First published in English in 1992, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić is an extraordinarily good collection of essays about women’s lives under and immediately after the end of communism in Eastern Europe. Drakulić, a Croatian journalist and author, does an amazing job of presenting these deeply domestic glimpses into the lives of women and she and her personal experiences are very present in each essay. Although this was written twenty years ago, I was astonished by how informative I found it, how many of the essays brought new details to my attention that have never been mentioned in the histories or even memoirs that I’ve read covering the same area during the same time period. I may be astonished by that, but Drakulić would not be. She knows that the lives and stories she is concerned with, those of normal, unexceptional women, are the ones most easily ignored and most quickly forgotten. And yet by lacking any kind of political power, they were the ones whose lives most clearly mirrored the politics of the day:
Growing up in Eastern Europe you learn very young that politics is not an abstract concept, but a powerful force influencing people’s everyday lives. It was this relationship between political authority and the trivia of daily living, this view from below, that interested me most. And who should I find down there, more removed from the seats of political power, but women. The biggest burden of everyday life was carried by them. Even if they fully participated in revolutionary events, they were less active and less visible in the aftermath of those events.
After the revolutions women still didn’t have time to be involved; they still distrusted politics. At the same time, they deluded themselves that the new democracies would give them the opportunity to stay at home and perhaps rest for a while. There was something else, too: somebody had to take responsibility for finding food and cooking meals, a task made no easier – indeed, in some countries made more difficult – by the political changeover.
Women’s lives, by no means spectacular, banal in fact, say as much about politics as no end of theoretical political analysis. (“The Trivial is Political”)
All of the essays are fascinating. The most political of the essays – “A Chat with My Censors”, for instance, which recounts how Drakulić’s state censor asked to meet for a friendly chat, making no threats but terrifying her merely by announcing his presence – are important and insightful but, for my part, I found the essays that dealt with the day-to-day details of life of the most interest. “Make Up and Other Questions” discusses fashion and cosmetics and their importance and scarcity in communist countries, where vanity items are deemed worthless for its equal citizens and so not widely produced. Fashion, as a joyous thing, a celebration of individual style and perspective, does not exist here:
To avoid uniformity, you have to work very hard: you have to bribe a salesgirl, wait in line for some imported product, buy bluejeans on the black market and pay your whole month’s salary for them; you have to hoard cloth and sew it, imitating the pictures in glamourous foreign magazines. What makes these enormous efforts touching is the way women wear it all, so you can tell they went to the trouble. Nothing is casual about them. They are over-dressed, they put on too much make-up, they match colours and textures badly, revealing their provincial attempt to imitate Western fashion. But where could they learn anything about a self-image, a style? In the party-controlled magazines for women, where they are instructed to be good workers and party members first, then mothers, housewives, and sex objects next, – never themselves? To be yourself, to cultivate individualism, to perceive yourself as an individual in a mass society is dangerous. You might become living proof that the system is failing. Make-up and fashion are crucial because they are political.
Sometimes the simplest essays are the best, like “On Doing Laundry”, reflecting on how that most mundane task has and has not changed over the decades and through the transition from communist government to democracy. And of course, the almost farcical “The Strange Ability of Apartments to Divide and Multiply”, on the complex maneuverings each growing, shrinking, aging, or divorcing family went through during the housing shortage.
Then there are the essays on viewing the outside world through communist eyes. Of course, she always buys western goods when abroad and takes them back to friends and family (most disturbingly, distributing tampons throughout Central Europe where feminine products of any kind were impossible to obtain) and there is the hoarding instinct that comes to the front when exposed to unlimited goods at unheard of prices, whether that item be needed or not (“Some Doubts on Fur Coats”). But there are also upsetting things about the West, about capitalism, and “A Communist Eye, or What Did I See in New York” is an interesting reflection of that. In New York, Drakulić is shocked and disturbed by all the beggars and homeless people, having grown up in a country where, excepting Gypsies, that was unheard of:
Caught between two sets of values, one where beggars are not allowed at all, and the other where beggars are the consequence of capitalism, we simply are not sure how to deal with them.
Each essay had something insightful or entertaining to offer. Overall, a incredibly powerful, engagingly written, important book, presenting fascinating glimpses into the recent past.