Slavenka Drakulic: “Between freedom and security people choose security”
Croatian writer and journalist Slavenka Drakulic may be called a communism anthropologist. What she studies is soviet mentality. That may be documenting women’s experience of everyday life in socialism (“How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed”) or animal allegories (“A Guided Tour through the Museum of Communism”). The writer witnessed Yugoslavian war and immigrated to Sweden after in 1991 “with-hunt” in Croatia started. Drakulic was a guest of Kyiv Biennale discussion on communism. Korydor talks with the writer on the gap between personal and official memory, nostalgia for Soviet Union and war experience that splits society in two.
Yevheniia Oliinyk: There’s a lot of debate on decommunisation in Ukraine now, but recent discussion on Kyiv Biennale raised the question: what is a decommunised country, are there any decommunised countries at all?
Slavenka Drakulic: No, I don’t think so. First of all, because it’s a process, second of all, because it’s a very slow one, and third of all, because I don’t think it succeeded anywhere, but in former GDR. This country made the biggest effort to reveal the past – like opening secret police achieves, having trials. They did everything very efficiently because of having experience in defascisation.
There are two models of dealing with past. One would be a Spanish model, where you just sweep past under the carpet. It doesn’t work because past pops up. Other approach is a German model, when you face your crimes, either you want it or you are forced to. Nobody wants it because even if you have nothing to do with those crimes, you are in a certain way collaborator. Even if you are a victim, you are bound to share these issues. Still this model is much more different from decommunisation in former communist countries in Eastern Europe. And there are a lot of differences among them: between Poland and Albania, between Yugoslavia and countries that were in the Bloc. What does it mean that decommunisation is a process? It means that you have to start somewhere and go on and for most of the people there is no end of it. We tried to come up with what decommunisation consists of, what it means, and I don’t think we agreed upon any definition. But in my view it’s about getting rid of physical symbols: monuments, names of the streets and squares, which were given during communist times. There is also another process – lustration, but I’m also not sure that all the former soviet countries had much success in accomplishing it.
Also one of the important things that you never think of is how big the country is. If it is five million people or fifty, things are very different. In a five million country the elite is very well known and you don’t have an endless source of qualified people that you can put in charge of the state… Some countries may have decided it’s already too late for that. Decommunisation is a burning issue in Ukraine today, but I don’t think it is for Slovakia or Czech Republic or Poland.
Y.O.: You do think it’s necessary to destroy the symbols of the regime, don’t you?
S.D.: I don’t support that brutal destruction that was done in some places because, for example, in Croatia communist monument were connected with the antifascist struggle. So I’m for selective changes. And we also have to consider if a monument has any artistic value. In general I think past should not be erased, it should be recognized regardless of what kind of past it is.
Y.O.: You mentioned young people in your country, who don’t know Croatia was a fascist state…
S.D.: Two thirds of high school students think it wasn’t fascist, which is even worse than not knowing. They know about independent state of Croatia in 1941-1945 and think it wasn’t fascist. This means they learn nothing at school.
Y.O.: The question is: what happens when the whole part of history is concealed?
S.D.: We are experienced at that. In communist countries there was such brainwashing. At school you didn’t really learn history. What you learned were mostly the successes of Communist party in fighting fascism, building the country and very little about what happened in terms of facts. There is a Yugoslavian case when number of victims of fascist was relatively exaggerated. In fascist Croatia there was a concentration camp near Zagreb, Jasenovac. After the war it was said that fascist killed hundreds upon hundreds of thousands people – Serbs, Serbian minority in Croatia, communist and Jews. About 700 thousand. This is what we learned at school in my time.
Many decades after historians discovered it was about 60 thousand. Ten times less. This is what making ideology out of history is. And there was not only because of victimizing, there was a financial reason for that. Because if you say there were 700 thousand victims, you get more money in reparations from Germany. When facts are hidden, there is always a possibility of manipulation, of saying, “Croats killed XY number of people”, even if there were not too many people to kill. And in democratic society it’s not a choice between talking and not talking about some issues, it’s a matter of how you talk about them. In Ukraine we’re facing a gap between personal memory and official version of history. Some people are nostalgic about the past, not because of politics but the way they were living. How to bridge this gap? Only by finding out the truth about what happened. And this struggle is familiar for all post-communist countries.
Y.O.: That we can see from the history of those countries is a swing to nationalism after the fall of communist regime. Why is that happening?
S.D.: To understand, you have to step back and try to look at this period from some distance. Before the Second World War the form in which the countries of Eastern Europe were organized was feudalism. Communist revolution was important because it brought modernity, modernization – beside all the bad things like starvation in Ukraine, of course. Nevertheless, peasants were moving to cities, emancipation of women started, electricity and other facilities appeared and so on. We never really had bourgeois revolution like in France, or democracy. And that transformation also left no space for religion or nationalism; they were wiped away, made politically incorrect. It was some kind of equalization, so called “uravnilovka” but not in terms of having equal rights or possibilities. We were all Yugoslav citizens, nation doesn’t matter, we are all secular because Marx said, “religion is opium for people”, which he said very well indeed.
When you then come back to 1989, to the big political change, very soon after that you see renascence of nationalism and church. Why? Because that kind of identity was still there, though it was forbidden and hidden. For example, there is an obvious difference between Russians and Ukrainians; there are distinct features of these societies, distinct tradition, language, elements of national identity and also religion is preserved. The change of 1989 was so big and so frightening, and people in a situation of stress tend to withdraw into the state they know. So they just went back to their known identity, which existed in terms of language and religion. These were only two elements remained from before, all you knew about yourself in the new world was: I am Ukrainian and I am Orthodox. Like for example in Albania, where churches were forbidden and now there are so many believers, both Muslims and Christians. It is the matter of historical identity that was taken away from them.
Then again, some countries never had any independence, never were states of their own, and they felt that this is a moment of their national emancipation. So we have a paradoxical situation in Europe: western countries were uniting in the EU in order to become more connected and countries of Eastern Europe were separating – for example, instead of Yugoslavia six countries appeared. One may say it was a retrograde process, but it wasn’t, because they never had it before. Those countries went through the process of nation-building – so much that Yugoslavia went through bloody war so these nation states became real.
Y.O.: You are often asked of why there is so much nostalgia for communist time and your answer always is: “feeling of security”. But what kind of security is that?
S.D.: In 2010, when the 20th anniversary of revolution was celebrated, there were many researches that revealed, to the big surprise of researches and journalists, that a lot of people feel nostalgic. First of all, it’s a generational thing, I mean, revolution happened in the middle of their lives, their values and systems just collapsed. It was not only the political regime, but the way they lived, talked, things they bought, the shops and brands they knew – everything collapsed. Their known worlds collapsed. I am deeply convinced that people are not nostalgic for political regime. They were exposed to a great change that they feel they can’t do anything about. They see corruption around them. Well, of course the communist regime was corrupted in another way too: there was party elite, red bourgeoisie and so on, but it wasn’t that visible. Now you can simply see how your neighbor, who yesterday did very unimportant job, suddenly becomes very reach through some privatization schemes. There is a gap between majority of the poor, who are even poorer than before, and people who got rich through a very dubious entrepreneurship.
When there is a choice between security and freedom, people would choose security. Before you could get an apartment and your job was safe. Yes, it was a totalitarian regime and one was supposed to collaborate, but it was a kind of collaboration when you were told not to do anything. And now you feel unprotected, because this kind of capitalism is very brutal. It allows all kinds of corruption, all kinds of stealing, there is no justice. The most important is that there are no guarantees, no job or apartment guarantee. It’s the only reason for nostalgia. If it had a political element, that would be reflected in elections. Still, democratic society didn’t bring people what they wanted – both in terms of freedoms and goods. In fact, this is still a process of democratization, not democracy. There are institutions, but no habits, mentality, values and behavior of democratic people. Here the shops are all the same as in Vienna, but the thing is people can’t afford it. We had a dream that we would be able to walk in and take whatever we want for a little money, but it isn’t like that. Actually, it’s nowhere like that, even in America. That also brings a lot of disappointment.
You can change political regime but you can’t change mentality. In post-communist countries people often say that something is unjust. Yeah, but who ever said that capitalism is just? Some people get rich overnight and some get more poor – so what? It’s this kind of mentality of longing for justice even if it is justice on the level everybody being poor and having very little basic needs fulfilled. Post-soviet form of capitalism is not the same as capitalism in Sweden, which is of course much more just. And people also cannot absorb that shock that there is a stratification, five percent of people that suddenly became extremely rich while a lot of other people have no job and no money for descent living.
Y.O.: Your Kyiv lecture was called “Create a war in a few easy steps”. What is that simplicity you talk about?
S.D.: It’s all about my experience. When you come abroad and meet people they would tell you: “But how come? Yugoslavia was a fantastic country, beautiful and peaceful and all of a sudden there was a war.” My point is that no war comes suddenly. It is being prepared for a long time. In Yugoslavia it was five years of propaganda which we didn’t realize as preparations. Media propaganda makes the biggest part of it. And those preparation steps are universal in every war, in every country.
Y.O.: For Milenko Jergovic, who visited Kyiv in spring this year, writing about war was a way to somehow save places and relations lost in war. What was it for you?
S.D.: Well, we write very different kinds of prose. I wrote three books about war. First is “Balkan Express” – stories about how war happens to ordinary people in town, people who never thought about war, who thought it was behind them. I write about my generation, urban generation living in Zagreb. I’m trying to capture their reaction. And mainly it’s denial. The war is fifty kilometers away from you and less than an hour drive, but you behave as it is not happening. The second book was “As If I Am Not Here” which was turned into film.It was about terrible rape camp, established in Bosnia by Serbian army, where from 30 to 60 thousand women, mostly Muslim, were raped. It was a form of ethnic cleansing – to scare people by raping their women so they leave the territory. So I gathered a lot of documents about it, talked to those women and wrote about it through the story of one heroine, fictional one. The third was about perpetrators – “They Would Never Hurt a Fly”. After writing about victims and horrifying things happened to them, you inevitably start asking: who is the perpetrator? You are people capable of committing those crimes? So I got a grant and went to the trial in Hague, International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. I went to the court every day and studied a lot of documents then. This book is actually a series of portraits. And I came to a rather disappointing conclusion about human nature. It appeared that all of us have potential to be good and bad. And it depends very much upon the circumstances what way to choose. Jergovic comes from Sarajevo, that was most hit by war. So he comes from another surrounding. I guess, we just had different prospective but it’s good to see the war from many different angles.
Y.O.: Among all the loss that war brings there is a loss of trust in society – a boundary between those who were in war and those who were not involved. Is there any way to deal with that?
S.D.: They have experienced something no one can even imagine. Once you’ve been through the war as a soldier, things you’ve seen change you forever. I saw it with my own father who fought in the Second World War on the side of antifascists, of Tito. He never spoke about it for the reason, he told, that nobody can understand it. What your experience in war is mortal fear. Father said there’s no need to know about war because he fought so his children don’t have to fight. It is not a matter of trust. Soldiers are important for the moment, but afterwards they are forgotten, like all war heroes are forgotten. They never have enough gratitude. In Croatia battle is still going, there are veterans protesting, saying they want more rights. What they experience is indifference of the rest of the society. And there’s not much to be done about it, it’s just the nature of things.
Y.O.: As Marci Shore admitted, there is barely a way of getting out of communism with clean hands. Is it the same with war?
S.D.: This is a question of complicity. No totalitarian regime can exist without complicity, even if it’s silent. War can’t be fought without complicity. In this sense all of us have dirty hands. But it should be said, it is a matter of degree. It is not the same thing if you sit in your corner, doing your job, not saying anything or if you actively participate. This is an ocean of difference. So we have to be able to acknowledge it.