Georgi Gospodinov

Living and Being in the Time of Socialism (Notes and the margins of the Inventory Book)

Living and Being in the Time of Socialism (Notes and the margins of the Inventory Book)
title: Living and Being in the Time of Socialism (Notes and the margins of the Inventory Book)
year: 2006
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 0861-1718
language: english
author(s): Georgi Gospodinov
source: Visual Seminar. Resident Fellows Program 3: The Cliché – Memories, Images, Expectations, 2006, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia, ISBN: 0861-1718

We heard the Carmen and Eine Kleine Nachtmusic for the first time at the door of a classmate, performed by the electric doorbell brought over by her father who traveled abroad driving one of the T.I.R. trucks. We were in the first grade of primary school and fervently envied this classmate and her father. “Abroad” was a separate state for us, pretty much like France or Italy, but far more attractive. It was the only place where they have those electric doorbells, cigarette-chewing gums and chocolate bars as long as a forearm. Our parents explained that abroad they didn’t have either our nature or our yoghurt. But we found no appeal in nature or yoghurt.

We first saw the Eiffel Tower as a tiny souvenir thermometer for ambient temperature and hence the anecdote about the Bulgarian who, faced with the real Eiffel Tower, spent quite a while traipsing around looking for a thermometer, was no laughing matter. In our minds, the Venetian gondolas were bedside lamps with
melodies while the Acropolis was a porcelain ashtray only taken out for guests. Everyone seemed to have a Mona Lisa in the bedroom, a Last Supper in the guest room and still lives with fruits and sliced melons in the kitchen. A golden age for our general culture.

This is why such was our zeal in embracing Baudrillard and the “engendering simulacrum”. No more reason to travel to the Eiffel Tower – yet another copy, without a thermometer.

(from And Other Stories, 2001)

The big narrative about what is happening with us here and now cannot be pieced together only by stuff caught in the coarse net of political explanations. It is through the large mesh of such a net that those everyday objects that were surrounding us, both domestic and imported, from the trinkets on top of the guest room furniture all the way to the guest room furniture itself, irreversibly fall through. In general terms, this is a way to describe the limits our Inventory Book of Socialism fits within (or fits within itself).

A ghost is haunting the cellars... Among old compotes, puree mini-jars full of moldy plum jam, the History Of CPSU1 in hardcover, the Handbook Of The Party Agitator in paperback, a one year run of The Woman Today, the frame and the handlebar of a collapsible small-wheel Balkan bicycle, a Bulgarian white brine cheese tin full of old dry beans, a green plastic Vero dishwasher bottle, an old Luch electric heater with a broken coil, a box of gloss paint – hardened, a vulcanized Moskwitch tire, a car battery, a poker-work decorated wooden box full of badges, three Prominent In Labour flags, badge-strewn from top to bottom as well, an old canister for sauerkraut, an oil can, a Chavdarche2 hat without the lion badge, milk plastic bags washed clean for reuse – 30 pieces, a Lenin mini-bust with the nose chopped off... The ghost of socialism.

Some time ago, at a weighty East European conference, dedicated to nostalgia for the recent past, I was struck by the embarrassing attempts of individual presenters to set their own past and that of their country apart from the common pool of socialist experience. It was not before the evening and the inevitable cocktail that everything came together. We pictured the one time “indivisible socialist family”, as the saying went, sitting in a common East European guest room, with the Soviet TV set on, watching the East German entertainment programme, “A Technicolor Little Pot”, listening to the Czech singer Karel Gott while keeping their fingers crossed for the Serb-GDR Indian Goiko Mitic. The laughter that flared at this literal presentation of the metaphor, makes me dream of a similar salutary laughter that still has not occurred here. Might just as well be laughter through tears, with a slight embarrassment at the start.

The souvenir topic is part of the unsung Bulgarian everyday history of communism. Souvenirs offered material evidence that the West exists down here on Earth. We firmly stood by this existence, without actually knowing it, without having put our teeth in it. A few little objects that managed to get through the Iron Curtain, provided testimony to its being there. These at first glance trifling objects were hiding within itself a whole unattainable world, and they were the signs and symbols of it. All those tiny Eiffel Towers, with or without thermometers, porcelain Acropolises, Venetian gondolas, etc. were our profane hypostases of the West.

Furthermore, every object having come from this world easily lent itself to a transformation into a souvenir. Most trivial consumer goods, and sometimes even their packages, were vested with the halo of something precious and inimitable, became artifacts to be jealously guarded and collected. I had a friend who used to collect Coca-Cola bottles and cans. I knew collectors of cigarettes boxes, of empty whiskey bottles, of Metaxa boxes (empty as well). The latter – by means of piercing them at a few places and screwing an electric bulb inside – were transfigured into reading lamps. Did this echo the so popular here, formal and informal, movements, like TNTM3, DIY, “Something from Nothing”, etc.

These examples, no matter how absurd from today’s point of view, lead us to the following conclusions. The first one is that the socialist deficits have resulted in producing fetishes out of western mass consumer goods, they brought about the paradox of turning into collection items run-of-the-mill or assembly line products rather than unique ones. Another symptomatic phenomenon was that the consumable product itself remained somehow ghostly, untouchable (most often consumed by someone else rather than by the collector) whereas the wrapper, the hollow form was given a cult status. You are holding an empty bottle while believing you possess the spirit.

According to Earnest Gellner “the first secular religion in the world failed not because it deprived humans of the transcendent but because it deprived them of the profane (...) a Marxist society is left with no humdrum sphere of the profane into which to escape during periods of diminished zeal and enthusiasm.” When it is claimed that communism came to ruin because it had lost the technology competition or because of an industrial meltdown, etc., we are well-advised to leave, in our minds at least, a little space for the subversive role of the souvenir, of everyday objects, of mass consumer goods, even of kitsch. The role of all that stuff infiltrating the borders to fight a war of attrition with the credibility of the regime in the minds of ordinary people.

What if it turns out that, while the two systems had locked horns in a wasting battle about who is to step on the moon first, who is to edge ahead in the race for high technology, etc., the Swiss Milka had eaten out our Krava (the most popular Bulgarian chocolate brand), and the German wursts have prevailed over the eastern salami? Why not surmise that socialism collapsed under the weight the east Europeans’ preference for Coca-Cola to local fizzy drinks, like Altay, Etar, Sun-Cola, etc.? Or that the iron curtain has fallen under the pressure of prosperous global companies, like McDonald’s, Craft Jacobs Suchard, Pepsi and Coca-Cola? The collapse of socialism as a well-conceived and carried through promotion campaign. The souvenir daydreaming for the West started losing its colours in the 90’s. And my friend quit collecting Coca-Cola bottles because the drink became so freely available it was spouting from every hole.

To the host of definitions of history, we might just as well add another one – history is a constant process of turning symbols into souvenirs. This might prove to be its “natural” drive – from the sacred to the commercial. What once was the symbol of a revolution or of a whole age, with the passing of time sheds its sacredness and turns into knickknack memorabilia, into entertainment, into a lure for the eyes of foreigners. Most often – into kitsch. This was the fate of all communist paraphernalia in the early 90’s: helmets, medals, militia peak-hats, uniforms. “The ash heap of history” was transfigured into the flea-market of history. Communism was being sold out piecemeal. The first breakthrough of the secondhand. No one seemed especially annoyed by what was happening, on the contrary – there was obvious joy. Sales were brisk, and the western tourists were not the only customers.

Let us now see where things are today, fifteen years on. Even the “souvenir interest” of Western Europe in the East is scanty. Nonetheless, we are experiencing another socialist artifact boom. The easy transformation of symbols into souvenirs earlier in the 90’s can be overturned into a less-than-innocent reversion of souvenirs back to symbols – pursuant to the old Marxist formula, “Money-Commodity-Money Prime”. Here is one more reason to put on record and archive the knickknackery and haberdashery of the regime into an Inventory Book of Socialism. There is always the hazard of yesterday’s souvenirs (badges, shoulder pieces, party and komsomol tickets) morphing back into tomorrow’s symbols. And my friend will have to hark back to the Coca-Cola bottles, and we will need to explain to our kids that the true Eiffel Tower has no thermometer.

Not so long ago I came across an old calendar notebook for 1986. One of those, you must remember them, a Partizdat4 publication, folding open into two parts, fixed on a plastic stand. They used to have them on every desk, in every factory or institution. The left hand side was filled out with great events at specific dates, most often from the history of the Bulgarian, the Soviet or another brotherly communist party. The right hand side was left blank for making notes. The one I was holding in my hands had obviously belonged to an ordinary caterer in a collective farm or a factory canteen. Most often, the notes read: “100 bundles of onions and 50 lettuces for the canteen.”

There were terrific matches between the left and the right hand side. Where the left side, in official printed type, went, “20 years from the plenum of the Central Committee of the BCP5, having approved the new system for managing the people’s economy” (26 April), the right side, in a handheld ballpoint pen, displayed the onions and lettuce note. The anniversary of the foundation of the Malaysian Communist Party (30 April, Wednesday) was facing a jot-down mindful of the need to have the tomato plantation watered. In the blank field against the 7th of November (69 years from the VOSR6), the sad news of 2 piglets passing away was featured. The single more intimate note in the book went this way: “To speak over again with bai7 Ivan about cooking oil and jar lids.” The date was September 4, Thursday, the season of stewing liutenitsa8 and compotes, with the cooking oil and jar lids obviously in short supply, despite all those plenums typically committed to “the ever fuller satisfaction of the growing material and spiritual needs of the population”.

I kept reading the notebook page by page, from left to right, blending together the “big” with the “small” history. An allegory of a whole period where the left hand side was disciplined into anniversaries of plenums, anti-fascist uprisings and the successes of the Soviet cosmonauts. The right hand side though offered space for one’s chores. You had the chance or the duty to arrange in an orderly fashion your personal or professional life in a strictly set context. And very little chance of anything intimate, as the notebook shows. If we really wish to get a few things explained today, we have to look closely into both sides of the book, the official and the informal one, with all their crossings, blendings and mismatches. The communist party chronicle next to the onions and lettuce of day-to-day life.

Household Articles of Socialism might have been another name for the Inventory Book. Sometime, not long ago, there used to be shops bearing the name of “1001 Articles”. As a child, I loved standing in front of a shop window contemplating this magic figure painted out on the window. 1001 was a figure intractable to my juvenile arithmetic, Scheherazade’s nights were of the same number. My main dilemma back then was whether the articles were 1001 sharp, or whether it was a hoax, of hyperbole of some sorts, even though I wasn’t aware of the existence of this word. One day I plucked the courage to step into the shop firmly intent on counting all the goods out, as I would say today – to quantify my suspicion. But even before I could reach 100, the shop assistant having taken notice of my weird tax-collector’s behavior, simply showed me the way out of the shop. This is how my first attempt at a private audit of socialist abundance in terms of household commodities was ruined. Stock-taking could not be seen through, and the suspicion of tampering with the figures lingered on.

Today, some twenty years on, when the goods far outnumber the insurmountable 1001 digit, and every neighborhood grocery store looks like the one-time Corecoms, Yana Genova and I, while hunting down together sotz artifacts for our Inventory Book of Socialism, reached the following poignant conclusion.

Experience gathered during our artifact hunts showed that goods we assumed to have already been relegated to the museum, were in fact still a part of the daily life for a great number of people. This has somehow always been before our eyes yet we failed to take notice: the Minsk refrigerator on its last legs in my parents kitchen, the Raketa vacuum-cleaner also at a venerable age, the Sofia TV set from the mid-80’s ... There are so many places where people still spin, against all odds if we have to be fair, their semiautomatic Perla 3 washing machines, still listen to the Tonmaster ham radio hanging on the wall or keep the VEF9 portable radio together by many sticking tape wraps. There is hardly any other place in Europe with so many and so active veteran household appliances. Obviously it is not a testimony to the terrific quality of the socialist industry, as the nostalgic ones might argue. Even less it is a testimony to the lack of choice in electric appliances today. The truth is that poverty holds a major portion of Bulgarians within the grip of the daily articles of another era. And there is more to it than meets the eye. Was it not right then, as the saying went, that existence preceded essence?

The “sotz”10 (not socialism as a social order but precisely the sotz, as the type of society socialism produced, in terms of taste, mentality, spirituality) proved highly communicable. To put it in different words – it has a rather long period of semi-disintegration. If we accept the claim that socialism collapsed back in 89, then it keeps sending out radiation fifteen years already. i.e., in 1989 socialism only half-disintegrated. And if we can grapple one way or another with the rest of its heritage – by means of denationalization, democratic elections, freedom of speech, amending the constitution and so on and so forth – the ghost or the taste of the sotz is still roaming undisturbed in this country.

What we need is to capture the everyday stories of socialism, to recollect, to zero in on, to humor all the knickknackery and haberdashery of yore and present: from the estrada11 and the wedding ritual concocted by Djagarov12 through to the people’s wafer, the doggy-bank and the coop-cola. We haven’t laughed enough at all this kitsch, we haven’t been ironic with it enough, we haven’t pushed it out of fashion. And all this cultural layer – since, loathe it or not, this is a whole cultural layer of the daily life of previous decades – has formed or deformed the taste of a major part of today’s Bulgarian society.

In her The Culture Of Lies Dubravka Ugresic says at one place that “real nostalgia implies in a way a real loss of something”. From this angle, the people of Eastern Europe really have tremendous foundations for their nostalgia because they have really lost a tremendous part of their nostalgic paraphernalia.

The question is whether this Inventory Book of Socialism, by retrieving, or, in more precise terms, bringing back the memory of the objects lost, will exacerbate the withdrawal syndrome or overcome it. I haven’t got the answer.



1 The Communist Party of the Soviet Union

2 The Bulgarian children’s organization named after a national hero

3 An popular acronym for a state-run movement under socialism, the Technical and Scientific Creative Work of the Youth

4 Partizdat – the publishing house of BCP

5 Bulgarian Communist Party

6 The Russian and Bulgarian acronym for the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1917

7 “Bai” is a Bulgarian colloquial address to an older and respected male

8 “Liutenitsa” is a traditional and very popular homemade ketchup

9 VEF was a hugely popular Soviet brand for portable radios

10 As in “sotz-art”, the Soviet era pop-art, also spelled “soc-art”, “soz-art” or “sots-art”

11 The term used for the Eurovision type of sentimental popular music prevalent under socialism

12 Georgi Djagarov was a poet closely related to the communist party, both ideologically and in terms
of the top-ranking positions he occupied throughout the socialist years

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