Saturday, October 30, 2010

Eastward Ho

The ruins of Roman and Greek civilizations draw hoards of tourists to Europe, and quite understandably too. Seeing ancient history, which we read in high school textbooks, right in front of our eyes is fascinating. However, we often tend to overlook momentous events in recent past, mostly because it is hard to grasp the significance of them when we are not directly affected by it. Living in Dresden, and traveling through Eastern Europe, I came face to face with this "modern history", and it is no less fascinating than those majestic ruins.

Growing up in the 80's, even in faraway India, we saw grainy images broadcast by the state-run TV channel. Nicolae Ceauşescu being overthrown in Buchares. Tanks on the streets of Moscow. Tearing down of the wall in Berlin. Apart from providing overtly-generalized coffee-table discussion on why communism is a failure (and also teaching me the word "coup d'état"), I dont think we gave them the due importance. The whole communist block crumbled down, ethnic conflicts ensued, resulting in formation of new independent countries. These were not merely geographical or political realignments, as I have been repeatedly realizing. In my recent travel to Budapest, it appeared that the most commonly used word together with "communism" was "terror". They upooted all the communist leader's statues from the city, and dumped them in the misleadingly named memento park A friend has experienced how in a German train, harmless looking Russian ladies were almost interrogated during a routine ID check. In a Czech shop, the salesman was horrified to learn that certain parts of India are still ruled by so-called communists.

Life in communist era was bad for sure. Food was hard to come by, luxuries were rare except for the top party functionaries, and everyone lived in an environment of constant fear and suspicion. Telling anything against the party lead to unpleasant consequences. But also, everybody had work and a place to live. Should not that count for something? Asking my friends here who formerly belonged to the east, I got mixed responses. Unification was not all good, someone's parents lost their low skill jobs, and they had a hard time integrating with the more competitive westerners. The quality of life eventually got better, but may have also created a problem of identity for the older generation. World can rarely be painted with one color.

Budapest was pretty, Bratislava was nice too. The charming old town architecture sits uneasily with modern glass-facade buildings and McDonalds. One of the attractions in Budapest was the underground labyrinth, decorated with faux-history artifacts and replica paintings. The most prominent feature in Bratislava skyline is the ugly UFO-like bridge, standing just across the medieval castle. You can use Euros in Slovakia, but you have to carry wads of local currency in adjoining Czech republic and Hungary.

In some years, before they all look and feel the same, a visit to these places is as interesting a historical tour as any other.

1 comment:


Oh! Now there are so many stories I could share from the land of the Solidarity Movement. Here's one. I was told that divorce rates were very, I mean VERY low, during Communist times. A broken family either meant any one party moved back with the parents or get a new accommodation. It was impossible to get had to apply and wait for years before such requests were processed. Hence people chose to live under the same roof even if it meant disastrous conjugal lives.