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Interview with Slavenka Drakulić—the East-West Doyenne of the 1990s

Living under a totalitarian regime one knows censorship in and out. One can smell it from far away and I smell it in this terror of political correctness—or, if we turn it around, in the danger of expressing different, unpopular views.

· 13 min read
Interview with Slavenka Drakulić—the East-West Doyenne of the 1990s
Slavenka Drakulic, 1999 / Alamy Stock Photo

For anyone interested in Eastern Europe in the 1990s—that surreal time when the Berlin Wall had just fallen but the gulf between East and West remained palpable—the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić was required reading. Her books opened up to us that world from inside, written by a woman—one of the pioneering feminists in her country—who’d lived 40 years under the old system and knew it in her bones. Each book illuminated some different aspect of life in that part of the continent hitherto so difficult to approach. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1991) told us about everyday survival under communism, its textures and minutiae as felt by normal people. Balkan Express (1993) described the horrors following the system’s collapse, as Yugoslavia disintegrated and a bitter civil war broke out. Café Europa (1996), meanwhile, spoke of the region’s longing for normality, to leave the communist past behind and become part of the New Europe. Her collections of essays were short and hard-hitting—about 200 pages—packed with anecdote, detail, vivid description, and with each you felt you’d learned some key aspect of Eastern European life.

In her novels she wrote about more rarefied subjects—the artist Frida Kahlo or the afterlife of a Bosnian rape victim—yet her factual writings were notably down-to-Earth. Though frequently dealing in big ideas they were always rooted in the tiny essentials that make up any life. A description of beef noodle soup leads onto thoughts of men, women, and identity. An account of loo-paper under communism ends up a discussion of changing living standards, and the gap between old and young. Running through all her work is a tension between political events and the everyday, between the decisions of lofty ministers and how they touch the grain of your daily life—the quality of public lavatories, the coffee you drink each morning and whether, as a woman, you can get hold of sanitary towels or wearable clothes.

They also seem, if anything, even more relevant than when written. Back in the 1990s, we read them to find out about an alien world. Now they tell us all about our own. They speak of people being parcelled up and labelled en bloc, the individual fighting against suffocating groupthink, and the plucky and outspoken turned into pariahs. Anyone who romanticises communism should start with her work. Underneath the grandiose speeches and narcotic abstract nouns, this is what a radical system actually felt like, how it registered on the ground.

Café Europa, her book about the future of the continent and the Eastern half’s dreams for a better tomorrow, came out in 1996. Earlier this year she published Café Europa Revisited, a picture of where those dreams have landed a quarter century on. It seemed a good moment to catch up with Slavenka Drakulić, and to find out where she has landed too.

This interview with Slavenka Drakulić was carried out by email. For ease of reading, it has at times been lightly edited and abridged.

In your new book Café Europa Revisited (2021—hereinafter referred to as C.E.R) you write extensively about memory and forgetting. In one chapter—about communism—you use the old photo of a very fed-up little girl at a Soviet Mayday celebration as particularly revealing of the time. What memories did the picture of this little girl bring back of your own childhood under communism?

It is such a wonderful photo by Ilya Pavlyuk! … a photo of a girl of about eight years in Lviv, Ukraine, at the May 1st, 1968 celebration. She’s dressed in her Sunday best, and has a sulky expression on her face. It received many comments, thousands of them, when it was posted on the website of the Museum of the History of Photography. Many women were reminded of their own photos from young days, me too. I had exactly the same prescription eyeglasses in one of two available models, tights creasing at the knees, and I was dressed in a dress my mother sewed herself … I remember standing with my school class and waving a little paper red flag on such occasions. However, young viewers completely ignored the background of that photo. They didn’t recognize the meaning of flags, banners and big photos of political leaders hanging from the facade behind the girl. Every holiday-celebration was a chance to celebrate the communist party and its achievements. This entirely escaped young people’s attention though. Their parents generally prefer not to talk about the recent past, not to remember it.

What aspects of communism would you wish the world not to forget?

Let me first say that I think there’s a good—not only bad—side to communism and both should be remembered. For example, communism modernized the feudal world, it emancipated women, transformed peasants into workers, introduced free obligatory education and free medical care. All that was achieved in a short time but under a totalitarian regime and with a huge cost in human lives … The cost was also high with individual rights. Freedom and human rights sound abstract, but believe me, they were not. You only have to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to understand this.

There was also everyday living, which most people remember: the poverty and lack of goods on the one hand, and security of job and lodging on the other. For us in Yugoslavia it was a more liberal regime under Tito—but with a strong personality cult nevertheless. You could buy more things, you could travel abroad. Many built a weekend house at the seaside because there was a surplus of money and not many ways to spend it. I remember watching Hollywood movies from the ’60s onwards. Later on, it felt like a bribe, like my generation was fed crumbs of freedom in order to be obedient. It worked! Tito was very capable at balancing the Soviets vs Western governments. My generation believed our kind of socialism was working well. We were “the last believers”, content with small freedoms we got, for example to travel to Italy to buy shoes, or to London to buy records and books.

And yet you’re very explicit about the precariousness of the Tito regime, pointing out that the affluence you speak about was only made possible by Western loans, which left Yugoslavia with foreign debts of $20 billion. You also became a feminist under communism, and something of a pioneering one. This suggests certain aspects of it left you far from contented. I wonder, what led you to this viewpoint?

A very interesting story. At the end of the ’70s, in 1978, there was an international conference on women in Belgrade. A few foreign feminists were there and we were confronted with the movement up close for the first time. Of course, we in Yugoslavia had read about feminism in the US, but meeting these women and talking to them, reading seminal authors later on—that was different. Soon some of us in Zagreb and Belgrade came together with the idea of forming a kind of grass roots group to discuss these issues. Our discussions were very popular with the public.

But there was an outcry by the official (i.e., communist) organization of women. Feminism in our country wasn’t needed, they said, this is the importing of bourgeois values from the West! True, women were emancipated by law, but we young feminists became aware of the gap between the public and private sphere, which was dominated by strong patriarchal values and attitudes. Domestic violence wasn’t a topic at all, as if it didn’t exist! In short, women were formally equal under the law and had the same rights as men—but at home, behind closed doors, men ran the show. I think we basically wanted to repair the existing system. But it wasn’t accepted either by the authorities or by the general public or the media. As in every other country, feminists were a laughing-stock at the beginning…

You’ve written a great deal about your conflicts with your father in several of your books. As with Kafka, it seems like the formative relationship of your life. I wonder: what did these conflicts teach you?

My father was an army officer and very authoritarian. He demanded obedience and I was an unruly teenager who knew better! Maybe I can’t stand authoritarianism in any form? In that case, it’s my character and not a particular capacity to confront problems head on—that’s the only conclusion, I’m afraid. But yes, my relationship with my father made me rather resistant to any authority.

And yet your writings about your father are some of the most acute and even tender things you’ve written. At one moment, describing your arguments with him, you say you were “stupid and stubborn,” and that you “regret this today, especially when I visit his grave.” Then there’s the unforgettable description of a recurring dream you have, in which he’s standing at the bottom of a stairway trying to tell you something. You can’t make out the words and you “wake up sobbing.” You’ve written so much in your work about the individual’s battle with ideology. To what extent is the “good daughter” in conflict with the “good feminist” here?

Well, everything between my father and me happened before I even heard the word feminism. All the confrontations, misunderstandings, and so on. He didn’t know how to talk to me, how to communicate. I’m not blaming him, where would he know it from? His father died when he was a child. On the other hand, I was a very curious and sensitive person and neither he nor my mother understood that. I am sure he cared about me, he was deeply worried about me, but I guess that we both thought that the best way out was to cut ties at some point. Too early, perhaps. It was very dramatic for me, and the proof is perhaps in my writing. But I haven’t been consciously dealing with this issue since his death in 1989. One can’t control dreams, though.

Eastern Europe’s Emigration Crisis
According to the UN, of all the countries that are expected to shrink the most in the coming decades, the top 10 are all in the eastern half of the continent, and seven of those are in the European Union.

You were born four years after the founding of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, and were 40 years old when it came to an end. The Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski once said that if you’d been brought up under communism, it was a disease and a mindset you would never shake. To what extent has this proved true in your own life?

It’s hard to shake off a specific mind-set and a way of thinking, I agree … But there were people who at an early age tried to escape the model. Not so much intentionally—I was too young to be so smart! But I wanted to travel and hitch-hiking through Europe in 1966 influenced me immensely. Also, my family comes from Rijeka, a town close to the Italian border. We had family living abroad which we often visited. Seeing that other world as a child of eight or nine was a very memorable experience. My aunt lived in Naples and once when I visited her—it must have been in the late ’50s or around then—the first self-service department store had opened there. I remember my grandma and me walking around it and touching all that plenty, actually touching things like dolls and clothes, and marveling at it. It was an incredible event for both of us. And for me, it translated into an awareness that there was a world different from ours.

You say of countries where communism collapsed in 1989 that what they mostly dreamed of from capitalism was “glitter and glamour” and “a guarantee that we would live happily ever after.” How do you feel about these hopes now?

Well, like a dream that didn’t come true! At the beginning, right after the collapse of communism there was a certain naiveté in the belief that now everything would change for better. It did, in a way. I was in Bucharest when the first private supermarket opened. The owners had to hire guards because so many people queued up—just to see it, because the prices were prohibitive … There was no money to buy these great things—the food, dresses, cars. More and more people lost their jobs, the gap between a few rich and a majority of poor people became bigger and bigger. The privatization of state-owned property enriched some and enraged many. Plus it soon enough became obvious that we [Eastern Europeans] were treated like second class citizens, from work places to airports. In EU politics as well.

One of the most telling chapters in the book about being a “second class citizen” in the EU deals with the food sold by leading brands in jarringly different qualities depending on whether they were for an East or West European market. You point out that the Nutella has been found to be creamier in Austria than in Hungary, that whereas Leibniz biscuits in Germany contain 12 percent butter, they contain five percent blended with palm oil in Poland, that the fish content of a certain brand of fish-fingers goes down seven percent when sold in the East. These are just three examples from an extensive list you give. Why do you think readers were so shocked by this?

I guess readers in the West, say the USA, just didn’t understand it. A market is a market, a customer is a customer, no? This “food apartheid,” as I call it, is a perfect example of the difference between former communist countries and Western ones. Just when we started to believe we were finally all equal, at least as consumers, it turned out that we weren’t! Moreover, someone was cashing in on selling inferior food to—whom? To inferior consumers as it were. How many steps are there from an inferior consumer to an inferior human being? Not many. No wonder people felt not only cheated, but terribly offended. Food is a sensitive issue.

On the subject of being designated an “inferior human being,” you wrote in Balkan Express—your book on the Yugoslav conflict—of colleagues in Croatia who’d had their careers ended with shocking virulence for a few ill-chosen words or unorthodox sentiments. An actress is cancelled for attending the wrong theatre festival. A journalist colleague, Marta, is vilified and effectively ended for expressing politically incorrect ideas about the Yugoslav war. One can just about understand why this happens in wartime but why, in the Anglophone world, is it increasingly happening in peacetime too?

Living under a totalitarian regime one knows censorship in and out. One can smell it from far away and I smell it in this terror of political correctness—or, if we turn it around, in the danger of expressing different, unpopular views. While we hold freedom of expression to be one of civilization’s achievements, it has always been conditional and has had to be kept alive, at all times, by the struggle of artists and journalists. Perhaps now in the Anglophone world you’ve got to the point where political correctness—functioning as veiled censorship—is undermining freedom of expression to the point of becoming serious censorship?

You write extensively in C.E.R about the #MeToo movement and how it has gained less traction in former-communist countries. And indeed, the whole chapter seems characterized both by your slight ambivalence about the movement, and your desire to downplay this ambivalence. Would you say more about these inner conflicts—as this reader saw them—please?

My ambivalence comes from all the hype around that campaign, for awareness about sexual harassment and violence. I don’t think it’s a movement, much less a “revolution” as it was swiftly proclaimed by some prominent women (not to say “stars”). It’s not a movement, not inclusive enough to become a movement, there are too many women who couldn’t afford to reveal their predators. It’s not a revolution because it takes a bit more than a proclamation to make one. I’m also ambivalent about the legal aspect of the problem, about the fact that very few lawsuits followed the accusations. I feel ambivalence too about not establishing the key difference between harassment and a violent act. It’s not the same if someone grabs your butt as if they use violence to rape you … That said, I think that #MeToo as an awareness campaign is one of the most important feminist acts that happened to women lately and I’m not ambivalent about that.

At one point in the book, regarding new Swedish laws on sexual consent, you write that, though doubtless progressive, “it is not pleasant when the state enters your bedroom, even when it is at its most benevolent, even when it wants to protect you.” Why aren’t more people saying this, do you think? And why are you?

I think that people in the West aren’t aware that such a law is intrusive. In Sweden certainly not, most people believe that their state is a benevolent authority, it’s there to make their lives better. They’ve had no bad experience, and therefore no doubt about or fear of the state. My experience and that of people living in a totalitarian regime is different and therefore I react strongly to anything I consider too much of a state intervention in privacy.

Finally, Café Europa Revisited’s last chapter is an affecting essay on Brexit, and something of a love letter to the UK. Why did you choose to finish the book with this piece?

Brexit was a big shock, I think most of us in the rest of the EU didn’t believe it could happen and had hopes it wouldn’t until the last moment … Great Britain was and in many ways, especially culturally, still is part of the EU. You are right, my story is a love letter, my generation owes so much to that country: music, fashion, books, love for the English language, trips to London, the feeling that the world is a bigger place than our little province. The USA was faraway back then, not a place you could visit once or twice a year. Besides, we didn’t need visas for GB. My generation’s first love was not Germany or France, Italy or Spain but Great Britain, London. Beatles, Rolling Stones, Mary Quant, Monty Python—they belong to me as well as to you.

Slavenka Drakulić’s Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism (2021) is published by Penguin Books.

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