Never waste a good economic crisis.

The problem is that the Right has been making hay in the latest one, especially in Eastern Europe. Faced with the vestiges of public assets – public transport, medecine, education and so on – the Right has aggressively offered the spurious claim that these are the source of ‘sovereign debt’ and has been jumping in to turn these dreadfully unprofitable ventures into sources of profit. And what better way than to force the sale of those public assets to your cronies in organised crime the business world. But it turns out to be the latest phase in a consistent assault of over two decades.

As Rossen Vassilev points out in ‘The Tragic Failure of “Post-Communism” in Eastern Europe‘ (1o March 2011):

In Romania:

Romania is mired in a severe recession and its battered economy is expected to decline by at least 2% in 2010, after contracting by 7.1% the previous year. Instead of trying to assist the unemployed and the socially weak, the Bucharest government, which is reportedly riddled with corruption, cronyism and nepotism, has slashed public-sector pay by one-quarter and trimmed all social expenditures, including heating subsidies for the poor as well as unemployment, maternity, and disability benefits. At the same time, the national sales tax was hiked from 19% to 24%, as the authorities are striving to hold the national deficit down to 6.8% in order to meet the stringent fiscal requirements of the European Union (EU), which Rumania had joined in January 2007.

In the Czech Republic:

20,000 hospital doctors were quitting their jobs en masse to protest the decision of Prime Minister Petr Necas’s cabinet to cut all public expenditures, including healthcare spending, by at least 10% in order to keep the country’s troubled finances afloat. These mass resignations were part of the “Thanks, We Are Leaving” campaign launched by disgruntled physicians across the country aimed at putting pressure on the Prague authorities to increase their low wages and provide better working conditions for all medical workers. Confronted with the worst healthcare crisis in the ex-Communist country’s history which was endangering the lives of many patients, the Czech government threatened to impose a state of emergency which would force doctors either to get back to work or face harsh legal and financial penalties.

In Latvia:

Latvia’s conservative government borrowed heavily from the EU and IMF on punishing repayment terms that have imposed such harsh austerity policies that the Latvian economy shrank by 25% (neighboring Estonia and Lithuania have experienced an equally steep economic decline) and unemployment, currently running at 22%, is still rising. With well over a tenth of its population now working abroad, Latvia’s guest-workers send home whatever they can spare to help their destitute families survive. Latvian children (what few of them there are as the Baltic country’s marriage and birth rates are plunging) have been thus “left orphaned behind,” prompting social scientists to wonder how this small nation of 2.3 million people can survive demographically. These are the results of post-Communist austerity budgets that have cut ordinary people off at the knees while international creditors and local bankers are bailed out.

In Bulgaria:

Official statistics show that both the annual gross national product (GNP) and the per capita income of the population have plummeted, the social-safety net has disintegrated, and even the physical survival of many impoverished Bulgarians is in peril. The immediate effects of market-oriented “reforms” have been the destruction of Bulgaria’s industry and agriculture, unemployment, inflation, flagrant inequality of incomes, crushing poverty, and even malnutrition. Organized crime and endemic corruption in the form of nepotism and cronyism, graft on the job, embezzlement, bribe-taking, influence-peddling, smuggling, protection rackets, illegal gambling, prostitution and pornography rings have exacted a heavy toll on post-Communist living standards and livelihoods. Another unfortunate effect is the widespread neglect of the economic and social rights of ordinary Bulgarians, for many of whom the 8-hour work day is now only a memory.

Right across ex-Soviet countries the story is the same:

Sharp government cutbacks in social welfare, education, healthcare, public transportation, and other basic social-infrastructure spending threaten to undermine economic security, long-term development, and political stability across the ex-Soviet bloc countries, young people are emigrating in droves to better their lives rather than suffer in an economy without any employment opportunities. The citizens of the ex-Communist nations now have to pay out of their own pockets for all previously free, government-provided medical services even though they also have to pay income, real-estate, and sales taxes—something they did not have to do under the Communist regimes. There is also the monetization and/or privatization of the previously free educational services, especially in higher education and the new private schools, colleges, and universities where students have to pay for their training, including many fees that each student must pay for taking entrance exams and other mandatory tests required at every level of schooling. Government subsidies for everything from healthcare, education, and legal representation to housing, energy, and public transportation are disappearing in the scramble to slash social spending and trim budget deficits, making it even harder for ordinary people to survive in their daily struggle for existence.

Who has gained from all this?

A new breed of rapacious and ruthless plutocrats with insatiable appetites for wealth and power has pillaged—through an unjust and corrupt process of privatization—the assets of the formerly state-owned economy.

In other words, capitalism as usual.

The upshot:

Nearly all of these twenty-eight Eurasian countries have experienced a long-term economic decline of catastrophic proportions (only Poland has thus far surpassed its Communist-era GDP). Grave economic setbacks, deep-rooted corruption, and widespread popular frustration with the hardships and deprivations of the seemingly endless post-Communist transition are undermining the prestige of the new authorities and even the population’s belief in Western-style democracy and market-based capitalism.

So is communism really better than this? As a 68-year old retired Romanian mechanic said:

I regret the demise of Communism—not for me, but when I see how much my children and grandchildren struggle. We had safe jobs and decent salaries under Communism. We had enough to eat and we had yearly vacations with our children.

In another time and in the same place, Lenin and the communists turned an economic crisis in a very different direction.

(ht tp)

In an interview with The New York Herald in 1921, Lenin says:

Some people in America have come to think of the Bolsheviks as a small clique of very bad men who are tyrannizing over a vast number of highly intelligent people who would form an admirable government among themselves the moment the Bolshevik regime was overthrown (Collected Works, vol. 36, p. 538).

What is remarkable about this anti-communist propaganda is both how boringly similar it has been for about 90 years and how pervasive it remains. Anyway, given that those cliques of ‘very bad men’ have now been overthrown and they have been replaced by ‘admirable governments’ of ‘highly intelligent people’, let’s have a look at the state of play in the ‘post-communist’ countries of Eastern Europe

Then there is this recent survey in Romania:

Only 27 percent of Romanians said communism was “wrong,” while 47 percent answered “it was a good idea, but badly applied” and 14 percent thought it was a “good idea, and well applied.” A striking 78 percent said neither they, nor their families, ever suffered under communism.

All of this took place under that evil, hated ‘dictator’, Nikolai Ceausescu.

Let us now move to Bulgaria, a place I know quite well. In a recent book, Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism, Kristen Ghodsee notes a growing nostalgia for the communist era. Why, especially in a supposedly Stalinist state? When capitalism was suddenly imposed in 1989, a few well-connected foreigners and a new local class of oligarchs and criminals took over the formerly state-owned assets – those we would call ‘business people’. Ordinary people felt they had been robbed, many lost their jobs just as the state’s social support system was dismantled. Is this unique to Bulgaria? No, it’s called capitalism as usual.

Mind you, these are states that were supposed to be unbearably repressive, paragons of dictatorship. And not, say, Yugoslavia, which was often held up as example of a humane and workable communism. While we are in Yugoslavia: four in five people with whom I speak from the ‘former Y’ tell me that it worked pretty well.

At this point the well-oiled reply of the Right will probably come in: yes, of course, older people can get nostalgic for dictatorships and autocracies, because they had some certainties in their lives, however bad things might have been. But we can dismiss these feeble longings of the old …

Crap. I have met young Russians, born either just before or after 1989, who have together raised toasts to – the USSR! Add to that the fact – as a colleague in Kiev reports after much research – that perhaps one or two countries in the former Eastern Bloc have attained the GDP of 1989 – after more than two decades of capitalism.

Maybe, just maybe people actually value things such as universal health cover, education, full employment, short working days, plenty of time to meet and talk. Maybe, just maybe, planned economies are in fact better. Even the hated (in Eastern Europe) and former anti-communist Zizek seems to think communism was better. As he puts it: we had cradle-to-grave security, never took our rulers seriously and had the mythical West to dream about.

Then again, as a friend from one of these places told me some time ago: when we learnt about capitalism at school, we all thought that it really wasn’t that bad, that our teachers were simply making it up; but now, living under capitalism, I realise that what they said was true.

You know the joke about taxi drivers in China or Russia or Hungary or Bulgaria or Ukraine or …: never trust the one who asks you ‘Taxi?’ at the station door or even inside, for sure enough you will be led – as I have been – around the back, over a fence and into a car that has at least once been used as a car bomb. And then the ‘driver’, who plonks a light on the top and wires it up for the trip, will then charge you Yom Kippur rates. The sage advice is to go to a recognised taxi rank and get in line, or better still phone a reliable number. At least those cars have meters, licensed drivers, four wheels, brakes, doors …

Not so in the USA anymore. Dodge the ‘taxi drivers’ at the station or terminal door, line up, get in a yellow-looking vehicle with a sign that says ‘Taxi’ on the top and I guarantee it will be worse than those ‘illegal’ taxis mentioned above. The dashboard warning lights flash like a Christmas tree, meters have been dumped as so much unnecessary paraphernalia, the regular thunk, thunk, thunk on the rear right-hand-side sounds distinctly like a missing tyre, and on the off chance that a receipt is available it will be a piece from the year-old burger wrapper  lying on the floor .

It’s one thing to ponder the politics of decline from a distance, but quite another to experience it first hand.

Due out any day now, the Bulgarian translation of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door will be out just in time for the book fair in Sofia on 4-5 December, should anyone be in the vicinity. This one follows the Serbian translation of a couple of years ago. For some reason, those raunchy Balkans prefer this book and can’t wait for Fleshly Readings.

Here’s the cover art:

And here the relevant details:

РОЛАНД БУР
ЧУКАМ
НА РАЙСКИТЕ
ДВЕРИ
Библията
и популярната култура

Translated by Kornelia Slavova with a big hand from Milena Kirova.

The blurb on the back:

Какво би се случило, ако масовата култура и
Библията застанат редом една до друга, а пък
читателите се отнасят към тях като към
равностойни партньори? Възможно ли е екшън
героите, филмите на Хичкок, порнографията,
проституцията, музиката в стил хеви метал,
научната фантастика и храната от Мак Доналдс
да бъдат разбрани в сравнение с избрани текстове
от Стария Завет? Именно това прави Роланд Бур
в своята новаторска и провокативна книга.
Използвайки трудовете на Мишел дьо Серто и Анри Льофевр, а
също така на Фредрик Джеймисън и Славой Жижек върху масовата
култура като своя теоретична основа, Бур извършва поредица
от прочити върху няколко теми, общи за Библията и масовата
култура. Сред тях са гей измеренията на екшън героите и цар Давид,
садистичното насилие при Хичкок в сравнение с библейските разкази за
жертвоприношение и разкъсване на тялото, твърдата порнография и
Песен на песните.
Тези прочити могат да бъдат разбрани като представителни за
една нова тенденция в интерпертацията на Библията, нека я
наречем гротескова библейска критика. Оригиналността на книгата
всъщност лежи в специфичния начин, по който се тълкуват темите за
насилието, секса, храната и утопията. Тези теми са вплетени в един
детективски роман, чиите герои се появяват и като действащи лица
в различни глави на книгата.
Освен че обича да пътува с кораб и велосипед – колкото може по-
често и повече – Роланд Бур е професор в Университета на Нюкасъл,
Австралия. Той работи в областите на библейската критика,
философията и теологията. Публикувал е 16 книги; трите последни
сред тях са „Политическият мит“ (2009), „Критика на религията“
(2009) и „Критика на теологията“ (2010).

Well, in China I met my good friend Karl, in a Bulgarian cafe, in Dobrich, I met V.I. (and Georgi Dimitrov), and now I have finally tracked down the man with the moustache, the elusive Josef, patron of this blog.

The full story soon enough, but this was one of those epic rail journeys, three days and nights without a wash, border guards who have developed the fine art of waking you in the middle of the night just when you fall into a deep sleep, bangs, thunks and shudders from an old, heavy train rolling slowly along tracks, and countries most people have never heard about. The first leg was on that old run from Sofia to Moscow (mostly the Roman script was pretty much absent, so an  ability to read Cyrillic is somewhat advantageous):

We travelled through four countries on the way – Bulgaria, crossing the Danube at Russe into Romania, Moldova and then the Ukraine (I got off in Kiev). A cosy corner for me, with bags of food and bottles of water. Thankfully they had toilet paper, since I’d forgotten that:

A late night stop in Bucharest:

And then at Ungheni on the Moldovan border (the old border of the Soviet Union) I was roused from my snooze by a swaying, banging carriage. WTF, I thought, until I saw they had jacked the carriage up and were changing the rolling stock:

Apparently, the rail guage was deliberately varied on the border in order to deny those pesky capitalist Americans a free ride into the USSR should they invade. They’d have to stop first for three hours to change over all their wheels.

The Moldovan border guards were nice bunch, as were the Romanians, but not so the Ukrainians. I was up for four hours from 1.30 am, questioned, had sniffer dogs in my compartment, had police, army, airforce, navy and the rest searching the train high and low. The reason: drugs had been ‘found’ in the toilet:

But it all went the way of whatever else enters such collective receptacles:

Kiev at last. Grimy and fucking freezing, I had a squizz at the famous city:

Final leg was a luxurious and clean Ukrainian train from Kiev to Simferopol. Ukraine certainly has the right approach to train conductors:

And they know how to pamper you:

One more night on the train and I was in Simferopol in the Crimea. Boris met me and insisted I board a mini-bus for the two-hour run over the mountains to Yalta. The driver was one of those multiskilled types, able to smoke, talk on his mobile phone, change gear with his little finger and overtake slow trucks on tight mountain corners – at the same time. A shit, shower and shave in Yalta and I was whisked away to a conference on Religion and Civil Society – all in Russian, but I had a lovely Tartar woman whispering the translation into my ear. At the end of this long day I finally sat down to a warm meal, only to be set upon by a singing troupe:

The evening ended with vodka-fuelled Ukrainians and Russians dancing wildly away to old Soviet numbers. I even shared a toast to the Soviet Union with some Russian Marxists.

Quite sensibly and sensitively, if you ask me. At Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of Bulgaria, the Church of Forty Martyrs was rebuilt during the communist era. The internal artwork looks something like this:

Given that this is a Bulgarian Orthodox church on a very sacred site, the usual iconagraphy would have been traditional and stylised, but not here. Mary and Jesus are much more down-to-earth:

By far the best are the earthy bodies, fully rounded, muscled, sensual:

Not quite the church’s tradition of desexualised bodies from the Bible and the saints …

And ordinary, hard-working people:

I’m not given to spirituality, since it is usually bullshit, but this was one of the most spititual and moving places I have been for a long time.

You never know what is around the corner, especially in this smoky cafe in Dobrich, Bulgaria:

After these three old dudes had ordered cofffees and what are affectionately known at ‘Totalitarian Lemonade’ …

… I introduced myself:

For the record, next to the chin of history is Dimitrov, an early independent Bulgarian communist leader and prime minster, and General Georgiev Stoyanov.

Today I achieved four firsts: a visit to the Garden of Eden (palace grounds of the Romanian Queen Maria which are laid out according to the plan of Paradise, with a chapel at one end and a mosque at another since her husband was Muslim), paid homage to a site dedicated to both a Muslim and a Christian saint in Obrochishte, Bulgaria, swam in the Black Sea, and – the highlight of the day – discovered a Moskvich:

Better than a Trabant, the Moskvich is a source of endless jokes in Bulgaria. But I can’t help wondering how bad a car is that is still going after forty years with no major reconditioning.