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