When the citizens of the Soviet bloc countries rejected the socialist regimes of the late 1980s, they were mostly concerned not with freedom or political realities, but with living standards and choice of products. Today, it is hard to imagine that communist shops had not one type of bread, one type of beer, one type of table oil, but one type of washing machine, one pattern of children’s trousers and one cut of men’s jacket. All in a lousy design. Of fruits and vegetables, only seasonal goods could be bought. Tropical fruits only rarely. Everything else was procured on the black market and the citizens looked enviously at the Western supermarkets with their unlimited choice.
The average Czech citizen today is no better off than at the end of the communist period.
A radical change did take place, but mainly in the businesses. Until then, work was done at a lazy, leisurely pace. Everywhere there were more employees than necessary. Many technicians were free to devote themselves to “toys” (i.e., technical problems that interested them) rather than to commercial tasks. This all changed quickly – there was pressure to perform, fear of losing their jobs, nervousness, and people were getting to know what it was like to come back from work completely exhausted. They hadn’t known that before.
And the shops really filled up with goods. The selection began to be enormously wide. But there was no increase in the standard of living. The average Czech citizen today is no better off than at the end of the communist period. He has a much wider choice in the shops, but he can’t buy more. Consumer goods are more affordable, but the prices of housing, energy and health care have skyrocketed. Today it is almost unbelievable that under the communist regime most people could build a small family home (unless it was in Prague) and that owning several properties was normal. The price for that was squalor. Today the houses in the centre of Prague have beautifully repaired facades. But local people can no longer afford to live in them.
With the impoverishment came new tensions in society. The class conflict in the countries of Central Europe is shaped by the fact that some are trying to escape into the international environment…
With the impoverishment came new tensions in society. The class conflict in the countries of Central Europe is shaped by the fact that some are trying to escape into the international environment, others are trying to turn into Germans or Americans, while others are just frustrated. It is virtually impossible to achieve a good position and good fortune in the Czech market alone. Only those who took part in the privatisation of state assets in the first years after the fall of communism or who made good use of the limited opportunities of the time have done so. When today the neocons claim that “Eastern European states begged to join NATO”, they are referring to those social groups who were trying to move west anyway and whose children were studying in Western Europe or the USA. The bottom 80% did not want to join NATO.