The Rambling American: Communism Sells Out

Former Soviet Bloc governments now embrace Western economic development, but Locke McKenzie sees citizens who are nostalgic for the communal values of socialism.

As I walk the last little stretch to the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, I count three billboards promoting the advent of 2012′s UEFA Euro Cup.inflatable velcro games

These signs symbolize a major step in economic development. The 2012 games will be the first major sporting event to be held by a post-Soviet country since the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Especially with the economic crisis taking its toll on both hosts, Poland and the Ukraine, the question of whether these two nations will be able to build the necessary infrastructure—including 50,000-person soccer stadiums—and accommodate the influx of tourists has been at the forefront of many UEFA discussions.

Thinking back on my last few days in the baroque mountain city, I can’t help but agree. This country is not ready.

In 2008, I traveled to watch a few of the European Cup games that took place in Vienna, Austria. Amongst other preparations for the event, the city extended its subway system and bought new trains.

In Vienna, everything was easy. But the city could afford for it to be.

When you have an extra 100,000+ people storming your city all at once, things need to be easy. Drunk soccer fans are not understanding or patient.

In the Ukraine, I worry that they will not have a choice.

In total, my travel companion and I spent three days in Lviv, one of the Ukraine’s major cities. We thought the city was beautiful and the atmosphere was friendly, but we were also traveling there specifically to get a glimpse of another lifestyle.

I must admit, however, that even with this mindset, I often felt overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and frustration.clown shape inflatable used

In the train station, we waited at the only international ticket counter which was closed for hours at a time in the middle of the day. When looking at the departures board on our way out of the city, we found ourselves facing a collection of incomprehensible characters. Everything was in Cyrillic. Running through the station to catch an early morning train, we didn’t know if we would ever find it. If we didn’t, we didn’t know how we could communicate this problem to the ticket counter for a refund.

It was a moment that, for us, felt a bit adventuresome, but also frustrating and even a bit frightening. We felt stranded.

This is the Ukrainian infrastructure. It’s simply undeveloped. But after years of oppression and economic hardship, who could expect more?

But this is also why the Ukraine put in a bid for the Cup. They want to be more. They want to make money. They want to Westernize.

To steal the words directly from the director of the Ukrainian Football Association, Hryphor Surkis, “It is my main aim to hold a tournament that will change both our country and its people.”

In many ways I can imagine that terms like Westernization, modernization, and globalization sound like the word “opportunity” to the Ukrainian ear, but I worry that these buzzwords may also lead to this ugly term: “homogenization.”

In catering to Western standards, much of their current way of life will change.

No one doubts that there were many problematic aspects of the Soviet version of Communism. Information was censored, intellectuals and artists were killed, and sometimes people waited for hours just to get a loaf of bread.

One thing we shouldn’t forget, however, is that good things came from that time as well.

In German, there is a very specific word, Ostalgie (Eastalgia), used to describe the feeling of longing that many citizens of the former Eastern Bloc experience now that they are swimming the in shark tank of capitalism.

As an Eastern German man I once talked with said, “In the German Democratic Republic, I always had a job and I always had food. Now I hardly have either.”

Capitalism can be brutal—squashing jobs for the sake of the bottom line. Even with the rich West German states pumping money into the former East Germany, the old Soviet Bloc still struggles with poverty and unemployment. Capitalism has created a whole new slew of problems in these recovering sectors.

What most people I talk to seem to miss even more than a stable job, however, is the sense of community that developed out of communism. I’ve heard countless stories of people from East Germany and Poland discussing the way things were before. People used to invite you in for dinner, even when they didn’t know you. They met in common areas more often. They shared what they had.

As a friend’s father once told me, “Twenty years ago, I could ride my horse wherever I wanted. Now if I go on someone else’s property, I need to call first and ask them for permission.”

With the introduction of ownership, the sense of community has faded into the realm of nostalgia, but in the Ukraine, the inkling is still prevalent. The sense of trust was still a strong bond between the people on the streets, and these were the images that were the most refreshing to me.

The buses in the Ukraine are tiny. They are little more than modified fifteen-passenger vans stuffed with people traveling to what is probably their second or even third job. As I sat in my seat, not understanding anything anyone was saying, people started handing me money. Bills were coming from the back of the bus, from the girl beside me, and from the old lady whispering something in my ear. They were handing me their fares. As I handed each wad of cash to the next person, money was also being handed backwards—their change. Everyone passed money to the next person.

Would this ever happen on the subway in Hamburg? In New York? I doubt it.

As we were walking down one of the main streets, we saw another gathering of people. At first it was just two guys. They were standing in front of their car, engine smoking, hood up. As they stood there, a crowd gathered. By the time we were moving past them, there were six or seven men all standing around the car talking about how to fix it.

Perhaps the most significant meeting place, however, was the market. In one day, I walked past at least five different markets. Some were selling books, others were selling kitsch, but most of them were selling food. One little old lady had come in from the countryside with five chickens to sell. Another man brought a couple liters of milk. As they stood side by side with their small collection of goods, they chatted idly and smiled with each other.

In each of these instances it was clear that people formed a community rather than a collection of single entities. In the West we have cell phones, iPods, AAA, and internet shopping. I could walk through the city all day and never talk to anyone. Worse yet, I could stay home and send text messages and instant messages to everyone I knew without ever hearing their voices.

I am an island. I can afford to be.

In the Ukraine, they can’t. Considering the fact that the average Ukrainian makes somewhere in the ballpark of $105 a month, I also can’t hold it against them for wanting to Westernize and capitalize as quickly as possible.

Capitalism is a convincing negotiator. I just hope that, when the Ukraine buys in, they don’t lose all the things that make them a community.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.