space Age and retro. Like something out of The Jetsons, the early 1960’s cartoon sitcom. The UFO Bridge rises above Petržalka, one of the largest socialist housing developments in Central and Eastern Europe. From afar, the entire district looks like it was constructed out of Lego.

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Many of the apartments have been renovated and look quite nice. On a superficial level. When you look beyond the fresh paint, you find rotten pipes, lights that don’t function, toxic mold and chemicals. In many of these places, you don’t have 24-hour hot water. The building management decides when the heat is turned on in the autumn and off in the spring, and you can be sure that you will have a few uncomfortable days on either side. The elevators frequently don’t work. Too bad for those old ladies who live way up on the 15th floor. I currently live in a less imposing socialist era building on the outer edge of the Old City, therefore I have experienced this personally. One would expect that the rent would be lower in these places, but it is not. Every year, when the building management opens its palm and asks for more money, the apartment owners pay up without complaint.

I’ve been told by numerous Slovak acquaintances that this is the mentality that persists from the Communist era. No one complained, because they knew that nothing could be done. It is difficult to emerge from the ooze of apathy. In spite of this, Slovakia’s economy has done very well compared to some neighboring countries. Hence the high cost of living in Bratislava.

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Customer service in Slovakia is definitely more competent and pleasant than in other countries in the region. I can count on one hand the times when someone has been extremely rude over the past two years. However, nothing frightens me more than the thought of going to the hospital. Health care is, at best, indifferent, but often it’s downright sadistic. Unless you bribe the nurses and/or doctors. Even then, don’t expect compassion. I experienced this when my husband had a minor accident and had to go to the emergency room. I’ve heard similar horror stories from other expats and locals alike. If I were run over by a car and someone offered to call an ambulance, I’d say, “No, thanks. I’d rather die with dignity.”

What is the explanation for such behavior? During the Communist era, the proletariat was glorified. The factory worker, the nurse, the shop assistant. The obedient worker. When things changed, these people lost their status. They were set adrift. That cashier who screams at you for not having exact change is merely clinging to the frayed threads of prestige.

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A couple of my Slovak acquaintances told me that a recent survey showed that the majority of those polled are not happy with democracy and want to return to the previous system. It’s not only the older generation. This is not something that those in the West want to hear. How is it possible that people could wish to live in a totalitarian society? How could they not yearn to be like us?

They would have a job, food to eat, a place to live, a television to watch. All that’s required is obedience. It is freedom from taking responsibility for themselves, from ambition, from uncertainty. I can see how this could be appealing for some. It’s too bad that these two systems can’t coexist. Those who designate themselves the masters of these conflicting utopias can’t seem to leave each other alone. It is one freedom for all. Or nothing.

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56 thoughts on “That Which Remains

  1. “… the majority of those polled are not happy with democracy and want to return to the previous system. It’s not only the older generation. This is not something that those in the West want to hear. How is it possible that people could wish to live in a totalitarian society? How could they not yearn to be like us?” Exactly what I experience in Moldova. Trading security for freedom of expression; I guess it depends on how you pay the bills – if you can pay the bills.

    • The Slovak Radio building is about a 15 minute walk from the center of the Old City. You don’t see it until you’re maybe a couple of streets away. You can also see it if you climb up to the Slavin monument (last photo) and look down. Hopefully next time you come you can see it and some of these other relics. They look more impressive in person, of course. I think there are even Communist tours you can take.

  2. Beautiful photos! Also very interesting to read the stories behind them, and learn a little about Slovakia. It seems as if many citizens of former Soviet countries wish to go back to what it was like before.

    • Thank you, Lili. Based on what I’ve observed over the past 8 years of living in three post-Communist countries and traveling to most of the others, it appears that many do indeed wish to go back to how it was. The numbers are increasing rather than decreasing.

  3. I love these looks at the Communist past of Bratislava (and Slovakia) as a whole.

    Most of my exploration of the area centred on the Old Town & Hrad Devin, so it just highlights some of the sights I missed.

    Thanks for the little insights into the real Slovakian life as well!

    • Thanks, Chris. I’ve become a fan of architecture from that era, so I always seek it out. I’m thankful that I have been able to live in Slovakia. So far, it’s my favorite. In spite of the discomfort of the apartments.

  4. I love the way you compose your photos: the symmetry of the red and white barriers in front of the Two Lions; the softening of the corners around the UFO bridge; and the bold verticals of the floor tiles that draw our attention to the mural in the train station or is it an airport? Nicely done Julie. 😉

  5. Such an insightful and concise explanation of the before and after. I got a sense of this being in former Yugo countries during the war when it was clear the system was changing – big brother as social net was kaput. And there we were, the international aide community and they expected us to step in – and to some extent we did. I found myself being irritated when visiting schools that might have been hit by a mortar shell and sustained some damage but was STILL so much better than some schools in places like the South Bronx. The expectation was things would just get done for them. Even then, many were morning what had been lost. Yes, somewhere in-between. If only.

    • Thank you, Tricia. I’m not sure that the two systems could ever be blended together with success. Too many fundamental differences in mentality. But maybe if there were countries that had either one or the other system, and people could choose where they wanted to live and be able to leave if they decided it wasn’t for them. Maybe this would work. That is, if the various leaders could restrain themselves from trying to take over the whole world.

  6. In this post you are discussing one of the topics which continue to make me thoughtful, or can two systems, one without any freedom or personal responsibility but with food to eat, for example, blend with a western system. I have been in various ex communist countries and my mother in law was Polish and years ago she repeated the arguments you have mentioned, but I think Poland and the Baltikum are countries which could find a middle course. By the way, I have the impression that the same problem also exists in Arab states. It takes a lot of courage to change attitudes. I thank you, dear Julie, for this wonderful post. Have a good week and best regards

    • Hi Martina – Thank you very much for your comment. It is a subject that has come up in many conversations lately. The Western attitude is to want to change the attitudes of other regions, to make everyone live in the same way. Our way. Why does everyone absolutely have to have the same system of government? If one day there is a country or countries that decide to go back to Communism or a similar system and the people are honestly okay with it, I will not take part in trying to dissuade them. As long as it’s not forced on me or other people who did not make a conscious choice, it’s not a threat to my own ideas and it’s none of my business. All the best to you, too, and happy spring. 🙂

  7. Great post, as usual! I love whenever you write about Slovakia – it makes me want to visit again. I understand what you mean about wanting to return to earlier times. I’ve seen that in other former Soviet countries too (though less so in the Baltics, honestly, than in others). On one level, I get it. On another level, it bothers me a lot. When I lived in St. Petersburg, I lived with a woman whose father had been sent to the Gulag for no fathomable reason after WWII, which he fought in. Around Victory Day, there were many people on the streets holding up heroic posters of Stalin and it made my blood boil. It’s understandable that people would like to go back to times when they were guaranteed housing, healthcare, etc – but I just can’t reconcile that when the person they’re glorifying knowingly murdered millions.

    • Hi Leah – Oh wow, I (almost) can’t believe that they were glorifying Stalin. He was responsible for more deaths than Hitler. I doubt the people here want to go back to that extreme, but rather a softer version. If they did it willingly and if those who didn’t agree with the system were allowed to leave, that level of control wouldn’t be necessary. But then again, there are always psychopathic control freaks who come crawling out of the woodwork. Thanks a lot for sharing your experience.

  8. It is so easy to pass opinions and dispense wisdom when we feel secure. And yet, there has been no time where security is a given. Circumstances change in an instant. And as you title states simply and beautiful we are left with “that which remains.” It is easy to see the past as better and visualize the future with trepidation (most of us are risk-adverse, even those who think they are not.) The present must be safe-guarded against apathy, where ever we find ourselves. Your posts remind me of the quote by Helen Keller: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” My dear friend, your life is a daring adventure.

    • I totally agree that no one is really secure. We’re not as free as we believe we are. There is also apathy and the danger of losing (even more) freedom in the West. Especially with the surveillance grid that’s being set up – http://www.wired.com/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/. Yet whenever I mention this to people, the reply is often a shrug. They’re too distracted by other things. Or “If you’ve got nothing to hide, why do you care?” Very irresponsible attitude. For once, I’ve got a quote for you: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  9. Very Interesting. I can’t imagine living in one of those old Soviet apartment blocks with such conditions as plumbing and lifts being unreliable.
    I had an interesting experience in Brataslava I visited the museum on a corner near the Danube and saw an exhibition of Soviet paintings glorifying the local farming people, lovely young women greeting large machine enthusiastically. Very flat and an interesting comment on the period of early 1950s.
    I decided not to see the modern jewelry in the basement but as I left the attendant who clearly came from the Communist era, took my arm and said ‘ Madam you have not seen the exhibition in the basement, she turned me around holding my arm and led me to the lift where she pressed the button basement. It was easier to go along than resist but I was totally amazed. I wondered how long I had to stay before I could leave and crept out checking that she was not around

    • Hahaha. It’s not easy defying those authoritarian ladies. You need to act like you’ve got more authority than they do. This is the second time I’ve lived in Soviet era housing. I lived on the 16th floor in a huge block in Poland. It had two lifts. I knew someone that was in an elevator when the cable broke. He was on the second floor, so he wasn’t hurt, but it could easily have been worse. In our current place, the elevator always seems to be broken every time I get home with a big bag of groceries. Thankfully we only live on the 6th floor. Never again…. We’re moving again in 2 months and I can’t wait.

  10. I kind of like this Soviet architecture but it gives me a strange feeling. It was build for prestige but I know the people did suffer because they couldn’t express themselves and did not have access to modern, occidental goods (like music or nylon panties or Levi’s jeans). So why do people want to go back to communism ? It is a big question and you give part of an answer in you text.

    • They mostly want the certainty of a job, food, place to live. Now there are homeless people and other serious social problems that didn’t exist then. According to my Slovak acquaintances who lived during that period, all of whom prefer democracy, it wasn’t the constant horrible oppression we’re told that it was. As long as you didn’t try to stir things up, life was okay. The only really bad thing was that it was very difficult for them to travel. Slovaks (in general) aren’t the natural “troublemakers” that Poles are, so it wasn’t as unnatural for them to obey.

  11. You do have a special relationship with the secret police, don’t you. 🙂
    I can imagine the attraction of the old ways, if it means survival, perhaps even prosperity (in relative terms). Obedience – now that’s another issue.

  12. So many interesting observations in this post, Julie. It is apparent that our version of “freedom” may not be what so many other cultures want or need to survive. The grass is definitely not always greener…. Van

    • Hi Van – the longer I live over here, the more I’m grateful for it, because it has opened my eyes to many things. Mainly that the information we got (and still get) from the media was so distorted, possibly almost as distorted as the news they got about us. The people in this part of Europe were also told how difficult our lives were at that time and how lucky they were to have security. The lack of a choice in clothing or food or travel was not so bad compared to the threat of being homeless.

  13. Thanks for the piece of history and present day life in Bratislava, my dear eastern bloc friend. Brilliant architecture appears to co-exist with harsh reality of life pointing to an uncertain future. With the blessings of the Soviets, and Chinese from across the border, communism made its way into few states in India in the early part of the twentieth century, with comrades projecting a rosy picture of life in Soviet Union and China to a largely unsuspecting people. I am not sure if you are aware that the world’s first democratically elected communist government was in the South Indian state of Kerala (where I now live) way back in 1957. Due to bad governance and unrest, the government was dismissed by the central government in Delhi in just two years, with the support of local opposition parties. The party returned to power erratically in the successive elections but people started losing interest in an ideology of state ownership and rule of the proletariat. Even after 67 years, the communist parties in India are limited to a couple of states and even here their support base is steadily eroding. Disintegration of the Soviet Union and decline in the fortunes of communism elsewhere clearly point to the fact that people cannot be held for long under utopian hopes of a socialistic pattern of society where the barest minimum in efforts can bask in total security, with no incentive for enterprise and innovation. Even if there are indications that sections of people in East European and erstwhile soviet bloc countries are wanting to go back to the earlier system, it may at best be seen as a temporary aberration set to swing back, sooner than later, to a dispensation rewarding true merit, individual enterprise and innovation. Only the concerned individual can make himself secure to a limited extent. There is nothing like unlimited security. It does not exist…best wishes to you Julie… Raj.

  14. Wonderful photos and a thoughtful blog. For me it is troubling that so many people around the world are starting to turn their back on so-called western values which in reality I regard as universal values – democracy, freedom of expression, access to all information, gender equality and freedom of sexuality. I realise I see this from a position of white, middle class prosperity and stability. Of course it’s not perfect in the west but, for example, try being gay in large parts of the world outside the west. I remember travelling through Poland as a teenager in the last days of communism and it was pretty grim and limited for my friends compared to my free life in London. I remember the fear of my friends when I was stopped by Polish police and asked for papers I didn’t have on me. Back in London we just didn’t have that same fear even when we were up to no good (although black teenagers will doubtless have a different perspective). Sadly I didn’t stay in touch because I would love to know what they are thinking now thirty or so years later.

    Speaking of which I remember well an old Soviet apartment block for, er, a heady ‘first lesson in love’.

    • Hi Alex – That would have been a memorable experience indeed. Those Soviet blocks do have a kind of grimly romantic aura about them. Haha. It would be very interesting to know your friends’ perspectives now.

      I think what we fail to realize is that people just can’t change the way they think and live overnight. Democracy is not something that everyone automatically understands, especially if they live in cultures that have been under dictatorships for centuries. If following orders is all they know, then they aren’t going to have the critical thinking skills necessary to take control of their own lives and make clear decisions. This leaves the door open for corrupt politicians to take over, and this is exactly what has happened. Not that the politicians in the West are particularly honest, but some of the leaders over here don’t even bother to hide it. Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences.

      • A very good point. I read the wired article you referenced above – fascinating and scary. I read a recent article that made an interesting, certainly open to debate, point. Generally the west doesn’t stop information, mind what you read, say or do so long as you are not involved in criminal or terrorist activities. They want to store all information on net activity to check that (which of course we should push back on). Others countries do mind what you say or do, want to stop information and control the internet environment accordingly so their power and political monopoly is not threatened. The article talks about how some dark net and encryption techniques were released by the west to help democracy and civil rights movements operate around the world. As always with these things it has been used for good and bad.
        http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n06/misha-glenny/into-the-wild – interesting if a bit grim at times.

        Really enjoyed some of the lovely and interesting comments on this excellent post as well.

        • I’ve heard of the dark web and the seedy underbelly of it. I was unable to access all of the article, but the first paragraph was enough to give me an idea of the content. It’s like the TOR browser – good for those who want to surf the web privately, but then the pedophiles flock there to cover their traces.

          I’m surprised by the long comments on this post. I didn’t expect it to spark so much discussion. Thanks for joining in.

  15. “There is always a story behind it ” …you discover and write so eloquently about these places , inbetween the two lions … what a vast and mysterious world we share together and with your words you bring understanding , beauty , and soul ….love to you dear Julie , xxxmeg

      • Bulgaria and the way the ancient earthy land whispered to me only a year ago is still a great and glorious mystery on a very personal level , one I can only remain grateful for without complete understanding … Just wait dear Julie till you reach my age ( 63) … Life becomes more full with mystical beauty continuing ….hugs

  16. In the decade or so I’ve been living in the Czech Republic, I’ve seen a few atitudes change. Unfortunately, there are still some who wouldn’t mind seeing the old system come back.

    When I listen to Slovaks, of which there are very many living here, I’m reminded of how different things can be right next door. Some of them tell me that they feel the splitting of Czechoslovakia did more harm than good to Slovakia on several fronts and that the Czechs have prospered while the Slovaks have been left behind.

    When you mentioned the Slovak medical system, it reminded me of listening to my girlfriend’s sister-in-law talking about the Hungarian medical system and what a disaster it has become. I’ve never needed to be hospitalized in the Czech Republic, but any experiences I’ve had with the country’s medical system have been quite positive and modern.

    As for politics, the current lot in power in the Czech Republic are nothing special; but far worse have been in the country’s parliament in the time I’ve been here. The current president might be a drunken idiot, but at least the current prime minister isn’t such a magnet for tabloid scandals as those before him were.

    I like to keep an eye out for the old Socialist era architecture. Some would like to see it all destroyed, but I think it does serve the purpose of reminding us of the old proverb about those who forget the past being doomed to repeat it.

    • Hi there – thanks a lot for adding your perspective. I’m surprised to hear that you’ve heard Slovaks in CR say that they regret splitting apart. I’ve never heard any Slovak in Slovakia say that. I thought Slovakia was doing very well until they adopted the euro. But I have only lived here 2 years, so I can’t really have an opinion on how things changed over the years.

      Nice to hear about the medical system over there. We’re probably moving to Prague in June, so at least we can relax a little about that. I’ve used a private clinic here -more expensive than in France, but competent and relatively compassionate. However, as far as I know there’s no private hospital. So for anything urgent we have to hope we can make it to Vienna. As for Hungary….I lived there 4 years. Every doctor’s visit was a complete waste of time and money. Such incompetence and sloppiness. I really wondered how they managed to get a diploma. I suspect they bought them.

      I like to see the Socialist art stay, too. It is part of their history and as you said, a reminder. But I realize that it’s up to them.

      I like your blog Beyond Prague and will be dropping by from time to time to get ideas about things to check out. Cheers!

      • Thanks for the kind words on my blog, I hope you’ll find it useful.

        I’ve used a private dentist once (cleaning and a filling) and a private eye clinic once (laser correction) in the Czech Republic and both were very competently run in all respects.

        As for public health care, the most invasive thing I’ve ever had done was to have a cyst removed a few years back and everything went smooth as clockwork.

        The advice I’d give you about health insurance providers in the Czech Republic is to stay away from VZP if you can. They cover you well enough; but they still act like they are the only option, as they were in the Socialist era.

        If you can get on OZP, I recomend it. You get the same wide coverage that VZP gives but without the old school attitude.

  17. Thank you for taking me back to Rača, where I lived for a year. Stark and grey, like in your pictures. Yet full of people living and raising families among all the remnants of the socialist regime. Wonderful and perplexing.

    Your point about the healthcare system–yes, yes, yes. Just FINDING the poloklinika you need in that mess of a place near Americke Namestie is trouble enough.

    • Hi Anthony – Yes, so many lives in those hive-like labyrinths. I like walking around Raca and up into the Male Karpaty. Are you talking about that old hospital? That’s where my husband had to go. The Slovaks in the waiting room were so kind and helped us out a lot, and they were very ashamed that we saw how it is. Other Slovaks have told me that this is how it is if you end up in the hospital – patients have to help each other, because the nurses won’t help you unless you bribe them. If you need an injection for pain, they’re going to make sure it hurts just as much as the pain you’re trying to get rid of. Absolutely vile behavior. They have personalities better suited to working in a slaughterhouse than a hospital.

  18. Great post – fascinating images and thought provoking commentary. The retro-futurism reminded me of Raygun Gothic (Chic) and The Gernsback Continuum, a William Gibson’s story about alternative reality. I did a post on the topic some time ago.

    https://darkpinesphoto.wordpress.com/2013/06/12/what-if-wednesday-raygun-gothic/

    As to the conflicted attitudes towards Western consumerism oriented democracy, it is quite understandable. The earlier generation was sold the Communist Dream that was never completely delivered – instead it was hijacked by bureaucratic corruption and totalitarianism. The younger generation were then sold a variation on the American Dream, which manages to keep severe totalitarianism at bay but corruption and personal greed still corrodes the democracy & general social welfare.

    My late mother said long ago that Americans and Canadians that thought that removing Communism would magically transform Europe into a version North American were foolish. Her observations have proven true. There is still much work in creating a society of personal dignity & freedom, here in Canada & the U.S.A. and in Europe. Many parts of the rest of the world are in even worse shape and future outcomes are complex & uncertain.

    • Hi there – Your mother was very perceptive. Westerners don’t take very different cultural worldviews into consideration when they preach democracy for all. This is something you can realize only if you spend a lot of time with the cultures in question, and with the regular people, not the academic elite. We have all been sold dreams of utopia that haven’t quite ended up as they were intended to. They always end up getting hijacked by psychopaths- control freaks and/or greedy bastards. We have a lot of work to do in our own backyards before we can “rescue” others. Thanks a lot for adding your thoughts. I will check out your post.

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