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‘Of course I was afraid’: 4 cultural figures remember 1989, the year that crushed the Eastern Bloc 

‘Of course I was afraid’: 4 cultural figures remember 1989, the year that crushed the Eastern Bloc 
Image: Luchezar Boyadjiev

17 November 2019

The wave of protests, uprisings, and social and political unrest that rippled through Eastern Europe in 1989 marked a turning point for European politics and society. The Calvert Journal asked four cultural figures from the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria, to remember a year that was full of both hope and fear, and to reflect on their lives before and after the wall came down. For many, the end of the Cold War brought freedom and opportunity, but it also brought loss: of camaraderie and sociability, and in some cases, of identity and economic stability. From providing illegal domestic abortions in communist Romania, to opening Poland’s first hippie rock club, our interviewees recall how the seismic events leading to, and following, the fall of the Berlin Wall changed their lives forever.

Florin Iaru, Romania

Courtesy of Florin Iaru

Courtesy of Florin Iaru

Florin Iaru is one of Romania’s defining contemporary writers. After taking the literary world by storm with two explosive poetry collections in the early 80s, Iaru was forbidden by the Romanian government to publish anything from 1984. He was on the frontline of the Romanian revolution in December 1989, and was arrested together with 3,000 other protesters. Since 1990, he has come back in force in Romanian literature, with more novels, short stories and poetry, creative writing courses, and comments on current affairs.

I was a marginal, second-hand citizen after 1984 … not a party member, a forbidden author, a big mouth. What was left to me? The other life: friends, drinking, passing passions, photography … Jokes, tricks, holidays … And writing — but only for friends.

My job as a stock manager at the Cartea Românească publishing house kicked off at nine in the morning. This meant that I could sleep an extra hour, to make up for the time spent queuing for milk during the night (the milk queue usually ended by six in the morning). Over the winter, the offices of the publishing house were freezing cold thanks to the broken radiator pipes. But I was working in the storage room in the basement, where it was nice and warm. I had a small gas tank to warm home-made wine and brandy. I would chat to the writers coming and going. When clients came, I served them quickly, and then jumped back to the chatter. Then I went to the writers’ restaurant for more conversation. At home, I listened to Radio Free Europe for at least one hour per evening, and I read, wrote, and photographed.

Writers’ clubs declined in the 1980s. [They’re an important Romanian tradition giving emerging writers the opportunity to receive feedback from more experienced writers.] It was clear that we were performing under the vigilant eye of the security services but we relied on metaphor and poetic language, which even the most damned agent could not cotton on to — for a while. Eventually, they caught us. In 1983, they shut the legendary Cenaclul de Luni (or The Monday Literary Club in English). New clubs popped up but they kept finding us and closing them down.

If you hear anyone my age praising communism, it means they were “something” in the system

But there were things worse than that. In the private sphere, as contraception was non-existent, pleasure came with unwanted pregnancies. [Since abortion was illegal,] I provided three [domestic] abortions for friends of mine (who were not my girlfriends). I would find out from a friend — it had to be someone I trusted — that a woman had a problem that she wanted to deal with. I had previously studied to apply to medical schools for two years. In the end, I got scared off by the large number of candidates and the possibility of failure, but I had a solid idea of anatomy and physiology. I bought a Tiemann probe, a steriliser, glucose, estradiol and progesterone (the last two were hard to get because they required a doctor’s prescription). But the pharmacists knew very well what it was all about and turned a blind eye. Then I would go to the woman’s house. We boiled the probe, the syringe, I washed my hands. I never intervened more than a month after the unwanted event. The women carried on with their lives the next day. Two of them found new lovers, got married, had children when and with whom they wanted. Their lives became less miserable. (The third one stopped talking to me after I broke up with my girlfriend, who was her friend.)

In 1989, I went out on the streets and was arrested. Of course I was afraid, how could I not be? How can I explain to you just how indestructible the whole system seemed? Security was everywhere, the party sorted everything for themselves — bosses, organisations, closed borders, filtered or distorted information, and so on, and the police… Who would have guessed that in 24 hours everything was going to get crushed, like a sand castle? I dreamed of being free but knew it wouldn’t happen during my lifetime. I did not believe it even if I kept hoping.

Image: Mihai Benea. Courtesy of Florin Iaru

Image: Mihai Benea. Courtesy of Florin Iaru

The day after the revolution, I felt free. Within 10 days, I had became an editor at the same publishing house where I’d previously worked as a stock manager. Within two months, I had joined the Writers’ Union. A few months later, I travelled abroad for the first time, to the West. That autumn, I published my third book. The following year, I started a job with a private newspaper. For the past 30 years, I’ve only worked for the private sector. The good that came out of it was freedom of movement, decision, and speech.

The bad part was financial instability. From 1997 to 2004, I worked in two or three places at once but never had enough money. Similarly, [after the financial crash] in 2008-2009, a long and painful string of more material scarcity followed. But I’m managing it. I would never go back to communism, because I’ve seen it, I lived it, and it wasn’t good for me. If you hear anyone my age praising communism, know it for sure: they were “something” in the system: a party member, a shop manager [who, as food was scarce, had a lot of power] or an informant.

I don’t have much hope for society now. 30 years on, there are fewer and fewer free thinkers. The diseases of the communist system — disinformation, ideologisation, social pressure, incessant standardisation and censorship — are back in force.

But we’re doing much better in terms of literature now. New writers emerge, new trends and styles have popped up, a kind of emulation, a febrility to write well, interestingly, cleanly and honestly, that it makes me feel, goddamn it, much more at peace!

Marek Rohr-Garztecki, Poland

Image: Henryk Kotowski. Courtesy of Marek Rohr-Garztecki

Image: Henryk Kotowski. Courtesy of Marek Rohr-Garztecki

Marek Rohr-Garztecki is seen as one of the originators of counterculture in Poland. As a music journalist and organiser, he interviewed world-famous artists like the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. In the 1980s, he also became a spokesperson for the Polish opposition movement, Solidarity, in London, and is now Poland’s Ambassador to Kenya.

I set up the first youth music club in Warsaw in 1966, caled Jajo (or Egg in English). I ran it for about a year and a half, then the authorities sacked me and sent me to build cow sheds on state farms and cut cardboard boxes at Warsaw’s biggest factory for two years. I was made working class by force.

My father and mother had spent five and three years respectively in prison under Stalin, as ‘enemies of the people’, and I was parentless for a while. But then my parents joined the Communist Party and they didn’t like my politics. My father disinherited me.

Throughout the 70s, I worked as a music journalist, writing about the youth music scene. Poland was culturally freer than other countries in the communist bloc. There was a lot of experimentation; it was very much like a community fairly apart from the mainstream culture.

I had my secret source of foreign music — the cultural attache at the American embassy. Thanks to him I was quite au current with everything happening in rock and jazz music. We also had a fairly good reception for Radio Luxembourg, which broadcasted the British Top 20 Hit Parade.

My uncle lived in Sweden, which allowed me to hitchhike across Europe. I had this trick I used — I would see a Rolling Stones concert in Germany, and write a little card, give it to the doorman to pass on to the manager. On the back, it said: “I am a music journalist coming all the way from Poland, this is my only chance to meet the band.” And it worked! The guys would sometimes take me on the band’s tour bus for a couple of days.

In 1981, I went to London to arrange a fundraising concert by The Police for the Polish opposition movement. But three days after my arrival in London, martial law was declared, and they came to arrest me at home in Warsaw. I had to stay in London, and even received some hints that the Polish government were trailing me even there.

Image: Manuel Ibanez. Courtesy: Rohr-Garztecki

Image: Manuel Ibanez. Courtesy: Rohr-Garztecki

That’s how I became the head of Solidarity in the UK. I went to workers’ meetings, political and trade union conferences, and gave speeches. But we also organised support for the 20,000 political prisoners in Poland, arranging for Western families to send them individualised parcels and postcards showing moral support. We also smuggled stuff to Poland. Solidarity was a wide movement but the core consisted of the same people who started off in the counterculture of the 1960s, because under communism, you had to be pretty tough. The weak ones fell to the side after the first arrest or interrogation. The first interrogation is never pleasant, nor is the second, but by the third one you get used to them. I’ve been through dozens, more than I can remember.

The first interrogation is never pleasant, nor is the second, but by the third one you get used to them

I kept writing for NME, Jazz Wise and other magazines, but I was penniless while running the Solidarity office. I applied for a job at the Beat Market Research Company, which allowed me to rent a nice house in Chelsea, where dissidents would often stay. Young Viktor Orbán was a leader in the student group Fidesz when he stayed at my place in the mid-80s. I found that he had a great skill for telling people what they wanted to hear from him.

When communism fell, I said alright, the first part of the job is done, but now we need to make Poland not only free, but also decent and democratic. I don’t think we completely succeeded in job number two, but we tried.

Now, we don’t treasure what we’ve gained — especially people who were born too late to experience communism. They are very quick to brand their opponents as fascists or communists. They have no idea what a truly unfree country is like. I’m scared of how short human memory is.

The problems in Poland today are the same as the ones in the old democracies. But I would like my country to be more open. We will need at least one generation and a lot of travelling to understand different cultures in order to truly open up.

Sylva Fischerova, Czech Republic

Courtesy of Sylva Fischerova

Courtesy of Sylva Fischerova

Sylva Fischerova is a Czech poet who participated in the 1989 Velvet Revolution as a student protester. She is now compiling a book of collective memoirs from the events. Last year, she was designated the first City Poet of Prague, for which she organised public readings and events in the Czech capital.

My father was a non-Marxist philosopher. As a leftist, he had looked forward to communism, but he very soon recognised that he was wrong. Later on, he was forbidden by the government to either publish or teach for a long time. The 60s brought some changes, but with the Soviet invasion in 1968 things slid backwards. My father died in 1973.

As for me, the Communist Party prevented the children of people like my father from getting into certain universities. You needed a strategy and more than a little bit of luck to fool the communists. With the help of my father’s former students, I studied philosophy and physics, which was a combination no one cared for.

But by 1989, I had switched, and was a Classics and Philosophy student at Charles University in Prague. My memories of that year form a set of variegated flashbacks: I recall being struck by a water cannon during “Jan Palach Week”: a series of demonstrations to commemorate student Jan Palach’s self-immolation to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1969. That gave me a severe case of tonsillitis.

I recall being struck by a water cannon during “Jan Palach Week”

I remember making posters in faculty classrooms, explaining what was going on. They said that a strike was inevitable, that the communists ought to leave their positions, that we wanted freedom, not totalitarianism. I was constantly trying to think of witty slogans to make our propaganda more efficient. There was a brief moment when I felt that, perhaps, our efforts were useless.

Read more A war on many fronts: the story of Voina, the Russian artists who fell from grace

I went to Wenceslas Square that same night to take part in a demonstration, even though a rumour had been spread that the army would intervene. We were fearful of what would happen.

But we had hit a turning point in the collapse of the regime: the student demonstration in Prague on 17 November. Peaceful student demonstrators were severely beaten by riot police, sparking the Velvet Revolution.

My life has definitely changed for the better since 1989, because since the fall of the Iron Curtain, we live in freedom. We have plenty of problems — many more than we ever would have been able to imagine — but still, the situation is fundamentally different.

The worst thing we have today is populism. I hope that we will be able to minimise the seductiveness of these simple populist recipes for anything and everything. The message of the dissident movement: “just do what you want to do, don’t care about the establishment or about success” — still sounds both really relevant and acute today.

Luchezar Boyadjiev, Bulgaria

Courtesy of Luchezar Boyadjiev
Courtesy of Luchezar Boyadjiev

Luchezar Boyadjiev is one of Bulgaria’s best-known contemporary artists. Having started his career in the underground in the 1980s, Boyadjiev has risen to national and international fame thanks to his biting, socially-engaged artwork.

I used to do a lot of art criticism before 1989. I was no dissident artist, but my own work was not considered art, so there were no shows for me.

My most memorable time under socialism was spent maintaining a kind of informal community, debating, and talking with my colleagues in our studios. In the late 1980s, we also started self-organising and preparing group shows and seminars on post-modernism. During the summer of 1989, I worked with a small group of artists to set up the Club of the Young Artist (later called the Club of the (Eternally) Young Artist) as a free-from-control, autonomous organisation.

I was no dissident artist, but my own work was not considered art

On the evening of 10 November, 1989, there were whispers that incredible changes were to be expected — the Bulgarian Politburo was meant to have a meeting … I was fixing a freshly-bought kitchen table for our new home. My son had been born in May, and I was refurbishing our apartment so that he could have a new and better home. I cursed socialism in the form of this table, for no matter how hard I tried to put the damn thing together, it would not fit. The screws were impossible to tighten, the fittings were all of different sizes and were slightly off, there were no pre-drilled holes in the legs and the top matched… I was only half-listening the TV when I heard about the “miracle”. Dictator and General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Todor Zhivkov, had been “kindly” asked by his own cronies to retire from all his duties.

The next day, my works were exhibited for the first time, in a group exhibition in the city of Blagoevgrad, south of Sofia. My art actually got stolen at that exhibition… New times were coming, but I had found my audience right from that very first show.

How many nails in the mouth? Self-portrait with 2kg 12.5 cm long nails in the mouth, 1992-1995, by Luchezar Boyadjiev
Change: Self-Portrait with 17 currency exchange rates (1997), by Luchezar Boyadjiev

For me personally, life after 1989 has come to be defined far more by my own decisions rather than by circumstances or outside rules, thanks to freedom of information, travel and work, as well as a general openness which we now take for granted. But sometimes, the fact that I did not emigrate after 1989 played against my career development.

Bulgarian art and culture has gained a level of international visibility, relevance, and self-sustainability like never before. I wish there was more public and private support for the arts, to help them integrate and shape global practices further. But ultimately, my hope is that young people in Bulgaria will always have the freedom to choose their own political and artistic beliefs and ways; that nobody will impose choices on them like they did to my generation before 1989, in such damn inept and inhumane ways.

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