[Observer]Nostalgic povertyTheir country is gone and they miss it. Some citizens of the former Yugoslavia, according to a news report, also miss their former dictator, Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980.
For what would have been his 116th birthday in May, a Tito impersonator will give an oration. Dozens of child actors, wearing World War II partisan berets and waving flags of the vanished nation, will applaud rapturously. Toasts will be saluted with shots of slivovitz, the plum brandy that is the favorite tipple of the Balkans. Revelers will rally in Yugoslav-era jalopies to Tito’s birthplace in Croatia and his tomb in Belgrade.
“Yugonostalgia,” they call it.
What next? A few years hence, will ex-North Koreans, swallowed up in a united country dominated by the South, grow misty-eyed recalling Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il? Will they hire impersonators to give them “on-the-spot guidance,” as the Kim father and son once did? Will they fuel up on soju and with bursting hearts shout the old defiant slogans: “Our general is No. 1! Down with the maniacal war plans of the American dogs!”
Probably so. In other parts of the world some people miss the Soviet Union or East Germany. I was in Berlin when the infamous Wall came down in 1989, leading to the reunification of the two Germanys. Nostalgia for the East, a soot-begrimed place where as many as 15 percent of the population were police informers, began almost immediately ― and in the West, not the East.
“We must preserve the spiritual values” of the East, said the former West German chancellor, Willy Brandt.
Spiritual values? Karl Marx, looking on from his perch in eternity, must have gotten a chuckle out of that. Only the material is real, he preached; the spiritual does not exist.
The spiritual values Brandt and other West Germans had in mind hailed a utopian place where junk food, junk television and crass commercialism wouldn’t pollute the refined soul. Was East Germany this pristine place? Goods were shoddy ― even the beer was watery ― and the nanny state was intrusive. East Germans, like others in Communist states, dropped out of the culture and cultivated private interests and friendships. You could call it “spiritual values.”
Once the wall was down, East Germans were as drawn to the consumer culture as much as any other free people.
And they, too, or their intellectuals, deplored it as much as Herr Brandt or Gunter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning writer.
Then the “Ossis,” former East Germans, also began to romanticize the past. “We were more equal then,” people would say. “We didn’t have to work as hard.” All true. Communism, it has been said, “democratizes poverty” ― that is, everyone gets to live shabbily. A joke behind the Iron Curtain was, “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”
In united Germany there was little work for people who formerly had held skilled jobs. Lathe-turners were not wanted where computers controlled machines. Clerks who knew carbon paper and shorthand stenography lacked the know-how to work in modern offices. Professors of Marxist political theory or Marxist literary criticism encountered mass unemployment. All blamed their misfortune on “the cruelty of capitalism.”
Prejudice among West Germans, East German workers complained, was an everyday occurrence. Ossis were seen as lazy, stupid and culturally backward. They sighed: “There was a place for us in East Germany.”
Will we hear the same lament from Northerners when (perhaps sooner than we think) Korea is united? Certainly ― why not?
Already one reads, in this paper and others, about the difficulty of integrating the trickle of North Korean defectors into South Korean life. The defectors can’t get jobs ― because they are “lazy, stupid and culturally backward.” The defectors’ children ― stunted from malnutrition ― are mocked and ridiculed in South Korean schools.
Is it so far-fetched to think that some refugees from the North might imagine that life was better under the Kim dictatorship? “Yes we were poor ― often we did not have enough to eat ― but no one pretended to be above us.”
It’s funny to think that the defunct Yugoslavia of today has more unity than it ever did during its national existence, which lasted only from World War I to its disbandment in 1993. In the 1970s and 1980s, as a correspondent based in Europe, I reported often from Yugoslavia. It was the mildest of the communist dictatorships and in the Winter Olympics of 1984, the country was touchingly hopeful of earning the respect of the outside world.
The name Yugoslavia means “southern Slavs.” There were many southern Slavic tribes, preserved in the six constituent republics: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Hercegovinia and Montenegro. The term “balkanize” refers to tiny divisions within a larger whole. The local joke was, “In Yugoslavia, there are six republics, five frontiers, four languages, three religions, two alphabets and one Yugoslav.”
The one Yugoslav, of course, was Tito. Today, it seems, he, or his image, has become a pitchman, used to sell computers, beer and most everything else. The triumph of capitalism; the death of “spiritual values.”
Can you imagine that President Roh Moo-hyun, after he leaves office today, will appear in commercials for life insurance or laundry detergent? No? Well, I hope you are right. But Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton and others are selling the prestige of their former offices. They have learned that there is big money in being Champion of the Common Man.
Could this be a way of prying Kim Jong-il loose from his pathetic North Korean fiefdom? On the lecture circuit, he’s certainly worth a cool million dollars a year ― or million euros, if he prefers.
In northern Serbia, Blasko Gabric has created a four-acre (1.6 hectare) theme park, “Yugoland.” It features a mini-Adriatic Sea and a mountain. “As far as I am concerned,” Gabric says, “I am still a citizen of Yugoslavia. Today we have democracy and nothing in our pockets.” Nothing in our pockets. There is a remedy.
Coming soon: “Norkland!” a theme park memorializing North Korea. Why not? Tourists flock to Auschwitz, to the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. Why not Norkland?
For $300 a day (per person, double occupancy), visitors to Norkland will be provided a prison camp experience. Guards in the watchtowers will not be armed, but if guests flee, they would forfeit their deposit. For an extra fee, guests may descend into mine shafts, or hoe stony vegetable plots. They will dine on seven kernels of corn, softened in water ― supplemented by rat cutlets, if they are able to trap the rats. (Of course, for a modest surcharge, filet de boeuf topped with foie gras may be purchased.)
And, be sure, someone will say, “This is when we were authentically Korean. We loved each other then.”
*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Harold Piper