MICKEY MOUSE TRAVELS EAST
(Cultural Shifts in Post-Communist Europe)
1. The fight continues: countering a stereotype with another
My flight to the European East is delayed. A strike, bad weather, a bomb scare - who could say, nobody told us anything. People in the waiting lounge were at first stoical, but now they are bristling, they have increased their trips to the monitors where the DELAYED sign pulsates indefatigably, and with dissatisfied miens they return to their seats.
The little group of American tourists flocks around their tour guide as soon as he motions. "We'll have to wait," he announces, and they nod with resignation as though they hadn't noticed that themselves. Wait, okay, but - why? The times when things like that happened in Europe without any specific reason are gone, aren't they, I think with sarcasm. And obviously something similar crosses the tour guide's mind, as he attempts to concoct an excuse. "That's Eastern Europe for you," he begins. "Traveling over there has become simpler, one needs less and less papers to cross borders, and you can get hamburgers on every street corner, not to mention the Coke. But -" he pauses dramatically while his group watches him with consternation, "but let me warn you: Things are not the way they are back home. Even though at first sight they may seem . . ." Somebody cuts him off in mid-sentence. "It's lucky they're not the same!" he calls out. "That's why we're traveling there, ain't it?" The little group nods encouragingly.
"These stupid Americans," somebody says in Russian at the top of his voice right next to me. "They think they own the whole world. They think they can shoot their mouths off whenever they feel like it." I glance at my neighbor. Yes, I could hate this Russian on sight, he's such a walking talking national stereotype: Loud, full of himself, with a cigarette dangling from his lips though there's a no-smoking sign on every single wall, and - and this irks me most - he's wearing, in mid-December, tennis shoes, white socks, and trousers ironed to a crease. He obviously thinks the whole world belongs to him. I immediately move away.
Airports are where the current variant of the Babel of languages can be heard. I come up against two Germans discussing - not as loudly as the representatives of nations victorious in World War 2, but with no less determination - the two young Russian women who had retreated to a partly secluded corner at the first mention of the delay and immediately started to polish their nails. The men are debating whether the girls are prostitutes or not. One is almost zealous in his support of that interpretation, the other one reserved. "Just look at them, look at the way they're dressed!" says the first one. "So they're Russian, they have no taste, typical," the other one tries to mollify him. "But - what else do you think they could possibly live on here?" insists the first one. "They have no choice. They have just one use, the ones that come here, and you know what that is." "Oh, come on," protests the other one, "they could be nurses, maids, anything." "Hah! Nurses? That doesn't pay enough. I'll bet you they do something more lucrative! You know what they say you should do if somebody tries to mug you practically anywhere in the world?" The other one shakes his head but seems interested in a useful tip, we are, after all, traveling East, into the danger zone. "If somebody attacks you, all you have to do is say something in Russian - they'll freak out cause they'll think you're connected with the Russian Mafia, they're everywhere now, and you're home free, nobody will as much as lift a finger against you!" They both chuckle happily.
That's a nice start for a journey, I say to myself, a parade of national stereotypes. Sooner or later we will all trade in our varicolored banknotes for the uniform design of the euro, but our jokes will remain populated by meticulous Germans, jealous Italians, bon-vivant Frenchmen, reserved Englishmen, emancipated Scandinavian women, and uncouth Easterners. The conflict between the West and the East will no longer be a conflict of economic conceptions, but of cultural ones.
I sit down next to the Russian girls and ask them in English where they're headed. "Home," says one of them. "To Sankt Petersburg," adds the other one. And because I look at her a trifle too long at the mention of her hometown she decides to elucidate: "That used to be Leningrad. Now it's called Sankt Petersburg. I mean it's again called Sankt Petersburg."
"And what were you doing in Europe?" I ask. They look at me with amazement. "In Europe? We were in Vienna. At the Microsoft seminar for computer programmers." "Did you learn anything new?" They again exchange mystified glances; I'm not good at this small talk thing, I realize. "We went there to teach, nothing new, just old stuff, but what can you do, these stupid Westerners are so slow on the uptake!" They start giggling, then one of them stops short, looking at me cautiously: "Where are you from?" she asks. "Slovenia," I say. (And I think, as I always do under such circumstances: And not from Slavonia, or Slovakia either.) "Uh-huh," says the computer programming instructor and falters, seemingly unable to decide what to say next. "That's somewhere in between, right?" she finally asks.
Somewhere? Somewhere in between? Between what? The East and the West? Communism and capitalism? Slavonia and Slovakia? Feverishly I grope about in my mind for a funny retort when the loudspeaker gurgles. "Will the passengers please proceed to the gate!" I shrug my shoulders, we all shrug our shoulders, grab our bags, and we're already - all of us - running toward the plane. Eastern and Western Europeans alike, we share a destination. Let's move on, A.S.A.P.
2. Pay your bill, enjoy your meal
Things are not the way they are at home, the American tour guide had said. What are they like, then? In Quentin Tarantino's cult movie Pulp Fiction the two main characters, hired guns Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, discuss in the middle of Hollywood the beauties of Europe. Vincent talks about the hash bars in Amsterdam where hashish can be smoked plainly in public, and then enlightens the enchanted Jules about what is best about Europe. "It's the little differences. A lotta the same shit we got here, they got there, but there they're a little different." When Jules wants examples, he gets the following: "In Paris, you can buy beer at McDonald's. Also, you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?" Jules is surprised: "They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?" "No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is," answers Vincent. They call it a Royale with Cheese. And a Big Mac, Le Big Mac. Jules is stunned.
Indeed, despite the wide-spread belief that the world market is a ruthless dictator of unification, even such symbols of globalization as McDonald's restaurants are assuming local traits. Because they have to. Not because some protectionist laws dictate it - the countries formerly under Communist rule are much too covetous of everything Western to resort to such self-defense - but because the market itself dictates the adjustments. So in different countries you'll really get the same hamburger at McDonald's, but the available breakfasts will differ greatly: In the United States they serve sausage & gravy, in Vienna croissants, in Japan something Europeans can't even name, let alone recognize by taste. (And in Eastern Europe, for the most part, you won't find any breakfast at all.)
When the first McDonald's restaurant opened in Moscow in 1988, it caused tremendous excitement; people wanted at least a snapshot of themselves in it even if they could not afford the food, which was too expensive for their circumstances, and any plastic article with the McDonald's logo became precious memorabilia. (The fact that plastic is also dangerously seeping into the taste of fast food, so dangerously in fact that Dairy Queen started to promote their chicken sandwich as "chicken with the taste of real chicken", perhaps only helped the process of identifying the food with its packaging.) But when a McDonald's opened in Riga - that was in 1994, after the process of democratization had finished - it already was enough to cause resentment, in particular as it went to roost - another thing typical of the company in Eastern Europe - at one of the most prestigious points of the old town nucleus. The city was already filled with the West to such a degree that Latvians did not feel the need to introduce anything more at any price or in any form.
Naturally, capital wins, and the McDonald's restaurants on the busiest streets of Krakow, Vilnius, Ljubljana, and of course Riga are there to stay; they actually seem to be doing a brisk business. Hanna, a girl working at the Krakow McDonald's and thus supporting herself through her studies of ancient Greek, tells me: "At first the locals came. All the kids wanted to be seen here, and the small children wanted our hats and balloons. Now their numbers have dwindled, they're fed up. But we get a lot of foreigners. Every tourist stops here." Indeed, in Eastern Europe an unseasoned traveler soon begins missing the small comforts of the West, where it goes without saying that there should be benches on railroad platforms and trash baskets on every corner. Thus a McDonald's with its stereotypical image of sterile cleanness and order becomes a welcome refuge. One can only take so much of local specialties.
If the McDonald's restaurants in Eastern Europe are still in the first stage of adjusting to the local market and are for the time trying out the approach of reducing their supply (as mentioned above, by leaving out breakfast!), there are the newly opened ethnic restaurants to prove that mulitculturalism has arrived in the region. In Vilnius one can try - apart from Lithuanian - also Chinese, English, French, Georgian, German, Hungarian, Indian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Polish, and of course, American cuisine. In Tallinn the range includes American, Argentinean, Belgian, Chinese, Creole, French, German, Hungarian, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Jewish, Korean, Lithuanian, Mexican, Russian, Scottish, Spanish, and of course Estonian food. There are not many American cities with half a million inhabitants which could boast such a variety, melting pot or no melting pot!
When ethnic restaurants appear as a consequence of migrations and settle in the heart of a strong immigrant community, like Ethiopian cuisine has in Washington D.C. or, somewhat surprisingly, Vietnamese in Warsaw, they seem not only a welcome but also a fairly logical spice added to the local stew. But sometimes the combinations interlacing on the taste buds become ridiculous, just as ridiculous as the sudden coexistence of totally different cultural traditions. The Warsaw Palac Kultury, a representative specimen of Stalinist monumental architecture, looks somehow absurd next to its neighbors Taco Bell and McDonald's; but if we look at the matter the other way around, it is the fast food joints that are really absurd. Palac Kultury was there first. (There is, however, no getting away from it - everything is changing: On Sundays, in the Riga "Palace of Science", a monument practically identical to the Warsaw "Palace of Culture", there is now an American-type church service, with a live band and everyone present singing along. More than a little different from Soviet times, when churches were turned into warehouses for coal even! Might that be historic revenge?)
Cases like this call to mind the words of Philip Marlowe, the private eye from Raymond Chandler's novels, who once assessed that he belonged in some company as much as onion in a fruit salad. The mixture of Western and Eastern pop culture (and also the blending of high and low culture) is not necessarily very tasteful: To those used to the high production standards of contemporary pop, the combinations of imported urban styles and rural popular traditions can easily cause a fair amount of aural discomfort. Musical mixtures like Polish disko polo or Serbian turbofolk are sometimes performed by bizarre, cartoon-like characters. The cheap simulation of emotions and reason can in such an environment easily blossom to an extreme. The Croatian author Dubravka Ugrešić says that contemporary sentimental Balkan pop croons as if drawing its last breath, writes with a pen dipped in its lifeblood, paints with the last drop of its blood, and yet, surprisingly, does not expire but quite the opposite, makes a killing.
The ironic presentation of typical food as a cultural paradigm is the special modus of the Slovenian underground comic-strip movement Stripburger, which translates into English as Comicburger. They entitled their special overview edition of Eastern European comics Stripburek - in the honor of burek, a meat or cottage-cheese pie, the principal fast food item in the Balkans and at the same time a sort of embodiment or trademark of the Balkans. At the time of the secession of Slovenia, the most 'non-Balkan' of the Yugoslavian republics, the graffiti Burek, nein Danke. appeared on several walls of its capital city. The paradox of this cry for freedom lay of course in the fact that the nationally conscious Slovenians chose for the eviction of the imposed Balkan cultural model the language of the model which in the times of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy imposed much more sever constraints on Slovenian nationhood.
Nowadays the atmosphere has changed. The most popular Slovenian rap singer does not extol hamburgers but burek. In the discotheques young people become their liveliest at the so-called Balkan parties, featuring the sound of music from the former Yugoslavia. Some say it's because we grave Slovenians have no autonomous pop music of our own, others, with a penchant for psychoanalysis, claim that what is at issue is a collective catharsis resulting from the sense of loss of the big Other and the related feeling of guilt. Whichever the case, the Eastern European yearning for Westernization at all costs seems to be drawing to an end - the West has come to Eastern Europe in a big way, and changed from a dazzling object of desire into a tangible reality, which is barely supportable. In view of all the difficulties this reality entails for the unsuspecting Easterners, who only crave the beauties of the West, it is no big wonder that the emotion currently prevalent is an increasing desire for the Easternization of Eastern Europe.
This desire goes, after all, hand in hand with the waning of Eurocentrism and the corresponding waning of Amerocentrism on the other side of the Atlantic. Culture is becoming global. Nowadays, the dictatorship of the 'great cultures' is over. American literature is both bored and boring, the Hollywood film industry repeats its own patterns. The world slowly, but definitely opens its guardian gates and lets world music, new European film and the literature of small nations enter. Quite a few authors of 'exotic' countries and languages have gained recognition in the west, not only in the oasis (or, rather, ghetto) of magazines and publishing houses with special interest in 'imported' writing. Some authors even make it to the bestseller charts. Books written by Dutch Cees Nooteboom, Danish Peter Hoeg, Norwegian Jostein Gaarner, Bulgarian Viktor Paskov, Finn Rosa Liksom, Swede Lars Gustafsson, Catalan Jesus Moncada, Estonians Jaan Kroos and Jaan Kaplinski, not to mention numerous African, Caribbean, and Indian writers writing in their variation of English, have proved that writers from small cultures can do it.
It does not happen only in so-called high culture, though. It happens also (and even more visibly) in popular culture. Even the American upper- and middle-class WASP's (white Anglo-Saxon protestants) listen to musica latina, music played by people they wouldn't want to have for neighbors. John Woo, the director of the hit Face/Off with Nicholas Cage and John Travolta, successfully united the film patterns of Hong Kong and Hollywood, vitally refreshing the latter. This invigoration might have well been artificial, a kind of facelift, but no matter - popular culture is intended for superficial perception and even the most global of changes must occur on the surface. So things are rearranging: Contemporary world music fuses the cultural heritage of ethnic rhythms and melodies with up-to-date technology like synthesizers, samplers and rhythm machines; not only the above mentioned disko polo and turbofolk, but also more confidence inspiring attempts at transmuting traditional folk music into a form for the end of the millennium, like the Algerian rai, can no longer do without musical instruments powered by electricity.
It would be an exaggeration to say that this is merely a dictate of new technologies, that artisans who manufacture classical instruments are a dying breed, and that electric instruments can be heard better. (Also for the reason given by those who advocate orthodox ethnic music without loudspeakers: "When you switch on an electric guitar, you switch on imperialism.") The reasons for the coexistence of the old and the new are sometimes purely social. One of the new trends in the so-called world music, bhangra, is a product of Indian émigrés in the United Kingdom, which combines centuries of Punjabi musical tradition with the preprogrammed patterns used by the dance music industry. This invention was heavily influenced by the social life of the immigrant community: young people were not allowed to go to the evening clubs visited by their white contemporaries since such outings were completely incompatible with their national traditions. That is why they (helped and controlled by their caring parents) started to set up small daytime clubs in school halls and, since almost all the visitors were of Indian descent, the usual disco and soul music fare was gradually replaced by mixes more appealing to the parents and, in quite a few cases, to the children too - it mixed something new and something well-known. For the children, the disco beats were well-known, the sound of instruments such as the dhol and santoori was new. For their parents, it was the other way around. In the mix, they could both enjoy the night out. And they came again, and kept coming. And they will come in the future.
3. Dissidents against their will
"What has happened to our culture?" asks a retired professor of literature from one of the countries of the ex Kaiser-und-König monarchy when I come visit him in his neighborhood full of dilapidated apartment buildings, as he offers me a rickety chair in his tiny, crammed study, whose air is stuffy with the smell of molding books. "How come nobody reads the classics anymore? My own daughter laughs at Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago! The accusations the Soviet authorities contrived to drive millions of Russians to the concentration camps of Siberia seem to her more bizarre than the sketches of Monty Python! How come all this youth does is watch television? We went to war with a booklet of poems by our greatest poet in our pockets, and my grandchildren will apparently take their Gameboys!"
I have no way of countering that. Evasively, I mutter something about how times are changing. And they are. When at a mid-morning service at the Orthodox church in Tallinn I listen to the incredible voice of the liturgy singer, my mind functions in a thoroughly Western manner: I reflect how I could slightly amplify the soft crackling of the candles, add a slow electronic rhythm, and bingo! - I would have a perfect piece of music for the 'after', the slow, dreamy unwinding of a rave party . . . When I realize what I am doing I shudder at the profanity of my thought and its profit-oriented turn aroused by sacral music, but at that moment the service is over, the previously enraptured singer grabs her coat and rushes off, her church shift is over, she has other duties that won't wait...
Nowadays, in the explosion of mass media, culture has its chances of survival, but not infrequently it exists in altered circumstances, in the context of mass consumption. The young girl who sits in the row before me at the National Theater in Vilnius and laughs loudest at the gags, pulls out a hip flask of whisky from her handbag every now and then and takes a long swig. Somebody else is busily munching on a large sandwich. Gone are the days when a theater was something so sacred it was almost akin to church, and European moviegoers objected even to the introduction of pop-corn vendors in movie theaters! The actresses in the play later reveal that their favorite drink is a Čiurlionis cocktail, widely popular in the theater circles of Lithuania, and so named after the great Lithuanian painter and composer, since the mixture of whisky, Malibu liqueur, and fresh cream is similarly iridescent as the color gradations apparently most characteristic of his painting. When for the sake of continuing the conversation I feign shock at such sacrilege, the actresses hasten to assure me that there is absolutely no other way the depressive Čiurlionis would prefer to rest in the collective memory of the nation.
And so on. There is a cafe in Riga called No One Writes to the Colonel; Gabriel Garcia Marquez does not seem to mind - that is, if he knows at all that the title of one of his novels has named a popular meeting place for young people. On the shelves of the newsstands of Latvia there jostle amicably the paperbacks of Jean Paul Sartre, Raymond Chandler, and the popular Latvian authors of locally colored whodunits who the national association of writers refuses to admit in their midst. No wonder; the front covers of their books are copiously bespattered with blood. So what if tons of doctoral theses are being written about the American master of horror Stephen King - according to the standards that have been valid for millennia, this can not amount to much, culture-wise!
Sometimes the forms of the existence of art in the altered post-Communist circumstances acquire grotesque proportions. I am not satisfied as to the reliability of my source, but I nevertheless found it remarkable when a Romanian theater director, who had emigrated in the eighties, told me how he saw, when CNN broadcast live the anti-Ceausescu demonstrations, his colleagues from the academy marching in the front lines, all professional actors, and concluded from this that the coup d'état was in reality just play-acting intended for Western viewers, and masked the exchange of one dictatorship with another.
In Eastern Europe culture is indeed governed by older structures than in the West, structures with at times practically gerontocratic habits, but their reign is more and more confined to functionaries' offices, they no longer hold sway in the street. What took hold in urban environments are cultural practices which did not even exist a few years back. Rollerbladers, for instance, are the street ballet?dancers of our day, and their music is on the edge: Rap, hip hop and scratch, hardcore at the most. They eat fast food, but that does not make them adherents of globalization: In Slovenia, most of them swear by a local rapper with the meaningful name Ali En. Perhaps the fact that this kid from the next block, who frequently joins them on the skate ramp, is more popular than the African Americans who basically invented the genre and can be seen daily on global MTV, is a sort of by-product of the national euphoria so common to Eastern Europe, or else perhaps the rule that the less you know about the producer the more you can enjoy the product because fascination requires distance is, today in the era of widespread, all-encompassing alienation, simply no longer valid.
Interestingly, Ali En's lyrics - differently from the Americans', who propagate shooting cops between the eyes (in Slovenia, that was the stand taken by a poet, the most classic representative of classic culture, as early as the students' uprising of 1968!) - are not particularly socially destructive, but on the contrary seem almost civic-minded: He opposes sex with minors, proposes compulsory employment for the unemployed, and blames the upsurge in the crime rate on the insufficient attention the government pays to culture and on the poor educational system, while the so-called obscenities are covered with sound effects, all of which often leaves the songs just a step removed from being moralist.
What is at work is probably not self-imposed censure, but the simple fact that nowadays when - as the saying goes - nothing is real and everything is allowed, even popular culture has a hard time provoking the authorities. It did not use to be like that. In Eastern Europe, Western popular culture was a possible way to escape one's grim destiny, at least for a few moments. First jazz, after that Elvis, after that rock'n'roll. The latter one did not only represent the glamour and freedom of the West, it was also a sign of the very much needed freedom of choice. The dilemma "The Beatles or the Stones" is, after all, the quintessence of the multi-party system shorn of all the trimmings. If you do not really get in the spirit of it, the options look and sound the same, but even then, the choice is yours. And sometimes that is the most important thing of all: To have a choice.
The band The Plastic People of the Universe was founded in Prague in September 1968, immediately following the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. They played songs by The Velvet Underground, The Fugs, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa (from whom they also borrowed their name), i.e. the intellectual fringe of American rock. The musicians wore costumes for their shows and used psychedelic lighting, so that it all appeared almost as a happening. Which is understandable, really, as their manager was an art historian and sociologist of culture. When the Kremlin-based program of the 'normalization' of Czechoslovakian cultural life through the closing down of clubs and the imposition of a special censure failed to yield the desired result with the Plastics, the government revoked their professional status. They were no longer able to appear legally, and on top of that, they lost access to their rehearsal room and instruments - all of which were, naturally, owned by the state, and by the state alone.
The guitar player for the Plastics was a car mechanic, and using old radio-set parts he constructed makeshift amplifiers, into which they plugged second-hand instruments and went on playing. As they could no longer secure permits to perform in public, their manager, the art historian, applied for halls in which he could lecture on contemporary painting. After his saying a couple of words on Andy Warhol and showing a few slides, the band proceeded, to the enthusiasm of the audience, to demonstrate for a couple of hours the work of Warhol's close associates, The Velvet Underground.
Gradually, the authorities got wise to the goings-on, and The Plastics had to go underground. Friends' wedding receptions would be prolonged into concerts, or an 'impromptu' concert would be staged in some village or other; news of it was passed by word of mouth. The audience would arrive by train to some backwater railroad station and then hike for miles through woods, searching for the right farm or barn. Guerrilla tactics, in short, currently repeated in an infinitely milder form by the followers of rave culture for their unauthorized parties.
All the conspiracy notwithstanding, the police not infrequently cut short this form of 'enemy propaganda'. In 1976, at the music festival of the 'second culture', as the movement, which included a number of other bands and poets and artists, was called, 27 people were arrested. The Plastics had their apartments searched, and their tapes and notes confiscated. Their Canadian singer, who had arrived in Czechoslovakia nine years previously out of enthusiasm for Communism and then soon discovered the other attractions of the promised land, was deported, and four musicians were sentenced to terms in prison ranging from 8 to 18 months. All this despite international protests and the Chart 77, which was drawn up by Czech intellectuals in support of freedom in general and the incarcerated Plastics in particular. One of the intellectuals, dramatist Vaclav Havel, let the group, as soon as it was reassembled, use his country house for their festival.
Also in the eighties the state was in charge of order and culture, while the Plastics remained dissidents against their will. A farm where they'd performed mysteriously burned to the ground, while their saxophone player grew sick and tired of police questionings and beatings and fled to Canada, where, in a Candide-like fashion, he went to work as a gardener for the expatriate Czech community. Nevertheless, Eastern Europe was changing; the Czechoslovakian authorities had their hands increasingly full of punk groups and the people in general, not least of all Havel, who at the end of 1989 became the first democratically elected Czechoslovakian president after the Communist era. He immediately invited Frank Zappa to visit, while the lead man of The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, came by himself - to interview President Havel. Havel took him to a club where the band Pulnoc, with some of the original Plastics members, continued the tradition. What they played was of course a number of Reed's songs, and he, quite touched, joined them on the stage.
When at the opening of Warhol's exhibition in Paris in 1990, The Velvet Underground reunited in concert after twenty years, Pulnoc opened for them. And the text accompanying their new album was written by their president, perhaps one of the very few world politicians of his generation to listen, of his own accord, to Heroin and similar generation anthems, which does no harm to his image but quite the opposite.
The connection between rock and Eastern European revolution (or, rather, anti-revolution) is not a Czech speciality, though. According to foreign observers, the first step towards the new independence of the Baltic states was made in 1980, when fans of the Estonian punk band Propeller went on a rampage through Tallinn, shouting anti-Soviet and anti-Russian slogans after a concert had been called off halfway through. However, the so-called Estonian 'singing revolution' began in 1988, when huge numbers of people gathered to sing previously banned national songs. ("For the Baltic nations their singing belonged to the domain of the sacred, and it is no exaggeration to say they sang their way to freedom," says the Nobel-Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz.) The same story appears all over Eastern Europe. Rock was one of the not-so-many ways of opposing the shape of things.
If we keep this in mind, it no longer seems so odd that in Vilnius, Lithuania, a monument to Frank Zappa was erected after his death. In December 1995 a group of citizens, members of the Zappa fan club, succeeded in having the 4.2 meter tall statue positioned at the mouth of Kalinausko Street. What is worthy of note is that the monument was made by sculptor Konstantinas Bogdanas, who in 1979 created a sculpture of Lenin to honor the 400th anniversary of the University of Vilnius. The contrast between the realistic representation of Zappa's face, for which the statue is a worthy successor of the depictions of Communist big shots, and the psychedelic wall painting in the background, in a way embodies the clash of the different concepts of culture, a clash so typical of Eastern Europe today.
However, the awareness that tolerance of rock culture is the litmus test of civil liberties has not yet sunk in everywhere. In Slovenia, rock is the culture of the so-called "forces of continuity". They encourage the production of records with remakes of revolutionary songs, support centers for alternative culture (in the two largest cities, Ljubljana and Maribor, such centers evolved from the army barracks taken over by squatters in 1991 when the Yugoslavian People's Army left Slovenia after the ten-day war), counter the battle of sleep-deprived citizens against such fundamental urban establishments as night clubs, and, last but not least, thanks to ministers of culture who come from political parties of continuity, some rock music has been partly financed by the national budget.
The parties continuing the tradition of opposition from the times of the Communists do not recognize rock as their culture, if for no other reason, then simply because it does not bear enough of a national stamp. Indeed: Rock hand in hand with the state apparatus, now there's a funny sight! It is equally funny how the fate of rock repeats itself before and after democratization. It used to be forma musica non grata as supposedly a kind of imperialist colonization; now, in the view of right-wing politicians, it is too alien to the national cultural substance. The Beatles or the Stones? The choice is still yours.
4. "We believe in God, but we do not trust Him."
A slightly different approach was taken by the Slovenian band Laibach. It was formed in 1980, i.e. at a time of solid socialism, in the mining town Trbovlje, and it took the Communist Party control as its ideal - it took it seriously, so seriously in fact that it soon became annoying. To begin with, Laibach proclaimed: "Our freedom is the freedom of those who think alike." The members of the group did not disclose their names to the public, they treated personal identity as irrelevant, attributing instead tremendous significance to the internal organization of the group and its associated working bodies, like their PR service, and related activities in the fields of fine art and the theater. With the general public, Laibach only maintained written contacts, preferably via manifestos; article 1 of one went as follows: "Laibach works as a team (team spirit), in the fashion of industrial production and totalitarianism, which means the individual does not speak out - the organization does. Our work is industrial, our language political." Rumor has it that, when in the early eighties the group first went to London to play their demo tapes to independent production houses, and actually found a producer who was willing to release their album, they forced the head of the production house to first listen to the recital of their artistic manifesto, some fifty pages long, all of it - naturally - in Slovenian.
The first few concerts of the band were banned by the local authorities; this was partly due to the name Laibach, which is what the occupying German forces named Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and partly to the iconography which Laibach used from the very beginning and for which it was hard for the untrained eye to distinguish what part of it derived from the Suprematist cross of the Russian avant-garde artist Kasimir Malevich and what part actually from the Nazi swastika, as the ideologically alert thought. When Laibach appeared at the New Music Biennial in Zagreb, they simultaneously played a speech of the great Yugoslavian leader Tito and an endlessly repetitive scene from a pornographic movie, and had their performance cut short, of course. Considerably more successful was the fine-arts division of the movement, a diverse group of artists called - again in the language of the century long cultural colonizer! - Neue Slowenische Kunst, with their design of a poster for the traditional celebration of Tito's birthday (which was a national holiday called Youth Day) in Belgrade in 1987. The Communist high-ups were enthusiastic about the image of the athletic youth carrying a flag until it transpired that the poster was an exact replica of a Nazi propaganda print from 1936, except that the Nazi symbols had been replaced by the Communist ones: One flag in place of another, a five-pointed star instead of the swastika, a dove symbolizing peace instead of the German eagle. What followed was hysterics and cries for a pogrom.
Now the times are different. The designers' section of the Neue Slowenische Kunst, who call themselves, significantly, Novi kolektivizem (New Collectivism), have no difficulties whatsoever in using the volumes of Tito's collected works thrown out by the Slovenian national library as surplus: Pasted full of reproductions of works by contemporary artists, books which for decades had set the course of Yugoslavian politics and determined the everyman's daily life, have now been transformed into unique art catalogs.
When asked why they had not disbanded when the Berlin wall and other symbols of Communism fell, Laibach answered with self-irony that in the eighties they tried to live long enough to see the nineties, while in the nineties they are trying to survive until the hundreds. And indeed, although their CDs can be found in the remotest corners of the world, Laibach are not the financial success one would expect such a long-lived institution of popular music to be. Perhaps their imitators Rammstein will make it, a group that originated from various eclectic bands of the former East Germany and with insouciance blended s&m and Weltschmerz, techno rhythms and metal guitars, and produced a new genre, tanzmetal. The circle is thus complete: Laibach were, at square one, a provocation already in their German name alone, and today Till, the singer for Rammstein, suggests that Laibach remake some old German schlager in order to attract a wider audience.
In the nineties, when every correspondence with Communism was rapidly losing sense, Laibach aimed at the pressure points of the new democracies with the titles of their CDs: Kapital, 1992, NATO, 1994, and Jesus Christ Superstar, 1996. Kapital and NATO did not provoke much of an ideological response - both notions had obviously become part of the necessary repertoire in Eastern Europe. But the last record went home: Its title summed up the clash between mass culture and the Church, which wants to catch up on its influence on the young in Eastern Europe as quickly as possible and make up for the loss of the Communist years. Laibach's message, based on presenting Jesus as a rock star (and, of course, presenting Laibach's singer as Jesus) and on the program statement of the group "We believe in God, but we do not trust Him," which paraphrases the inscription on dollar bills IN GOD WE TRUST, was too sophisticated to galvanize the Church nomenclatures into any serious remonstrations. The Church only responded to the more direct challenge of the group Strelnikoff (who borrowed their name from the hero of Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago): Their song commented on the Slovenian archbishop's endeavors toward having the constitutional right to abortion abolished, and the jacket of their CD reproduced the most well-known Slovenian painting of the Madonna and child from the favorite Slovenian pilgrimage destination - but with some slight alterations. What Mary holds in her arms in their version is a rat.
What would have been otherwise a rather obscure release, destined, prior to the whirlwind of public counterblast, to sell a few dozen copies, drew in response - apart from the reaction of the church apparatus, which included even a special mass at the slighted church attended by tens of thousands of outraged believers - also numerous letters to the editor of all manner of newspapers discussing the provocation and the blasphemy. The only letter devoid of the all-pervasive wrath was the lone voice demanding somewhat facetiously that the rights of the rat be respected. All who irately responded also to that letter, lecturing the author not to equal the rights of Jesus with those of a rat, were apparently not familiar with the case of the Finnish painter who painted church rituals mixed with sadomasochist rituals, and depicted church dignitaries in promiscuous poses, without drawing any spark of response from the Church or the state. True, the artist was tried in a court of law and convicted, and his conviction was accompanied by public indignation over his conception of art, but that particular trial had nothing to do with his representation of church institutions - he was convicted for violence against animals because he killed a cat in his artistic performance, which was taped on video.
5. The tenth five-year plan: Culture should be ruled by the market
In the play Pentecost, by the English dramatist David Edgar, the minister of culture of an unidentified country - which, nevertheless, bears an uncanny resemblance to Bulgaria - comes on stage carrying his car radio under his arm. When I get past customs in Vilnius I am met in the same way by a colleague, an actress at the Lithuanian National Theater. "Transition pains," she says. "That radio would soon belong to somebody else if I didn't keep it with me at all times."
That Lithuania is indeed a country in transition I realize when I try to settle in, as prearranged, at a bed-and-breakfast whose name, however, I do not know, having only the address and the number of the owner's cellular phone. On the door corresponding to the address there is no external sign of any catering activity, and all the construction equipment and sacks of cement I have to step over on the way to my room are witness to the fact that the business has indeed not gotten off the ground yet. But things are definitely shaping up: When I dispose of my bags and again wander outdoors, there is a board with the name of the B&B freshly screwed to the door.
When the matter of choosing where to spend the night was under consideration, I found the idea of staying at this place so very attractive primarily because the B&B was presented to me as a secondary activity of a renowned sculptor, one of the leading artists of the young generation. To me it sounded like some kind of artists' colony, and romantically I imagined that I had secured both a pillow to lay my weary head on and an insider's tour of the contemporary Lithuanian art scene. Now all I find next to my bed is a tacky cast of a male figure, a clumsy replica of David. When the young artist comes to make out the bill, I ask him if he'd made that sculpture. "Oh, no," he smiles. "My work is entirely different. That is here because the visitors like it. They wouldn't like my stuff."
In the Yugoslavian film by Karpo Ačimović Godina The Raft of the Medusa, depicting the life of the Yugoslavian avant-garde before World War 2 in a fantastic portrayal of the uselessness of art, there is a scene perhaps crucial for the understanding of the status of art in our time. Appearing in a traveling show in a Godforsaken village amid the muddy plains of Vojvodina, a group of artists meets strong-man Žnidaršič, "the strongest man in all the Balkans and Asia Minor", who lives by displaying the bulky might of his muscles. The artists invite him to join them on the road. Žnidaršič is slightly perplexed, I'm not an artist, he says. The artists instruct him that the times are such that nobody's an artist. And vice versa: Everybody's an artist. And vice versa again. Wait a minute, says the strong man, that nobody's an artist, that much I understand. And vice versa, that I also understand. But vice versa again? This I don't understand. Don't you worry your head, Žnidaršič, they console him, you get to keep what we make.
The stereotype of the past period dictated that an artist, in order to be creative, needed to be indigent - affluence apparently did not yield the desired results. In the old days money went to some, and immortality to others. Nowadays, money and creativity no longer seem so rigorously incompatible as then, due in part to biological reasons, to put it crudely. Survival is conditioned by one's spending at least part of one's time producing something sellable and, as we all know, the market for culture is not big enough, Eastern European state support is dead, and therefore one has to manage. For this reason poets nowadays write not only sonnets but also applications for grants, and painters paint not only still-lifes but also a media image for themselves.
Such activities, occupying almost everyone involved in the arts, are nevertheless more than just a fruit of the necessity of survival, they are also a result of a determination concerning status. A close association with money is no longer a shameful thing for a cultural worker, but quite the opposite - it has become a conditio sine qua non. Artists obviously agree: You can't just sit in a dingy little room and wait for the world to discover your talent. In the general revalorization of social values also an artist can hardly escape being measured against the yardstick of you are what you have. Thus in addition to creating, artists seem to be increasingly taking over the financing and promotion of their work, and are, one after another, setting up small businesses so that they might be perceived as people equal to the challenges of our time.
The situation is particularly complex in Eastern Europe, where the role of culture has always been valued too highly, and it continues to be that for the most part to this day. To be a poet has until recently also meant to be a prophet. In Hungary - as in central Europe in general - writers have played a key role in most of the major political upheavals of national history, from the revolution against the Habsburgs in 1848, through the anti-Soviet uprising of 1956, to the democratic transition of 1989. Hungarian poet and critic Pál Gyulai (1826-1909) wrote: "For us literature and art are more significant than for other more fortunate nations of Europe - they are not only matters of civilization and enjoyment, but central tenets of our nationhood and sovereignty."
The above was true a century ago when it was written, and it definitely continued to be true throughout the period of the Communist rule. Culture in Eastern Europe performed the function of social mechanisms which could either not exist or else not operate properly in the one-party system, being hindered by "insufficiently developed material substance", as poverty was called in official terminology, or else simply by the Communist views regarding the appropriateness of the spiritual superstructure of that same material substance. History was recounted by novels, the national spirit was expressed in music, individuality was, in a time of prescribed collectivism, made possible at least through a retreat into the fine arts, and culture had about it a halo of something which drastically surpassed the hard everyday life.
Nowadays, this role of culture is almost something to be nostalgic about. It could have been the story of the mighty Eastern European culture which drew the almost 50,000 Americans to settle in Prague, and the great number of others who settled in other Eastern European capitals. The foreigners in Prague have built a cultural enclave, with their own book store and literary magazines, creating an autonomous social circle. And not only in Prague: When everybody spoke English to me at the discotheque Ministerija in Vilnius, I wondered how they could tell at first sight that I was a foreigner. But after a while I realized that everybody else was foreign as well - unwittingly, I had crashed a party of the expatriate community.
One in ten inhabitants of Prague is a foreigner, as are five percent of the people in Budapest. What an enormous difference this is when compared with the time ten years ago when every foreigner in Eastern Europe was on the one hand seen as a potential spy or at least a capitalist exploiter, and on the other as a window on the free world and not infrequently a secret bridge to it! This can be partly related to the phenomenon that Eastern European culture has only in recent years presented itself integrally before Western eyes. The reasons are manifold, not the least important perhaps being that Eastern European rulers of decades past saw cultural workers as above all potential revolution-mongers rather than export commodities. John Le Carré writes in his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy how the Soviet embassy in London had three cultural attachés: Two were spies under cover, and the third one took flowers to Karl Marx's grave at the Highgate cemetery every day. Small wonder then that the inhabitants of the republics of the former Soviet Union were constituted as cultural beings in the minds of the West more or less only through emigrants.
6. Communist repression, post-Communist depression
Eugenijus, the vice-president of the Lithuanian writers' association, who is in charge of international contacts, warmly makes me feel welcome in his fortress of overflowing bookshelves. "We're redecorating," he apologizes, "it's not very comfortable here, let's go downstairs to the writers' club." The club looks like a typical meeting place of Eastern European bohemians of these last forty years: The room is unbearably smoky, no two chairs belong to the same set, the visitors grimly stare at their mugs of beer, and every now and then a debate whips itself up into a storm and just as suddenly dies down. "Would you like a drink?" asks Eugenijus. Sure, why not? "So, what'll it be?" Beer, perhaps. The girl behind the bar dubiously shakes her head. "Sorry, the beer's not that good." Well, then . . . Let's have some wine. "The wine's not that good either." I do not understand what is going on. Perhaps they only serve club members? But it was Eugenijus who did the ordering, the vice?president . . . No, it is not a question of a privilege out of reach for a newcomer. The barmaid had simply assessed with self?criticism that foreigners, even though arriving from another Eastern European country, are used to something better. Something closer to Western supply. Imported drinks really are profuse in Lithuanian bars; you'll have a much harder time coming by the trejes devyneiros, the three nines, a local mixture of twenty-seven herbs soaked in brandy, than a Martell or Jack Daniels, but this bar is a different kind. Perhaps that's why all the patrons look like they belong in a museum. Formerly, I am told by my new acquaintances, the writers' club was the only place where you could get a drink late at night, and everyone tried their hardest to get in. Now it reeks of mold. The status of writers has definitely changed.
In the times when world was divided into the two solid (and very different) blocs and the third world, the writers in the East were in a flattering position: their states were interested in what they were doing. No doubt this was the source of many problems for their personal life, but on the other hand, it brought them a lot of attention they nowadays seem to lack. The Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski writes in his essay From Harem to Brothel (Artists in the Post-Communist World): "Paradoxically enough, the artists felt they were important. The meticulous censorship, the special attention that the KGB, the Party and other bureaucrats paid to them were clear signs that they were important. The writer's pen and the artist's brush had some power: otherwise the powerful state would not have mobilized its secret police and many other officials to guard them."
The new so-called Eastern freedom proved itself to be an irony in itself: before there was censorship - and everybody fought against it. Literature was one of the rare voices of otherness, of difference. "People were fishing for open words and emotions. Writers provided the feedback. In a miraculously short time circulations of literary publications went up. The leading literary weekly had a circulation of 70,000 copies, a pretty good number for an average daily newspaper today. They spoke at mass rallies and were televised. Some were eventually elected to parliament. Foreign visitors were shocked by the number of literati maintaining key posts in the political establishment. Later, developments witnessed a rapid decline. 'Prometheus unbound' was falling into repetitiveness and self-glorification. A yesterday's man elevated to the status of national hero seemed to enjoy the role without much self-irony. The space open to self-reflexivity shrunk to the utmost," reports Lithuanian essayist Atmantas Samalavičius.
Indeed. It seems that these times of "great stories", times of writers undermining the ruling ideologies, are definitely over, and the so-called Eastern European literature, strangely enough, seems to find itself in an empty, vast space. It can't continue fighting with politics in the old, 'simple' way; the one and easily visible enemy is not there anymore; the political scene has become much too complex. On the other hand, literature has to enter a new fight, a fight not unknown to the writers in the West; a fight for an audience. Now when you can buy everything from the latest Armani perfume to a Jaguar in every Eastern European country (speaking theoretically, if you have got enough money, of course), not so many people are buying books as they used to when they were one of the few things available in the shops.
The old saying that every reader counts is increasingly well founded, especially in smaller countries. New generations of writers have not experienced a censorship based on ideology but have to learn how to cope with a maybe even tougher one, one of economy. While the system of grants, funding, literary exchanges etc. which supports unprofitable writing in the West hasn't really started to function in Central and Eastern Europe yet, and while the publishing houses are still trying to decide whether to publish serious books and go bankrupt or trade plastic dinosaurs and make a fortune, being a writer is not the best career opportunity.
So it is no wonder that even political censorship can be seen as an economic category, although in a rather perverted form. Most of the writers from Eastern Europe who were known in the West in the seventies and the eighties were known as victims of the regime, communism, a lack of freedom of expression, censorship etc. and this was also the very reason why they were published in the West. Their ability to write a story or a poem somehow seemed to be of minor importance. Sometimes it looked like the general aspect was: Dear writer from the East, if you haven't been imprisoned in your home country, your writing can't be really important.
Someone ironic or cynical enough would say that the West was expressing a certain voyeurism on that point: the world that does not know much about suffering will import it from the countries that have a surplus. It's easy to submit yourself to the general demand and repeat the repression episodes from someone's life again and again (or even make them up, writers should have imagination!) in order to get at least a few seconds of public attention, which is very hard to get nowadays. And everybody is happy. Mentioning that the West created a specific sort of 'virtual repression' (in addition to the real one) probably makes no sense.
For greater clarity, the tale of the socialist house of horrors is simplified, so that the cryptic scenes are rendered more comprehensible to the reader. A Westerner might have a hard time picturing the psychotic atmosphere of classes where teachers fervently cautioned us not to take candy from strangers because it was probably poisoned and not to pick up ball-points we find lying on the ground because they might be pen-bombs. Time has, perversely, validated these warnings: In Communism such dangers were nothing but a figment of the imagination of a paranoid system, while nowadays, in a time of increasingly bold and resourceful child-molesters and widespread terrorism they are no longer such a far cry from reality.
The horror of the Communist want can best be presented to the West as a material want. The Moscow correspondent of Newsweek reported, at a time when the iron curtain was still solid, about the showing of Rambo which he had attended. The film was a pirated copy shown on a VCR in a private apartment, and when it was over the hostess denounced it as an absolute propaganda construct. Slightly taken aback, the correspondent came to realize that her doubts were not based on the less-than-probable success of an individual pitching himself against the system, but derived from simple disbelief that workers even in America could afford the kind of kitchen seen at the beginning of the film: With a built-in stove, plenty of space, a microwave, an electric can-opener, a whole range of gadgets . . .
The Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić is the author of the book How We Survived Communism (And Even Laughed), a blend of reportage, essays, and story-telling, a blend that nowadays, when reality has become far more fantastic than any imaginative novel, has at times greater market success than pure fiction; in it, she portrays in an easily understandable manner the catastrophe of the undemocratic society and its effect on the average person. She depicts the shared traits of Communism in a way which takes into consideration the viewpoint of the intended reader. She talks about the shortage of toilet paper and about the demented hoarding of plastic yogurt cups which will come in handy some day for sure, for some purpose that has not been discovered to this day. (Indeed, in its day, all Eastern Europe had a unified approach to a trend currently so popular in the West, of reusing and recycling . . . Of course, today the situation is the reverse: The impression of plenty is created also by the unrestrained consumption of just about everything.)
It seems that the vista of Eastern Europe through the eyes of the West is still determined by the horizon of old expectations: First Communist repression, then post-Communist depression. I hold in my hand a book of Eastern European prose entitled Description of a Struggle, edited for the renowned publishing house Picador by Michael March, the Prague-based poet and editor of the Penguin anthology of Eastern European poetry Child of Europe. Undoubtedly, of the forty-three texts included in the book, the vast majority are interesting, powerful literature, and make convincing, astounding, almost exotic reading. The introduction of less successful stories, to wit, some ideological trivialities, is the stumbling block lurking in the path of every such literary enterprise, which is perhaps unavoidable. Also the fact that the Slovenians, the Croatians, and the Serbians (as distinct from the Czechs, the Slovaks and the Baltic nations) are presented under a common heading, so that only the readers of small print and biographical notes will work out who belongs where, is definitely most annoying to them, and not much to other people. The book presents a series of great authors of Eastern European literatures to readers who are, as a rule, unacquainted with them, and this is a considerable deviation from standard practice. March's selection was, as far as I can tell judging by the literatures I am fairly familiar with, a good one. As was expected.
Another thing which is as expected - and here lies the reason why I am perplexed by this book - is the final impression left by the texts. And that is the impression that Eastern Europe is a landscape of misery, war, want, Communist horrors, a region where national distinctions are nothing but narcissistically inflated little differences. Texts not upholding this stereotype are few and far between and, as a rule, written by young authors. Possibly, Description of a Struggle is an attempt to round off an era of Eastern European history with an overview, and, again possibly, the overview aspect of it dictates the simplifications, the focusing on what the reader is accustomed to encountering. But from behind these, let me stress again, literary perfect and sometimes downright breathtaking texts (of the kind that originate, to borrow a phrase, only from the first-hand experience of suffering), there always pops up the question whose fatal aspect will, I think, only become apparent with time: How will the West come to terms with the East once the latter makes it clear that circumstances have definitely changed, that it will no longer conform to the Western concept of it? When the well-known and oft-traveled landscape of misery and despair becomes a place we had long left behind?
7. Go local? Go global? Both, all the way.
After the formal dinner in honor of the writers' convention in Tbilisi, Georgia (hatchapuri and the famous Georgian wine and cognac are still on the table, and the TV channel ViVa, with the unavoidable Khaled's Aicha, provides the musical background) we try to wander outdoors. One of the organizers soon catches up with us: "Where are you going?" he inquires of us worriedly. Don't worry, everything's perfect, your hospitality's boundless, we'd just like to take a look around, we try to put him at ease. "But you can't walk around alone at night, it's dangerous," he protests. "We want a taste of the famous Georgian night-life," the youngest female member of our little crowd giggles. The organizer is confused, he is not certain whether the girl is not pulling his leg. "Night-life?" he says. "You know, discos and stuff," she volunteers more detail. The organizer's countenance grows dark, but then he relents and says: "Wait here, I must go find a car." But there's probably some place close by, we're downtown, we can walk there, we protest. "You can't walk. No, you definitely can't go on foot, no way," he dissents with determination.
After some fifteen minutes of waiting we see a 70's car drive up, Soviet-made, bound together with rope, and somehow all of us thirsting for change manage to squeeze in. I am lucky to obtain a window seat and I can observe first-hand 'the famous Georgian night-life': There is not a soul in the street, all is dark, only occasionally a similarly battered vehicle rattles along the broad thoroughfares of the capital city. With no lights on.
Our host knows where to go, and that is lucky, we would not have got far on our own. In the basement of a hotel, now transformed into a center for refugees from the Black Sea coast, there operates a discotheque. Since our host knows the bouncers, we get in for free. Those who think that discos are the same the world over have definitely not been to this one. For one thing, people are dancing in couples, without exception; for another - the power gets repeatedly cut, every two or three songs the stroboscope lights go out, the sound dies down, and we grope our way back to the table on which there are - not for romantic reasons - candles. Groups of five or six visitors to a table share between them a single bottle of beer. But the wall painting is of the Manhattan skyline, and the music the same as in any chic disco anywhere in New York City.
Global culture? The Internet will gobble up and unify everything, so everyone should protect their own national heritage, preferably by shielding it from external influences, right? I wouldn't know about that. I would sooner think that global culture actually enables individual national cultures to travel, so that they can be encountered elsewhere, outside their home environments. And the paths cultures take over national borders are sometimes unfathomable. I stopped once for a couple of days in a mountain village in Tanzania, and in its typical African "we sell all kinds of stuff" shop I bought a cassette of a Puerto Rican group. The original recording, too, with the stamped cassette box and not some recognizably home-made African bootleg. When I later wished to acquire the same attractive Latino rhythms on a more endurable CD, I first vainly combed the musica latina stores of Manhattan, and then a number of Internet stores; again to no avail. And when I tried to come by the CD of the group Njava, whom I had heard in concert in my hometown Ljubljana, I found out that this band from Madagascar had so far cut a disc only for a small Japanese label.
Differences exist - and arouse interest. The medium is not necessarily the message. Karl Martin Sinijärv, Estonian poet and - characteristically! - copywriter for the local branch of the international advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, is active in the new artistic movement which calls itself ethnofuturism. He sees ethnofuturism as a way of fusing Western culture with the traditional self: "If I play an arcade game on the Internet produced in the West, I thereby accept Western standards; but I can use the computer, this Western invention, also for my Eastern purposes, for my art." Although ethnofuturism chooses the Internet as its venue of presentation and also refers to it, as above, there is also a lot of the traditional in it, like its linguistic specificity: So far it has spread from Estonia primarily to its linguistic neighbors of Finland and Hungary. A kind of manifesto of ethnofuturism, accessible on the Net (http://haldjas.filklore.ee/ugri/kirjandus/ef01.html), begins by delineating the dire cultural and political status of the Finno-Ugrian nations through the centuries; it sees potential improvement in the prospects of the postindustrial society, which is on this occasion most effectively summed up, naturally, by the Internet. Ethnofuturism is a movement characteristic of Eastern Europe at the end of the millennium: It blends the dregs of historical injustices with a faith in the power of contemporary achievements.
Whatever the views of Eastern European artists on Western culture, everyone must agree that the West has brought with it choice. The same means can be used in widely varying ways, even the same words can at times conceal diverse contents. When I take Robert, the editor of the Croatian trend magazine Godine nove (New Years), to a popular meeting place of the Ljubljana 'scene' in the old part of town, the cafe Nostalgija, he experiences a kind of culture shock. The cafe is decorated with Communist iconography, like five-pointed red stars and pictures of heroes of days gone by. All of that displayed publicly in a cafe which is, on top of all that, called Nostalgia?
I tell him of Naktinis Vilkas in Vilnius, which unites under its roof everything from a sauna, swimming-pool, erotic floor-show, to private rooms and a banquet hall, and which proudly displays Lithuania's largest collection of Lenin memorabilia. Yeah, right, he counters, that's a different kettle of fish, the place is intended for the Western tourist and so on, but this . . . As an ex-fellow citizen of mine he can not comprehend how the individual parts of former Yugoslavia could have taken such different roads. "This wouldn't be possible in Zagreb," he tells me. And might be obligatory in Belgrade, we both think to ourselves. But we can not know for certain, as the stories of what life is like in our former shared capital reach us via unreliable sources who say that poets of all generations walk about town with guns in their pockets.
The word nostalgia is understood in a variety of ways in Eastern Europe; if we stick to cafes, Nostalgia is the name of a cafe on the main promenade in Riga, decorated very much in the pre-second-world-war fashion. There the nostalgia is obviously for the old bourgeois ambiance when all things Soviet were still far removed. Places like Zetor in Helsinki, decorated with Czech tractors and other paraphernalia of agrarian reform, are not yet possible in Riga, but one is sure to open in a few years, as soon as a new generation grows up, a generation whose mothers did not try to scare them into going to bed at night by telling them that a Soviet soldier would come get them if they were not good.
Godine nove started out as a literary magazine, but the editors soon discovered there was no future in that. State subsidies for culturally significant publications are gone, and Western aid avoids sponsoring literary activities, at times in the conviction that literature, like Communism, belongs to the past. Authors are thus left to face the market economy, which is famous for its capacity to solve any difficulty at all. For the time being it seems that the greater part of Eastern Europe is still willing to believe that the most democratic election in the world is that carried out by the consumers. Thus Godine nove has been transformed into a kind of trend paper, covering, apart from literature and the fine arts, also night-life and popular music, and displaying on its front page a vividly colored Pinocchio with a condom on his nose. A paper that not only catalogs the cultural achievements of the day before, but also predicts the night to come.
After a long period of dealing with the great stories of the past, what has come to the fore in Eastern Europe is the future. We have lived through the past, after all, and the future is already waiting for us. And it is drawing nearer and nearer. And it poses new questions that the inhabitants of these countries had not expected. In the altered political circumstances, Eastern Europeans have suddenly found themselves in a new, global context. Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy wrote at the end of 1989, the year that saw the collapse of Communism throughout Central Europe: "The Russians have gone. They've left all sorts of things behind. Above all: us. They've gone, and we've been left behind. What a relief, we sigh. Then we look around, and what do we see? Yes, at last we're at home in our own homeland - but it's hardly a relief." Perhaps the tens of thousands of Americans who have flooded Prague in recent years have not brought with them something all that positive; but they have definitely placed Prague in a position where it has to face itself, its true image. And that is by no means an easy task. To avoid it, Eastern Europe is not infrequently ready to do anything - even remain in the asylum of "high" national culture and reject the challenges of mass "cosmopolitan" culture.
But ultimately, confrontation will conquer, and retreating - retreat. Not least of all because of the so-called global generation which is growing up in the West as we speak. America is changing its attitude to the world: Its typical consumer can no longer be a couch potato zapping through cable channels from an armchair, nor the more active mouse commando, braving the shoreless dangers of the Internet armed with nothing but a computer mouse. The generation of Americans who are currently molding the world in their image have chosen for their motto: Do it. Be it. Live it. Hardly a new credo; Americans, representatives of the possibly most global culture of all times, have followed this same credo also up to now, but always in the variant "do it, be it, live it the American way" - so that everything they did was done the American way, which made other cultures, to exaggerate opportunely, just mishaps or sidetracks.
Now all that is different. Young Americans no longer experience the world just vicariously through CNN news reports or National Geographic articles; increasing numbers want a first-hand taste of this differentness and consequently more and more often leave the formerly only holy place, the States, to live elsewhere. Not only in the currently fashionable Prague, also in the less comfortable and more dangerous Phnom Pen or Sarajevo. With them, they bring their lifestyle, their pop heroes, their music and their culture - and when they return home, on a visit or for good, they introduce into the formerly safely watertight pot of the West, the cultures of other worlds. One influences the other. And vise versa. And vice versa again. The future culture is a melting pot, like it or not.
Translated by Tamara Soban
This text was supported by a travel grant of the Open Society Institute, as a part of a project led by Ryszard Kapuscinski and conducted by Stefan Batory Foundation, Warsaw, Poland.